The unsound approach

with Alex Lees, James Gilroy, Rob Martin, Rich Moores, Mark Baynes, also featuring Dermot Breen, Rob Vaughan, Paul Troake, Hugh Delaney.....

What, where, why? What happened to Shetland, what about Scillies? Well, at the end of the last Shetland Octoberrarefest we were getting a tad fed up of Blyth's Pipits, pies and ferries, so we fancied trying another taste of the big time: everyone loves yanks more than sibes... We had originally planned on Scillies, but those fair islands are so expensive nowadays, we realised we could only go if we sold a kidney each. Whilst eyeing up Google Earth, AL decided that the Aran Islands might be worth a go, given that they were about the only place not listed on the Bonser guide to autumn rarity-finding. Árainn Mhór,  Inis Mór, Inish Mor, Innishmore or Gimme More as its sometimes known, is the largest of the Aran Islands with an area of 31 km² and population of about 900 people. It is famous for strong Irish culture, loyalty to the Irish language, and shit loads of Pre-Christian and Christian ancient sites including Dún Aengus, "the most magnificent barbaric monument in Europe". Needless to say, there's no bushes round it so none of us went there. The island had previously hosted three American passerine vagrants - two Red-eyed Vireos and a Blackpoll Warbler, it had also only ever been worked on about 30 days since the turn of the 20th Century. The name that kept cropping up was one Dermot Breen, but we figured there'd be enough space for a few more pairs of eyes.

Inishmore is a sizeable island, so we hired bikes (bartering massively) to cover the ground. There's plenty of suitable cover for parulids dotted here and there, whilst suitable cover for Bobolinks and Catharus thruhes is bloody everywhere. A couple of lochs look very productive for yank waterbirds (and so it proved) whilst there is extensive shorebird habitat too.

The island is well placed to receive both direct hits of Nearctic species and picking up the leftovers of earlier arrivals as they filter down from the north. The potential of the island to produce sibes is already evident, considering the regular high counts of Yellow-browed Warblers in recent autumns (e.g. 10 in a day in October 2007). Aside from the yanks mentioned above, previous contemporary records include Turtle Dove, Icterine Warbler, Wood Warbler, Barred Warbler, Lesser Whitethroat, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Pied Flycatcher, Black Redstart, Common Redstart and Lapland Bunting - ok, it's a crap day on North Ron, but amazing by Galway standards. With Inishbofin having hosted Red-eyed Vireo, Mourning Dove and now White's Thrush, we fancied our chances of a mega yank or sibe - check out the habo:  

Vireo ridge, which hosted both REV and Blackpoll in autumn 2000 (AL)


Gort, looks spot on for Hooded Warbler (AL)

Plans were set and the team met in Galway on the 4th October and were quickly whisked across to the island by nightfall. Meanwhile the Irish dream team had arrived the previous evening and found a Long-billed Dowitcher. Rob Vaughan had brought his copy of Sibley along for the ride - one of those sliding doors moments that resulted in the correct identification of an egret just across the water. We were already on the backfoot. We checked into our hostel, which would have been more appropriately spelt h-o-s-t-i-l-e. JG immediately turned to drink, but some consolation was afforded when we realised that the other occupants of the cells were about 450 varyingly hot german teenage girls. Wunderbar...     

Father Jack wannabe and Lovely Girls Contest (AL)

We were up and pacing under the sycamores about four hours pre dawn the following morning. Inevitably, excitement levels started to decrease once no-one had found a WP first by 8am. The rest of the week was passed in a similar routine: early start, lots of cycling, walking, cycling, walking etc, followed by lamentation, drinking, group slagging off of heron, more drinking and finally retirement tothe dirtiest, smelliest room in all of Galway. Maybe it was a good job Stu bottled it in the end, as it could have reached critical mass/stench. Despite some apparently good looking fronts, we never got the passerine we felt we deserved. Then again, in the week we spent there the whole of Ireland only had one yank passerine (albeit a freaking tanager), so maybe we weren't spannering it completely. Certainly the uber-professional team of McGeehan and Wallace didn't better us, suggesting that Inishmore might even be better placed than Bofin... We kind-of had a great time, kind-of. The worst moment came in the final minutes of the final morning - with the clock ticking down, we were all desperately trying to track down an ominous looking lethargic passerine glimpsed by Baynes, flopping through the canopy of Kilronan sycamores. We failed and left with a decidedly bitter taste in the mouth...

