Sunday, May 24, 2015

Tory Island and Corncrakes

     Back when I was still living in New Mexico and shortly after we found out that we would be moving to Ireland, PBS aired a special on the River Shannon in Ireland. The family watched it in order to learn a bit more about the country.  The program featured two birds, the Common Kingfisher and Corncrakes.  The bit about the Corncrakes was sad. The host mentioned how steep a decline in their numbers had occurred and how hard it was to find them in Ireland today.  I was enthralled and really wanted to at least hear one while I was in Ireland.  After arriving I found out how thin they were and how hard it was to find them, there's estimated to be only 150 pairs left in all of Ireland.
    The best bet was a small island off the north coast of County Donegal: Tory Island.  I worked out a weekend that I could get away and spend some time looking for them.  I booked a room at the island's lone hotel and looked up the ferry schedule.  I was up very early on a Saturday morning to make the four-hour drive to the port. I made it in plenty of time to make the boat and headed for the island on a very bumpy crossing.

Tory Island
Approach to Tory Island
     Tory Island is small, only 5 km long and 1 km wide and shaped sort of like a bowtie with the main harbor right in the middle. There are two towns, West Town and East Town and a hundred-odd residents.  There's even a King of Tory Island, who greets everyone as they leave the ferry and seems to arrange the evening Craic.  I met some birders from Dublin on the ride over.  They were twitching a pair of Hooded Mergansers that had been seen on the Island for the last few days.  A common bird for me in New Mexico, but a rare vagrant to Europe. Being the local 'expert' on Hooded Mergansers, I told them that I would catch up after I had dropped my bag at the hotel.  As we parted ways I could already hear Corncrakes calling from behind some houses.

   After checking in at the hotel I headed off towards the pond where the Mergansers were seen.  I was hearing Corncrakes everywhere, on both sides of the road from various clumps of stinging nettle, their favorite hiding place. I stopped where I heard one calling really close to the road, and then another one across the road behind me.  I slowly turned around and scanned a thick clump of nettles that were growing around a low wall. And before I knew it a Corncrake had jumped up onto the wall and called away. 

Corncrake - Tory Island, Co. Donegal
     It dove back down for a second, and then reappeared a bit further down the wall and strutted along without a care in the world.

Corncrake - Tory Island, Co. Donegal

Corncrake - Tory Island, Co. Donegal

Corncrake - Tory Island, Co. Donegal
I watched it long enough to take even more photos and even a video of the bird calling.

I couldn't believe it.  The Corncrake was my Grail-bird for Ireland.  I was just hoping to hear it and maybe get a scope view of it, and here was one less than 5 meters away putting on quite the show.
     I reluctantly moved on to try and help the lads ID the Mergansers.  I found the birders near the island's South Pond scanning the various ducks on the water.  The majority were Tufted Ducks with a few Mallards and a pair of Mute Swans mixed in.  But they had already spotted the pair of Mergansers making frequent dives throughout the pond.

Hooded Merganser
Hooded Merganser (male) - Tory Island, Co. Donegal

Hooded Mergansers
Hooded Mergansers (F-left, M-right) - Tory Island, Co Donegal
   We were watching the mergansers from a spot surrounded by nesting Ringed Plovers, Oystercatchers and Northern Lapwings; who were not very happy with us getting so close to their eggs and chicks.

Ringed Plover
Ringed Plover - Tory Island, Co. Donegal
      As we were watching the Mergansers diving and feeding, a squall moved in and I had to put my camera away.  I spent the rest of the time with the Dublin lads looking for more Corncrakes before they left on the afternoon Ferry.  As we were listening to one Corncrake, we heard a Starling doing it's best impression of a Corncrake calling from a nearby roof.  I guess it was missing out on all of the attention.  I would return to the hotel wet and took a little nap before dinner while it continued to rain throughout the evening
     I woke early Sunday morning with the intention of exploring the east half of the island where some seabirds nested on high cliffs. I was also looking for some Redpolls and Tree Sparrows, both of which would be lifer ticks for me.  An odd facet of the island is that birds who are common throughout Ireland are not found on Tory Island.  There are no Robins, Blackbirds, Jackdaws, Rooks, Chaffinches, Magpies, or any type of Tit.  And only 1 or 2 of the Sparrows are House Sparrows, the majority of Tree Sparrows.  And the number of trees on the island could be counted on fingers and toes.
     I was walking towards the East side of the island and scanning the various gulls flying over.  I watched a Peregrine Falcon soaring around the north end of the island.  I then noticed some large, dark gull-looking birds flying over.  I did a double take when I recognized them as four Great Skuas.  If you can embiggen this photo, you can see the white patches near the wing-tips.

