Drake North American Eider, Glasagh Bay, Fanad Head, County Donegal, Decembver 2009 (Wilton Farelly)
SUNDAY 7 FEBRUARY
Temperatures dropped to 3 degrees overnight but cloud moved in from very early morning. This cloud was accompanied by very cold North-easterly winds, which made viewing birds difficult as the day progressed. It did remain dry however.
It was a 90 minute drive north to the Fanad peninsula in northern Donegal. Ballybofey afforded us with more Hooded Crows and Common Starlings, whilst Broad Water, at the north end of Mulroy Bay, alongside the R246 north of Carrowkeel, yielded PALE-BELLIED BRENT GOOSE and 2 drake Red-breasted Mergansers.
FANAD HEAD (COUNTY DONEGAL)
Fanad Head, in the vicinity of the lighthouse, added numerous Hooded Crows,15 Redwing, several Common Blackbirds and my first RED-BILLED CHOUGHS of 2010 (a pair feeding in a field alongside the road and showing well) (165). Two BARNACLE GEESE flew north.
Glasagh Bay was our main destination and eventually we found the narrow road which lead down to the tiny beach car park. Derek Charles and Wilton Farelly had discovered this bird in early January and had been particularly instructive and helpful in providing details and photographs.
A total of 314 COMMON EIDERS was present in the bay, in two main clusters, and after walking east along the beach to the east end of the bay, the birds could be satisfactorily 'scoped, as they fed 65-200 yards offshore. The flocks contained a minimum of five brighter-billed 'northern' birds or variants, along with the much more obvious and paler-billed 'dresseri' - NORTH AMERICAN EIDER.
Although difficult to locate, mainly due to the fact that the flock were so closely packed, were often in diving mode for extended periods and the sea swell was quite high, the key features enabling differentiation were thus -:
1) Slightly smaller in size, with a different head profile and a fine black line between the bill and the crown on a side-view;
2) A paler bill, with bulbous lobes at the top of the bill extending well up the crown and in line with the eye;
3) Pale green on head much more extensive and obvious;
4) White 'sails' often noticeable.
The bird was often part of a displaying group of adult drakes and it was when partaking in such activity that it was most easily located; otherwise it was very difficult. It was the first North American Eider that both Chris Heard and I had ever seen.
In addition to the Eider flock, three hours of scanning yielded 1 GREAT NORTHERN DIVER, at least 15 RED-THROATED DIVERS (including several adults already in breeding plumage), 5 Northern Gannets, numerous European Shags, 2 vocal WHOOPER SWANS (an adult and first-winter), a few LONG-TAILED DUCKS (including a dapper winter drake) and an immature VELVET SCOTER.
Waders on the rocky coastline included Common Redshank, Oystercatcher, Eurasian Curlew and Turnstone, whilst 2 Common Buzzards, COMMON RAVEN, up to 15 HOODED CROWS and several more RED-BILLED CHOUGH were also encountered.
THE RAGHLEY, BALLINTEMPLE AND LISSADELL AREAS (COUNTY SLIGO)
Having spent so much time in Donegal, birding opportunities for the rest of Sunday were somewhat minimal. We decided to target the geese flocks NW of Sligo.
A herd of 8 WHOOPER SWANS (three first-winters) were feeding close to the road near Ardtermon House, whilst the bulk of 2,300 BARNACLE GEESE were just NE of Raghley, in the fields south of Ballintemple. We managed to locate a single pale RICHARDSON'S CANADA GOOSE feeding within the flock but not the larger individual (166).
Searching unsuccessfully for Twite at Raghley Point did provide further excellent views of PALE-BELLIED BRENT GEESE (25 birds).
Driving further north and viewing the 'Red Barn' area of fields, 350 or more BARNACLE GEESE were encountered, 15 Fieldfares and a wing-tagged introduction immature WHITE-TAILED SEA EAGLE.
SLIGO TOWN (COUNTY SLIGO)
Prior to returning to Knock Airport, we stopped off at Quay Street car park in Sligo, where a GREAT NORTHERN DIVER was affording crippling views in the harbour.
And that was it - a very enjoyable and rewarding weekend spent in western and NW Ireland. I am indebted to the kind help of those Irish birders that rang and texted, particularly Dermot Breen, Tom Cuffe, Ronan McLaughlin and Sean Cronin.