Return to Cape Clear

Thirty-two years ago following a successful twitch of the Sullom Voe Harlequin  I encountered Mike Terry on the Aberdeen ferry.  This chance conversation led me to abandon further October trips to the Isles of Scilly.  A sense of adventure and a desire to see transatlantic vagrants away from the Barbour clad hordes led me to Cape Clear.  I  have mended my relationship with Scilly and enjoyed many successful birding and family holidays.   But in 1987 I only had eyes for Cape where my first trip started brightly enough.  A Rose-breasted Grosbeak and a Myrtle Warbler in quick sucession  was followed by two relatively birdless weeks.  The following year’s Sapsucker sealed the deal and I returned to Cape regularly until 1996. Although the returns in American landbirds were poor, the scenary, company and craic was always first rate.

Thursday 10th October

After 23 years it was time to return. This time in the company of Graham who had spent many happy hours on Cape when he lived in Cork City.  Unfortunately the trip started badly when our hold luggage, including waterproofs, did not arrive. 

Lost luggage formalities completed we picked up the hire car. Left to his own devices Graham was easily seduced by the plastic trim and gizmos of a Mini. Despite its drive chain, it got us around.  As for the missing waterproofs,  toiletries  change of clothes etc  Aer Lingus  offered tocover the cost of “necessary replacements”. OK – this was a birding trip to Ireland and the day was decidedly “soft” and we took them at their word.  After 45 minutes we emerged from the excellent  Wildside Sports  in Bandon each €300 lighter kitted out with brand new  ‘proofs and other “essentials” .  I did wonder however if KLM/Aer Lingus might balk at Graham’s €35 pair of merno wool jocks.

Turtle Dove (Streptopelia turtus) – Toe Head, Co Cork

Back in the game we headed for a very wet and windy Toe Head a less covered headland SW of Skibbereen.  A walk around the outer head offered very little. Instead we tried our luck slightly inland.  A well vegetated garden flanked by a line of trees just screamed rare. Not today unfortunately, but Graham did score a Lesser Whitethroat. But that was not bird of the day. As we left a very late and bedraggled Turtle Dove was walking along the entrance road. 

Onto the quayside at Baltimore.  Here we met Brian Lynch, a friend of Graham’s from his Cork days ,who was joining us for the weekend. It was not the smoothest crossing I have ever had over to Cape. Relieved to set foot on the quay I let Mary Cadogan whisk us away in her taxi to our B&B.  Located up the Lighthouse Road the charming Ard na Gaoithe  is a lovely place to stay. Reinvigorated by a shower and partial change of clothes we walked to Cotter’s Bar to find dinner.

Ard na Gaoithe
Friday 11th October

Our early morning exploration of the Glen failed to turn up either  the Yellow-browed warbler or Firecrest.  Returning to the B&B things looked up with news of a Hippolais warbler and a Wryneck. Even better was the splendid full Irish  and positive news on Graham’s bag.  This was scheduled to arrive in to Cork that morning before being couriered to the ferry in Baltimore.

Full Irish – the poached eggs were our only nod to heatlhy eating

However here was no news on my lugggage so Graham and Brian left me to a futile conversation with Aer Lingus. Forty minutes later I set out on a half-remembered route around Ballyreigh. Following  the Low Road  I caught up with top Irish lister Victor Caschera. I carried on through East Bog and up through the  Wheatear Field up onto Firbrega.  The highlight was a lone Skylark and  a chance to photograph the local Stonechats. 

Over by Lough Errul  I found Graham and Brian. They  had not seen either the warbler or the Wryneck nor a recently discovered Common Rosefinch.  Breakfast was now a distant memory and we stopped for lunch at An Siopa Beag (the island shop) and put our names down for pizza that evening.

Common Stonechat (Saxicola torquata) – Central Bog, Cape Clear Island

After lunch Graham and I headed up the Glen Road where we caught up with the Firecrest that had been hanging around the Sallows at the entrance to the Post Office.  

Firecrest (Regulus ignicapilla) – Post Office, Cape Clear Island
Nick at the top of the Glen

Graham bailed out at the top of the Glen and headed back to North Harbour to meet the ferry .  Lost in memories I carried on walking through Knockannamaunagh as far as Comillane Bog before turning for home.  Walking down the A1 I was treated to a spectacular Atlantic sunset before retiring to Cotter’s . After 33,000 FitBit steps, I enjoyed a pint of Murphy’s and caught up with Dennis Weir who shared many of my past trips to Cape. 

