Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Loop Head the Beginning

Loop Head Lighthouse © John N Murphy

By Phil Brennan September 1990
In the 1970's, most of my birding was tied up in surveys of one kind or another, from the Wetland Survey to the Winter Atlas, with a fair bit of bird ringing thrown in.  The efforts were rewarded by the usefulness of collecting information that would have son conservation value, as well as getting to know my own area well.  There was also the occasional local rarity to add a little excitement.  However, one was always somewhat envious of the opportunities for rarities, great 'falls' of migrants, etc.etc, that birders on the south coast reputedly enjoyed.  Little did I think that a site that would afford 'observation' watching was waiting to be discovered in West Clare. 

Oddly enough, in contrast to most coastal 'good spots', Loop Head was discovered by local watchers, not visitors.  This contrast somewhat with the temporary observatories of two and three decades ago at places such as Tory Island.  Malin Head and the Mullet, where dedicated groups of visiting birdwatchers produced much original and unexpected observation on migration.  However, I feel that the Loop Head effort has a close affiliation with that tradition of pioneering fieldwork.

The whole thing started quietly in 1977/78, when Philip Buckley and Ewart Jones, and the late Mike Donohue began seawatching at Loop Head.  Approximately 15-20 days seawatching were carried out each year from 1979 to 1984, with the effort gradually switching away from the Head itself to the nearby to the Bridges of Ross, on the north of the peninsula. This site is low over the sea, permitting better views as the birds funnel down the Clare coast before rounding the Head.  From 1984/85, with its reputation growing, especially for Long-tailed Skua, Leach's Petrel and Sabine's Gull, as well as individual rarities such as Gull-billed Tern, White-winged Black Tern and Wilson's Petrel, Loop began attracting seawatchers.

There were some tantalising old records, such as the 1905 Slate-coloured Junco and the 1931 Wryneck, as well as a Pied Flycatcher in 1980.  However, as most visits were for seawatching, the conditions were never right for finding grounded migrants and a glance at the geography of the peninsula persuaded  most people that it was a likely migration site.  This picture changed subsequently in 1985 with the start of a regular watching and ringing effort around Kilbaha village, about three miles from the Head. The volume of migrants did not compare with the south coast sites, but we were surprised by the quality of the rarities which included Ireland's second Rustic Bunting.

Of course 1985 will be remembered as a very good year at many coastal sites, and it was suggested that the Loop successes of that year might have been somewhat of a 'flash-in-the-pan'.  Since then there have been some good and some poor years, but the effort has been well worth while, with many interesting movements seen and new birds encountered.  1988 was one of these years, with both good seabird and landbird migration conditions prevailing from September to November.  1989 was terrible!  

As has been mentioned, the best seawatching spot is in the north of the peninsula, at the Bridges of Ross.  I suppose it should be called the 'Bridge of Ross' nowadays, as only one of the natural arches from which this scenic area gets its name remains.   Seawatching is possible from the Head itself, but it is quite high, making this difficult.

Bridges of Ross Seawatching Point © John N Murphy

Grounded migrants may turn up anywhere, as at most coastal sites.  However, the Loop Head peninsula is particularly bereft of shrubs and trees.  The first bushes encountered are almost two miles back from the Head.   It is no wonder people were put off in the past.  What cover exists is concentrated in the mile- longstretch along the road west of Kilbaha village.  Nearest Kilbaha are a small orchard and sycamore grove (out of bounds), a few haggards and farmyards with scattered bushes here and there at the top of the road,  'The Sallows'.  Grounded birds don't stay long with this lack of cover.  However, despite all, this short stretch of sometimes mucky road has produced a succession of good birds since 1985.  Most of the ringing is carried out along this stretch and there is a small Heligoland trap, erected along an overgrown track in 1987.  Good birds recorded at Kilbaha and accepted by the rare Birds Panel have included Arctic Warbler, Rustic Bunting, Little Bunting, Red-rumped Swallow, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Buzzard, Scarlet Rosefinch, Ortolan Bunting, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Mealy Redpoll and several Yellow-rumped Warblers, while the verdict is awaited on a Pied Wheatear and Serin.

Since 1987, the exposed area around the lighthouse has been watched fairly well, though coverage is often difficult due to lack of observers.  Recorded here have been Hobby, Spotted Crake, Richard's Pipit, Dotterel, Lapland Bunting and of course there is the old Junco record.  The light has recently been shown to attract migrants at night in bad conditions.  In summer there is a colony of about 6,000 seabirds on the cliffs, where there are breeding Chough, Peregrine and Raven.  Waders are scarce: the pools at the Bridges of Ross, at Kilbaha and at Cloghaun Lough to the east, and the shingle bays are the best places.

Looking along Loop Head from Fodry © John N Murphy

Best Conditions for Seawatching are in Autumn. The best seawatches have taken place in north-west gales, especially if the storm centres lie well to the north between Scotland and Iceland, or have moved from that direction.   However there have been some very good watches in westerlies.  August has been somewhat neglected, but has had up to 180 Cory's and 75 Great Shearwaters in a day.  Sabine's Gull are very regular, the earliest being recorded on July 31st, but most common from September to mid-October.  57 were seen in 1987.  Leach's Petrel have also been very regular, with a peak year of 855 and up to 486 in one day in 1988.  1,680 Grey Phalarope were seen in 1984 and this was also the best year for Little Auk, with 91 recorded.  `small numbers of Little Gull and Black Tern occur.

Many people come in the hope of Long-tailed Skua, but it would seem that a lot of hours are usually needed for success... ask Philip Buckley or Killian Mullarney!  The rarer petrels, gulls and terns have also turned up, mainly in north-west storms.  The other skuas are very common also, as are Sooty and Manx Shearwater.  Birds I omitted that have been seen in seawatches have been probable Little Shearwater, Mediterranean Gull, Surf Scoter, Little and Roseate Tern.

Kilbaha Harbour © John N Murphy

Anyone who has spent a week or fortnight at Care Clear, or any other migration site will know well the frustrations of waiting when weather conditions just won't come right.  The good days are quickly forgotten and the teller of stories of previous great 'falls' and wonderful exotic birds soon runs the risk of being thrown into the nearest ditch.  Loop Head is no different.  So becoming a student of the weather is essential to avoid a fruitless stay.  Southerlies and south-westerlies definitely seem to be Loop's most regular producers of 'falls' and rarities.  If the weather centre lies in the Bay of Biscay/northern France area the chances improve.  Indeed, easterlies and even north-easterlies or south-westerlies that originated in that area have all produced results on occasion.  One of the puzzles is why the many westerlies fail to turn up more American birds.  Large 'falls' are not regular, and even common warblers are scarce.  However, Goldcrest, A Skylark and Redwing have all had some good 'falls'.  One of the most spectacular was an all-day movement of over 2,000 Chaffinch in 1988.

In the last three autumn seasons, Kilbaha Cottage has been rented by kind permission of the Sides family.  The house is large, and gives good observatory accommodation, with plenty of rooms and well stocked kitchen.  In 1989, a new fireplace was installed and there has also been fairly extensive re-wiring and damp-proofing, which is very welcoming for coming seasons, as the house can be cold as the winter draws near.  Ringing and log call is done at the house.

 Sides Cottage at Kilbaha, home of the original Bird Observatory © John N Murphy

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