Monday, February 28, 2011

Trip report: mixing work and birding in Northern Ireland/England

Though it may not be that obvious from reading this blog, the reality is that I do sometimes need to work to make a living, mainly trying to finish a PhD in ecology. But to keep my sane through this grueling process, I do maintain some ‘academic baggage’ from previous positions. The most exciting of these are perhaps the work I do on cheetahs. Working in collaboration with Global Vision International, and Gus Mills (also with the Tony & Lisette Lewis Foundation), my good friend Michael Scantlebury (at Queen’s University-Belfast) and I collect detailed behavioral notes of known individual cheetahs follow continuously for three weeks at a time. Each of the cheetahs we follow is fitted with radio-collars on which we also attached gps devices and accelerometers (collecting movement data in 3D). We will use this data to quantify the energetic output of cheetah behavior, including the cost of hunting, and the impact of kleptoparasitism from other larger predators on a cheetah’s energy reserves. Our project marks the first attempt to quantify the energetic cost of specific behaviors on a free-living large mammal.

Being successful in acquiring funding for this work some of the perks include visits to collaborators. One such opportunity presented itself in February 2011, when I visited Mike in Belfast. Birding was limited during this time, but I did manage to squeeze in a few hours of birding to expand my rather small UK bird list. Here I provide brief notes on my Belfast visit, which included a weekend in Manchester (England) from where we explored the surrounding area. As I did not maintain a comprehensive trip list I will not provide an annotated bird list at the end. Also, as birding was rather low on my radar during this trip I’m also not providing detail about birds I missed (there were many).


Though relatively poor in terms of avian diversity (several species breeding elsewhere in the UK are not found here), Ireland and Northern Ireland provide a notable destination for bird lovers for a number of reasons. Notably, large colonies of a number of breeding species remain, including European Storm Petrel, Northern Gannet, Roseate Tern, Corn Crake and Red-billed Chough. Ireland are also home to a number of endemic subspecies of more widespread Eurasian species, including White-throated Dipper, Coal Tit and Eurasian Jay. Lastly, Ireland is also a true twitchers haven, being the first landfall for migratory shorebirds, gulls, and waterfowl traveling on traditional migratory paths from Greenland/Iceland to Europe, as well as American rarities blown off course. Perhaps most famously, Northern Ireland has been the location of a Red Kite reintroduction program, and some of these birds can be seen especially in County Down.

Key birding resources

Above: Some of the common waterbird species seen on my UK trip, clocks-wise from top: Whooper Swan, Eurasian Coot, Black-headed Gull

Visas, transport, and accommodation
Though I do not need a visa to visit the Republic of Ireland (I arrived in Dublin), South African citizens need visas to visit the UK. But be warned: while information on UK visas are easy to obtain, the experiences from myself and many friends have shown that the UK visa application process is rather quirky; despite having visa experience and all the paperwork you may still get a rejection that defies logic. Fortunately UK visas do get issued on a regular basis; the best you can do is make sure you have a watertight application.

Numerous accommodation and public transport options exist in the British Isles, so commuting between, and staying in cities should not be a problem. In terms of transport, I used a range of these options. These included hourly shuttle service between Dublin and Belfast, taxis within cities, and a ferry that took me from Belfast past the Isle of Man to Liverpool. Access to birding locations may however require either a rental car, or a borrowed car. Mike was kind enough to borrow me his car at times when he didn’t join me for some birding stints.

We all know that the British Isles can be described as cold, grey and wet. This trip that I undertook in winter was no exception. I must say that I didn’t feel particularly uncomfortable in the cold weather (around 10C most of the time), apart from our awesome hike in the scenic Peaks District northeast of Manchester where I felt obliged to keep walking through more than a foot at times to keep warm. The rain reminded me of my year in the subantarctic: its part of everyday life so you just deal with it. This ‘cultural experience’ was striking on my first day in Belfast where I hesitated for a moment following an unhesitant Mike out of his apartment’s door.