Sunset over O’Driscoll’s Castle and Mizen Head

We took a short walk across the road to the shop where  25+ resident and visiting birders squeezed in for an impromtu pizza night.  The excellent pizza was followed by a couple more beers before tiredness kicked in.  An early night beckoned and we returned to the B&B. 

Pizza Night in the Cape Clear Island Shop
Saturday 12th October

Blue skies greeted us the next morning along with another monster breakfast.  The boys headed out whilst I checked the status of my bag online.  Good news – located and arriving at Cork Airport that morning!  Huge relief as it  contained my suit which I needed for a work appointment on my return to the UK.   

My joy was short-lived.  Leaving the B&B I turned right up the Lighthouse Road.  Had I turned left towards the Priest’s Garden I might have found the Red-eyed Vireo.  When I did get news of the Vireo it had crossed the road to the Youth Hostel.  Here I saw it briefly before it disappeared.   This was compounded by my schoolboy error of going back to the B&B to finalise arrangements with Aer Lingus.  In my absence the REV reapppeared in front of Graham’s camera (see here) and promptly flew off across South Harbout.  Later it was found along the Low Road and showed well to all comers over the next few days. Except yours truely who never got a sniff.

Interest in the Samoa v Ireland rugby match then ensured a couple of hours with  few birders in the field .  Despite this I had little to show for my efforts. Brief views of the Hippolais warbler suggested a Melodious.  Otherwise a pleasant walk around the Lough Errol pines offered nothing but stunning scenary. 

Looking North from the Lough Errol Pines

Graham and I had no luck with the Rosefinch in Michael Vincent’s (aka the Lough Errol Garden) and headed  towards the Waist.  En route I picked up the Wryneck atop a dead gorse bush.  Walking up the hillside with a drystone wall for cover we managed some rather nice views!

Wryneck (Jynx torquilla) – High Road, Cape Clear Island

Bag recovered and wearing a welcome change of clothes I enjoyed a classic Cape October  evening in Cotter’s.  A hearty meal washed down with  Murphy’s before the entertainment began.  First Jim Fitzharris’s theatrical log call. Then Stuarty McKee’s video compilation of  past Cape trips made by Northern Irish birders in the eighties and nineties.  It was  poignant to see Dennis, Anthony McGeehan and the late Willie McDowall as I remember them during our time on Cape in that era. Happy days!

Vic and Nick in Cotter’s
Sunday 13th October

Another glorious day,  another gut-busting breakfast and another failure on the Vireo!  Never mind the Hippolais finally came out to play and revealed itself as a Melodious.

Melodious Warbler (Hippolais polygotta) – Lough Errul, Cape Clear Island

Still no luck with the Rosefinch, but the Wryneck gave a farewell performance.  I spent my last forty minutes on the island not seeing the Vireo and chatting to Dennis in the bright sun.  The return ferry trip was a delight with blue skies and calm seas. Plus plenty to look at; Mediterranean Gulls, Razorbills, Guillimots and Tysties.  Graham and I said our farewells before another look at a birdless Toe Head and overnighting in Cork.  So ended another trip to Cape.  I  sincerely hope it won’t be another 23 years before I return.

Gran Canaria Weekend

Ingrid and I had planned a post-Christmas long weekend in Gran Canaria to unwind, grab some winter sun and give me the opportunity to see one of the world’s rarest birds <500 individuals); the recently split Gran Canaria Blue Chaffinch.  We flew from a cold grey Stansted on the afternoon of Friday 11thJanuary (Ryanair FR8132 ) and four hours later arrived in Canarian air space as the sun was setting.

The view of Mount Tiede on Tenerife from the plane as we approached Gran Canaria

Collection of the pre-booked car from the highly recommended, an inexpensive, Autoreisen was straightforward and we were soon speeding south on GC1 towards Maspalomas before climbing the twisting, but well surfaced road `(GC60) to the small mountain village of Fataga where the charming and well appointed Finca Tassomio would be our base for the next three nights.

