Friday, 30 December 2011

The end is nigh...

Well it's nearing the end of 2011 and what a year it has been for me. I would call this my first "proper" year of birding, looking more closely at what it is I am seeing in the wider countryside and making records instead of sticking to garden birds and a casual interest elsewhere.

The majority of the year from January to August was spent in Northern Ireland on a mid year industrial work placement from college with the Northern Ireland Forest Service. I was based in Castlewellan which allowed me to get out and see some wonderful areas whilst working and on my days off with Dundrum Bay / Murlough NNR being my "local patch". Whilst over there I had a week's holiday in County Kerry in the Republic which meant some stunning scenery and visits to places such as the Dingle Peninsula, Killarney National Park and the Skellig Islands. The rest of the year was spent back at home in Conon Bridge with two trips down to the Northumberland coast, based in the Alnwick area, within that time which is a wonderful stretch of coastline for birding and it really struck a chord with me.

Murlough NNR with Slieve Donard in background.
So as I sit here on the last day of 2011 my year list stands at a modest total of 119 species putting my life list up to 124. A lot of the birds I had seen before but this was the first time I had actually started making records. A fairly low number compared to other more experienced birders but a list that contains some very special memories and moments. I'm sure I probably saw a lot of things that went under the radar of my level of ID skills but I enjoyed every minute of it and I can see myself slowly getting better.

So let's talk about some highlights. The year started off with the coldest winter on record in NI as in other parts of the UK with lots of snow that drove fantastic numbers of birds into our garden. My favourite being the Lesser Redpolls. 6 regulars in total which kept visiting all the way up to when we left in August. I was also lucky to see Red Kites regularly from the house as we were inside the re-introduction area for this species which reminded me of home on the Black Isle another re-introduction area from the 80's where they are also regularly seen.

Cold Winter - N.Ireland
Lesser Redpoll - Carduelis cabaret
I will also never forget those Spring days spent down at Dundrum Bay with many Chiffchaffs, Willow Warblers and Blackcaps and the difficulties of getting a grasp on how to ID the two former species. A pair of non-breeding Whooper Swans were also reported and seen regularly in the bay throughout late Spring / early Summer, another species I hadn't seen before and definately didnt expect to see at that time of year. Another species that will forever remind me of my time in NI is the Pale-bellied Brent Goose which seemed to be everywhere along South East coast.

Whooper Swans - Cygnus cygnus

I have to admit one of my favourite groups of birds is the Corvids and I was quite pleased to be able to see all 8 UK and Ireland breeding species this year. Jays and Magpies are very rare in this area and according to the guides their ranges do not extend this far North however in N. Ireland they were a regular occurence. A major highlight, maybe even the highlight of the year was on the trip to County Kerry in South West Republic of Ireland that allowed me to see my first Choughs and their aerial acrobatics, superb to say the least!

Chough - Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax
The Jackdaw roost at Castlewellan Forest Park was also always special to see and it had a beautiful but deafening feel about it.

Jackdaws coming in to roost - Castlewellan

The trip to Country Kerry in the Summer not only had the Chough and many other highlights but also the ultimate seabird experience from a boat trip to the Skellig Islands. This allowed me to have some brilliant close up views of thousands of Gannets, Fulmars, Razorbills, Common Guillemots, Black Guillemots, Kittiwakes, Gulls, Manx Shearwaters, Shags and the charismatic Puffins.

Fulmar - Fulmarus glacialis
Puffin - Fratercula arctica
Razorbill - Alca torda
The Black Guillemots were also a common sight at Newcastle Harbour, a few miles down the road from the house which was always nice to see.
Black Guillemot - Somateria mollissima at Newcastle Harbour
Come August and my Northern Ireland birding had come to an end and it was time to move back North, my eyes now opened to the addictive hobby and what can actually be out there in areas I wasn't aware of.

Come Autumn and I was lucky enough to visit Northumberland for a week to visit my dad at his new hotel not far from Alnwick ( Such a beautiful stretch of coastline, a birders paradise and my girlfriend and I visited many different areas. There were plenty of Eider ducks about (which is probably why it is on the NTBC's logo) with the adult males looking stunning. My first Sanderling on Low Newton beach and my very first Short-Eared owl spotted on the road just outside Seahouses made the trip very memorable and I can't wait to get back there.

Eider - Somateria mollissima

Towards the end of the year and I decided to start this blog and I am enjoying it so far and a handful more ticks which have been mentioned in previous posts including Long-Tailed Ducks, Yellowhammers and Crested Tits had rounded everything off nicely. I could go on forever about what I have seen this year but this post is already long enough! Big thanks to my girlfriend for putting up with me all year as I bombard her with everything bird (I think she enjoys a bit of birdwatching really) and creating some special memories from around the country.

Looking towards next year and it will be a busy time with college but I definately will continue this addictive hobby of birding and maybe even add a few more birds to the life list whilst enjoying all of the others too. I wonder if that Greater Yellowlegs is still at Loch Fleet? (Never been on a twitch before). I am looking into getting involved in ringing birds and with some local bird groups and conservation projects. So much to do, so little time!

Anyway thanks to anyone who has taken the time to read this, it has been quite a journey this year in birding terms and on a personal level and I hope you had a good christmas and all the best for 2012.

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