Great Skua
Great Skuas - Tory Island, Co. Donegal
   I kept on towards the East of the Island looking for sparrows.  I came upon an older pier and saw a raft of Black Guillemots out in the bay.  Something made them fly off towards the pier where they may have nests.
Black Guillemots
Black Guillemots - Tory Island, Co. Donegal
    I made my way through an anti-sheep fence towards the top of the cliffs and was again hounded by nervous Ringed Plover and Oystercatcher parents.  I finally reached edge and looked down to an amazing sight, a huge hole under the headlands.

Tory Island
Tory Island - Co. Donegal, Ireland
     I noticed some some Common Murre and Razorbills huddling on some of the rocks, and a raft of 30 or so Atlantic Puffins down on the water.

Atlantic Puffins - Tory Island, Co. Donegal
     I also noticed a Herring Gull feeding on a dead sea star.

Herring Gull and Sea-star
Herring Gull - Tory Island, Co. Donegal
     I turned around and made my way back towards the towns.  I staked out one of the few trees on the Island in the hopes of seeing Redpolls. Instead I watched some Barn Swallows flying around.

Barn Swallow
Barn Swallow - Tory Island, Co. Donegal
     And finally some Tree Sparrows.  A half-dozen were flying around from the lone tree to various houses along the lane where I was standing.

Tree Swallow
Tree Sparrow - Tory Island, Co. Donegal
     I wanted to visit the south pond again before breakfast to make sure the Hooded Mergansers were still there.  I stopped by the harbor on my way to see what was there.  There were many gulls about, Great Black-Backed, Lesser Black-Backed, Black-Headed, Herring and Common (Mew).  A few small waders were present too.

Ringed Plover
Common Ringed Plover - Tory Island, Co. Donegal
Ruddy Turnstone
Ruddy Turnstone - Tory Island, Co. Donegal

Dunlin* - Tory Island, Co. Donegal
     (*I miss Identified the bird above as a Grey Plover, it was a Dunlin the entire time.)  

     Retracing my steps from the previous day, I again heard Corncrake calling from all around West Town.  I stopped to scan a patch of nettle where some calls were coming from and I finally managed to see it.

Corncrake - Tory Island, Co. Donegal
     Unfortunately, the Mergansers were no longer at the South Pond.  I ran into another birder who was also out looking for them and told him that I hadn't seen them on the Eastern half of the Island either. It looked as if they had finally moved on.  I would run into a group of birders getting onto the ferry as I was getting off who were heading over to Tory to try and see them and told them the potentially bad news.
    Before going back to the hotel for breakfast (after being out for over 3 hours already) I looked into the harbor again and saw a Common Loon (Great Northern Diver) swimming close to the pier.

Common Loon / Great Northern Diver
Common Loon - Tory Island, Co. Donegal
     After some delicious scones and much needed coffee at the hotel restaurant I grabbed my things and headed for the ferry.  The sea was the roughest that I've ever seen and the ride back was amazing.  The boat rocked in every direction and I got covered in spray a few times.  But in between the more intense moments I got to see some Northern Gannets, Puffins, Razorbills, Fulmars and Manx Shearwaters (another lifer for me) flying about.

Approaching Ferry - Tory Island, Co Donegal
If you are interested in visiting Tory, you can find the ferry schedule at Tory Island Ferry's website.  And I stayed at the Tory Island Harbor View Hotel, but there is a hostel and a number of B&Bs on the island too.  You can also find loads more photos of Tory Island on my Flickr page.

  Hopefully the Corncrake numbers can recover and future generations can enjoy them like I did.  Maybe even without a boat ride.

Thanks for making it this far,


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