What we did see:

Blue-winged Teal Anas discors

AL & RDM found a mega-distant duck on the flashes opposite Kilmurvy beach mid morning on the 10th. Neither could work out what it was through water-soaked optics in the horizontal driving rain. AL realised that he had dropped his hat on the road, and in a questionable moment of decision-making, left the bird and went back to get it. Meanwhile RDM made his way down the track and relocated the bird, which had sought shelter behind a flooded wall - an obvious fem/imm discors. Frustratingly it promptly flushed and headed off east. Back of the net for RDM, but back for the hat for AL. The bird was never seen again - the 3rd Galway record.


Ring-necked Duck Aythya collaris

JG's run of bad luck semi-ended when he picked the optimal moment to do a random long-range scan of the Whooper Loch on the 8th. A bunch of distant diving blobs appeared to contain numerous tasty-looking eyerings and peaked crowns. After 10mins of cycling to get a nearer look, the unlikely truth sank in -  a flock of 15 bloody Ring-necked Ducks! And not a single Bufflehead, Hooded Merg or even a lousy Lesser Scaup tagged-on. Bastards! Given their frenzied diving and preening, the flock had obviously just dropped in (much to the chagrin of DB, RMa and AL who had all already scanned the loch eariler that morning).  11 eclipse/1cal males & 4 female/juveniles - apparently the largest group ever recorded in the Western Palearctic. The group stayed intact for two days, but just 12 were there on the morning of the 12th. Certainly an indicator of the potential of the Island to draw yanks... Their arrival coincided with news of the Empid in Cornwall, and for a while we all went mental, sprinting between bushes and expecting it to all go Corvo at any minute. Sadly it didn't... 


Ring-necked Ducks (AL), the only Aythyas of the trip.....


Hobby  Falco subbuteo

DB had one juvenile on the 5th which was present till the 7th at least. Sadly it seemed to be deploying Eleo-style hunting tactics, hanging around the western cliffs and picking off all the tired passerines that came in off the sea...


Jack Snipe Lymnocryptes minimus

Up to four were present on the dowitcher marsh.


Long-billed Dowitcher Limnodromus scolopaceus

DB and co found a juvenile on the marsh north of Kilronoan on the 4th. It was still present the next day but not subsequently despite searching, until AL re-found it in the same spot on the 9th.

(left) phonescoped LB Dow (Hugh Delaney) (right) waterscoped (RMa)


Turtle Dove Streptopelia turtur

Predictably we did well for finding all the stuff that's decent in Ireland but total wank for us. MB had one on the 6th, probably the 2nd island and Galway record.


Tree Pipit Anthus trivialis

JG found one near Kilmurvy on the 6th. The 2nd Galway record after one on Inishboffin the previous year(?).


Whinchat Saxicola rubetra

Singles on the 5th (AL) and 7th (RMa).

Whinchat (AL)


Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe

Between 3 and 15 present daily, major arrivals coincided with switches to Nor-westerlies, this couple with the size and rich plumage tones suggests that many (most) were Greenland leucorhoa birds.  

presumed Greenland Wheatear (AL)

Blackcap Sylvia atricapilla

One on the 5th and 6th and two on the 8th.

Garden Warbler Sylvia borin

Two on the 5th, one on the 7th and three on the 8th.

G-war (AL)


Lesser Whitethroat Sylvia curruca

One on the 5th (JG, AL) stayed through till the 7th at least.


Yellow-browed Warbler Phylloscopus inornatus

We were used to this being the commonest warbler on the Northern Isles at this time of year but to frequently find it being the commonest warbler in westernmost Ireland was, to say the least, surprising. Three on the 5th rose to six on the 6th and seven on the 7th, with one - two present subsequently. 

YBWhere? (AL)


Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita

Two to seven present most days with the exception of 17 on the 7th, something of an unprecedented fall out there.


Willow Warbler Phylloscopus trochilus

Five on the 5th increased to seven the next day but thereafter only one on the 7th and three on the 8th.  


Goldcrest Regulus regulus

By far the commonest migrant, up to 120 birds present on the island.


Spotted Flycatcher Muscicapa striata

One in Kilmurvy Wood between the 5th and 9th (RMa) and one at the east end on the 8th and 9th (RDM).  