Day 1, Feb 16, 2011

My arrival day did not offer much time for birding. I did however managed to tick off a few widespread species on my Irish bird list at the Dublin airport, notably Starling and Rook. Birding picked up after I left Dublin, and birding from the Dublin-Belfast shuttle bagged a Magpie and Common Buzzard outside Dublin, the first of multiple Black-headed Gulls at Newry, and a Pied Wagtail at Banbridge.

Left: A robin singing his heart out. These birds are one of the more common species in the regions I visited.
Day 3, Feb 18, 2011
Day three marked the start of our weekend in England. Using a Belfast-Liverpool ferry offered some good seabirding opportunities. In Belfast harbor I saw Common (Mew) and Lesser Black-backed Gull, and my first Hooded Crow. Four very obliging Black Guillemots also dabbled around the stationary ferry in the harbor. Birding picked up once the ferry started moving, with multiple Eiders, Shags, Great Cormorants, Gannets, Goosanders, Black Guillemots and even Common Seal seen notably on the outskirts of Belfast Harbor. Sadly I never managed to see a Red-billed Chough as we passed the Isle of Man.

Day 4, Feb 19, 2011
My birding time in England would always have been limited, so I used nearly every free hour birding the neighborhood where we stayed. Its almost predictable which birds one would first observe in suburban England, and Manchester did not disappoint with House Sparrow, Blackbird, Robin, Blue Tit, and Great Tit. Walking Mike’s dog to a nearby park yielded a surprise in terms of a Mediterranean Gull among a flock of Black-headed Gulls, while I also picked up Carrion Crow, Jay, Mistle Thrush, Chaffinch and Wood Dove.

As mid-morning crept closer Mike took me to one of his favorite hiking destinations, the Peaks District National Park southeast of Manchester. Though birds weren’t common in an area at times covered by more than a foot of snow, the scenery was spectacular. Most notable birding additions during the hike was a Tree Creeper at the foot of the trial, and a vocal Red Grouse (Willow Ptarmigan) towards higher slopes.

Above: Our hike in the Peaks district National Park was rather cold, as can be seen in this series of photos
Day 5, Feb 20, 2011
Predictably, I got up early for some more birding in Mike’s parent’s backyard, where I picked up a few Coal Tits, Nuthatch, Great Spotted Woodpecker and a Goldcrest. Most of the day was spent working, though at sunset Mike took me and his dog for another hike, this time at nearby Chorlton Water Park where I picked up many waterbirds: Pochard, Tufted Duck, Canada Goose, Great Crested Grebe, Mallard, Goosander, Eurasian Coot, Mute Swan and Common Goldeneye. Waterbirds wasn’t the only birds at Chorlton Water Park, and I also got some nice views of Eurasian Goldfinch, Dunnock, and a few introduced Ring-necked Parakeets.

Day 6, Feb 21, 2011
The real excitement of my England trip came on day six when Mike, his brother and mother and I visited the Martin Mere, and the medieval town of Chester. Before this we walked Mike’s dog at Fog Lane Park where a brief hour-long visit yielded Song Thrush, Redwings, Common Moorhen, Eurasian Coots and Eurasian Collared Doves.

A WWT reserve, waterbirds were in their abundance both in the captive sections and the actual wetland. The main aim of this visit was finding Pink-footed Goose, and we discovered quite a sizeable flock in the northwestern section of the reserve. Other free-flying waterfowl here include Shelduck, Whooper Swans, Eurasian Wigeons, Mallards, Pintails, Eurasian Teals, Tufted Ducks, Goldeneyes, and feral Graylag Geese, though we never saw the Smew reported earlier the day. Other hydrophilic birds at Martin Mere included Reed Bunting, Lesser Black-backed and Black-headed Gull, Moorhen, and Eurasian Coot, and a few shorebirds: Pied Avocet, Eurasian Oystercatcher, Northern Lapwing, Ruff and Black-tailed Godwit. Away from the water I also found Brambling, Chaffinch, Ring-necked Pheasant, Goldfinch, and Greenfinch, as well as more Wood Doves, Robins, Blackbirds, Magpies, Great Spotted Woodpeckers, and Blue Tits. The final new bird in the Martin Mere area was a flock of Jackdaws flying just outside Chorley, which we passed en route to Chester. Later that night we spotted a pair of Tawny Owls at Mike’s parents’ house.