The following morning after a leisurely breakfast I spent some time in the Finca garden enjoying the local village birds (eBird list here) before we headed to higher elevations and the remaining extensive areas of Canarian Pines where GC Blue Chaffinch can be found.  There are essentially two areas in which birds are seen without too much difficulty. The first is the NE section of Inagua forest and the other a more fragmented area of pines around the tourist attraction of Rocque Nublo. More information about the recovery plan for the GC Blue Chaffinch can be found here.

Ingrid enjoying the Finca Tassomio garden
African Blue Tit of the race hedwigii are regular visitors to the Finca garden

We headed to the former by carrying on up GC-60 from Fataga as far as the junction with GC-606 and turning immediately on to GC-661 which we took to the settlement of El Juncal de Tejeda and followed the road through the village and over the baranco until the pavement runs out.  The dirt road which continues through the Inagua forest to GC-605 is perfectly drivable, but in deference to Ingrid I chose not to walk and walked the road as far as the point at which the WP Big Year team saw GC Blue Chaffinch in 2017.  Apart from the many vocal Canary Island Chiffchaffs birding was hard work (eBird list here) although there were impressive views across the west of the island towards Tenerife. Interestingly as I gained altitude the amount of broom, on which the Blue Chaffinches forage, in the understory increased and I suspect if I had carried on I would have found more and better habitat.

Canary Islands Chiffchaff
Looking towards Mount Tiede

After a couple of hours we had had enough and we headed back down GC-60 towards Fataga stopping en route for a late and leisurely lunch at one of the many roadside eateries. By the time we got back to the Finca it was too late to head back up to try a different area and I decided to leave another attempt until the morning reassured by a message from Phil Abbott who had seen Blue Chaffinches around the picnic site at Llanos de la Pez.

Sunday morning saw me having breakfast at 8.30 am sharp whilst Ingrid enjoyed a lie in. Again I took GC 60 but this time turned off onto GC 600 (signposted for Roque Nublo). After gaining more altitude and driving for about 2.5km beyond the Roque Nublo car park I  unfortunately mistook a camping area on the right for the picnic site and parked there about 800 m short of the picnic site itself! This caused me some problems especially when I found myself more than 1km from Phil’s coordinates and the batteries in my GPS device getting very low. As I reorientated I flushed a pair of RL Partridges and started to see more African Blue Tits and CI Chiffchaffs. I hit the S51 circular trail and headed South, away from the picnic site, and at the t-junction turned East and followed the trail for about 300 m along the edge of broom filled gully where I tracked down an unfamiliar high-pitched tick to the endemic sub-species (or possibly species) of Robin.

European robin (ssp marionae)

After getting some images I followed the trail back to the picnic area which was by now filling up with visitors and their sound systems and worked my way across the hillside to Phil’s coordinates, an area of pines with extensive broom understory, which gave an excellent view of the canopy. Lots of the local race (ssp canariensis) of Chaffinch and a Buzzard flew over head, but still no sign of my target bird and my morning pass was rapidly running out. Resigned to failure I dropped down the hillside and walked along the edge of the picnic area just 50m or so from the road where I disturbed a small flock of Atlantic Canaries foraging in the broom.

Atlantic Canary

I stopped to photograph a reasonably obliging male and turned to see more finches in the next patch of broom one of which gave the call that I had familiarised myself with over breakfast. The perpetrator flew up into a nearby pine and revealed himself as a GC Blue Chaffinch (WP#701). This was one of three birds in a loose mixed flock of finches which with some patience and despite the clock having turned red came close enough for me to get some images.

Gran Canaria Blue Chaffinch – the colour rings may indicate a bird introduced from the captive breeding project.
Gran Canaria Blue Chaffinch
The letter G marks the approximate location of my Robin and GC Blue Chaffinch sightings

More than content I returned to the car adding Raven and Great-spotted Woodpecker (ssp thanneri ) on the way to complete my eBird checklist. The traffic on GC 60 was not too bad and I arrived back in Fataga less than half an hour late and in good time to enjoy a lazy lunch on the terrace of one of the village restaurants.

Sunday lunch Fataga style

The rest of the trip was uneventful and relaxing and we returned to Stansted (as cold and grey as when we left) the following day (Ryanair FR8133) having thoroughly enjoyed the sun, scenery and food of interior Gran Canaria.