Spotflies left Kilmurvy (AL) looking really rare...... and right, East End, looking like Spotfly (RDM)


Coal Tit Periparus ater

A big irruption of this species onto the island with up to 35 birds present daily, all were probably of the Irish subspecies hibernicus. No other tits during our stay although DB had Blue after we left. 

Irish Coal Tit (RDM)


Chough Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax

These enlivened dull moments by being really monster.

Red-billed Chough (AL)


Rose-coloured Starling Sturnus roseus

DB used the tried and tested rare-finding technique of coming home early and going shopping to find this Stink in Kilronan on the 7th. It stayed for all of about 20 minutes before disappearing, never to be seen again.

Rosy Pastor (AL)


Siskin Carduelis spinus

One to eight present most days, with the exception of 30 on the 9th.


North-western Redpoll Carduelis flammea rostrata/islandica

JG found a single Northwestern Redpoll on the 6th, it reappeared on the 8th and appeared to correspond to the islandica phenotype.

NWPoll (JG)




Mute Swan Cygnus olor, Whooper Swan Cygnus cygnus, Wigeon Anas penelope, Gadwall Anas strepera,Teal Anas crecca,Mallard Anas platyrhynchos, Pintail Anas acuta, Shoveler Anas clypeata, Common Scoter Melanitta nigra, Pheasant Phasianus colchicus, Red-throated Diver Gavia stellata, Great Northern Diver Gavia immer, Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis, Storm Petrel Hydrobates pelagicus, Gannet Morus bassanus, Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo, Shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis, Grey Heron Ardea cinerea, Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus, Kestrel Falco tinnunculus, Merlin  Falco columbarius, Peregrine Falco peregrinus, Water Rail Rallus aquaticus, Moorhen Gallinula chloropus, Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus, Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula, Golden Plover Pluvialis apricaria, Lapwing Vanellus vanellus, Knot Calidris canutus, Sanderling Calidris alba, Dunlin Calidris alpina, Snipe Gallinago gallinago, Bar-tailed Godwit Limosa lapponica, Curlew Numenius arquata, Redshank Tringa totanus, Greenshank Tringa nebularia, Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos, Turnstone Arenaria interpresArctic Skua Stercorarius parasiticus, Great Skua Stercorarius skua, Black-headed Gull Larus ridibundus, Common Gull Larus canus, Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus, Herring Gull Larus argentatus, Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus, Sandwich Tern Sterna sandvicensis, Guillemot Uria aalge, Razorbill Alca torda, Black Guillemot Cepphus grylle, Rock Dove Columba livia, Woodpigeon Columba palumbus, Collared Dove Streptopelia decaocto, Skylark Alauda arvensis, Swallow Hirundo rustica, Meadow Pipit Anthus pratensis, Rock Pipit Anthus petrosus, Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea, Pied Wagtail Motacilla alba yarrellii, Wren Troglodytes troglodytes, Dunnock Prunella modularis, Robin Erithacus rubecula, Stonechat Saxicola torquatus, Blackbird Turdus merula, Song Thrush Turdus philomelos, Magpie Pica pica, Jackdaw Corvus monedula, Rook Corvus frugilegus, Hooded Crow Corvus cornix, Raven Corvus corax, Starling Sturnus vulgaris, House Sparrow Passer domesticus, Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs, Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis, Linnet Carduelis cannabina, Reed Bunting Emberiza schoeniclus


The Inishmore 8, clockwise from bottom left: Hugh Delaney, Rob Vaughan, Dermot Breen, Mark Baynes, Tom Cruise, James Gilroy, Alex Lees, Rich Moores


Disillusioned protagonists (RDM). We got over it.

adult Ring-billed Gull, Nimmo's Pier (AL) - with no birds worth twitching on the way home [ ; ) ] we gave Nimmo's 8 minutes on the 12th where we saw the resident Ringer. The rest of the journey home which seemed to involve a 3 day bus journey was enlivened by the presence of the irrepresible Bagnell.  


So will we be back? Definitely maybe. Again we felt starved of a mega, its true that way out west you are never going to get much of a supporting cast. However, we had way more good birds than Cape Clear during the same time period. Inishmore will deliver sooner or later....

Cliffs, Kilmurvy Woods and some extreme grazing (RMa)