Above: This Pink-footed Goose was chilling out at Martin Mere. It seemed to be injured, allowing me to get close. There was quite a few more of these elsewhere at Mrtin Mere

Day 11, Feb 26, 2011
As my trip was nearing its end, and since I spent much of my Irish time behind a computer, my birding desperation must have become tangible to Mike. On the Saturday Mike had had to attend a Judo event near Stangford Lough, and kindly allowed me to borrow his car to bird the area for the duration of the event. Despite the little time I spent at Stangford, I picked up quite a few neat species. Perhaps the bird of the day was a Common Kingfisher that I ticked at the northern end of the RSPB reserve. Additional waterfowl seen at Stangford included Brent, Whooper Swan, Mallard, Teal, and Shelduck, as well as shorebirds such as Oystercatcher, Curlew, Lapwing, Common Redshank, Greenshank, and Ruff. I was also surprised to see a Green-winged Teal (NA version) and a Little Egret, which is a recent colonizer of the British Isles though I didn’t know they already reached Ireland. Away from the water I was able to pick up Lesser Redpoll, Dunnock, Chaffinch, and a number of Corvids: Rook, Hooded Crow, Jackdaw, Magpie. Needless to say, I also got some more views of the omnipresent Goldfinch, Long-tailed Tit, Blue Tit, Blackbird and Robin.

Above: Some sights from the historic town of Chester clockwise from top: The Rows, Chester Cathedral, The Nave, inside the Cathedral
Day 12, Feb 27, 2011

Day 12 provided me with my last birding (and sight-seeing) opportunities, as I would leave the British Isles the next day. It was also a special day as Mike and I were joined by two of Mike’s colleagues at Queen’s University-Belfast, Aaron Maule and Nikki Marks. Mostly because of some target species I really wanted to see (notably Red-billed Chough), our route for the day led us to explore the entire Northern Ireland’s northern coast. Starting at Culmore Point just north of Londonderry and ending at the famous Giant’s Causeway near Bushmills.

Birding was rather restricted along the road from Belfast to Londonderry, though we did manage to see a few Fieldfares on the A6 highway near Dungiven. A brief stop at Lough Neagh did not yield the Bewich’s Swans I hoped for.

Above: Dunlace Castle, on Northern Ireland's Antrim Coast.

At Culmore Point we were quick to pick up some waterfowl (Shelduck, Brant, Mallard) and shorebirds (Curlew, Oystercatcher) amongst Grey Heron and Cormorant. I even managed to pick up a couple of North American birds (Ring-billed Gull, Greater Black-backed Gull) among the more numerous Black-headed and Common Gulls. Yet my main target (Iceland Gull) remained elusive.

The commute between Londonderry and Giant’s Causeway was rather windy and cold so birding was, unlike planned, rather limited. Even the few stops trying for wild Greylag Geese ended unsuccessful, though we saw a few more Eider at Portsteward. Despite the limited birding the north Irish coast did provide some spectacular scenery, favorites being the Dunlace Castle on the Antrim Coast where we saw Rook and Raven but no Red-billed Chough.

Our final stop for the day was the Giant’s Causeway, which provided additional views of Rook, Raven, Pied Wagtail and Hooded Crow as well as a Peregrine. A few Ruddy Turnstones provided additional entertainment as we walked among the ‘giant’s footsteps’.

Above: A series of photographs from the incredible Giant's Causeway

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