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New England Seabirds

Wilson's Storm-petrel Dave Jones

Trip Reports







Republic of Ireland

Saltee Islands
Skellig Michael
Killibegs - Irish Fishing Fleet

Northern Ireland

Carrick-A-Rede Bridge
Giant's Causeway
Rathlin Island

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Lesser Black-backed Gull  EBTarry

Lesser Black-backed Gull common in Europe. Darker wings and mantle than Herring Gull. All photos Emmalee Tarry

June in Ireland
I flew into Dublin the first of June and spent three days in the city. All over the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland were posters advertising the Special Olympics World Championships. After Dublin, I rented a car and made a loop around the island ending in Belfast Northern Ireland after which I took a ferry boat to Liverpool, England. The interesting birding occurred on the Saltee Islands, Skellig Michael and on the North coast of Northern Ireland. I also describe a visit to Killibegs where I photographed the Irish Fishing Fleet in port.

The Saltee Islands
The Saltee Islands are located 20 minutes off the south western tip of the Republic of Ireland. The only tourist boat leaves from Kilmore Quay. There is a fine hostel in Rosslear Harbor. I did not have a phone number to call for reservations so I just showed up one morning in Kilmore Quay. The short trip takes one half hour during which we saw Puffins, Gannets, Razorbills, Kittiwakes.Once on the island nobody seemed to know where to go so I ended up following two birders from Cork across the island to a sea stack of Gannets. On the cliffs were Kittiwakes, Razorbills, Guillemots ( Common Murres), and Fulmars. Manx Shearwaters and Puffins also breed on the island which is covered with rabbit burrows. I trust the burrows were not shearwater homes because they did not smell.

I had Ringed Plover and Rock Pipet on the beach and a few Manx Shearwaters on the way home.

The Skelligs Skellig Michael
The Skelligs are tiny islands off the east coast of Ireland. They are interesting because of the seabird colonies and for the ruins of an ancient monastery on Skellig Michael. If you are traveling to Ireland with a non-birding spouse or other relative this may be a good stop. To reach the islands go to Portmagee which is on the scenic Ring of Kerry.

The day before my trip to the island I toured the Skellig Experience across the bridge from Portmagee on Valentia Island. This is a good introduction to the archeology and natural history of the island. There is also a very good book you can buy at the center. The Skellig Story .

I stayed in the hostel in Knightstown on Valentia Island which used to be apartments for the Irish Coast Guard. I went into Portmagee in the morning to take the Pat Joe Murphy boat to the Skelligs. There are several boats and you can take one from Knightstown within walking distance of the hostel. However Pat Joe Murphy gets to the island first.

In the early days of Christianity it was popular for monks or holy men to isolate themselves in some remote location to pray and study. Ordinary people made pilgrimages to the monasteries to insure their entry into heaven. This early form of tourism was very profitable to the monks who charged the pilgrims for room and board and often received gifts. They accumulated wealth and became targets for the Vikings.
Skellig Michael is the site of one of these ancient monasteries. The monastery is well preserved and protected by the park service. The island also has a history as a lighthouse. You cannot go to the island at night and have no chance to see Manx Shearwater or British Storm-petrel.

Skellig Michael.
The small boat with ten passengers left at 10:30 AM. Getting on the boat was no problem and the trip out took less than an hour. On the way out I saw Gannets, Manx Shearwaters, Puffins, Razorbills, Guillemots (murres), but not one Storm-petrel. The islands were covered in fog and this condition persisted during our visit. The monks must have endured many cold, foggy days. We disembarked onto stone steps with the assistance of the captain and the mate. This was a difficult disembarkation. This trip is not appropriate for anyone with limited mobility. We were to have 4 hours on the island.

Kittiwake Nests on Skellig Michael

Kittiwake nests line the narrow ledges of the cliffs

The monks had 3 sets of stairs to the monastery. The park service has restored one set of 200 steps. The steps are easily climbed, but there are many. The climb to the monastery took me an hour..

The Puffin steps on Skellig Michael

As we climbed the steps  in the fog, Atlantic Puffins joined us. Here a photographer is taking yet another picture of Puffins. Notice the Puffin on the rock behind him


Atlantic Puffin in flowers with fish

Puffins prefer to nest in burrows they dig into the ground. Here a Puffins returns to the burrow with a mouth full of small fish. How do they catch so many?

After climbing for some time you come to the saddle. Take a good rest in this pleasant meadow because while you are almost there, the next 30 or so steps are the steepest.

Puffin peering out of rock hole by the steps

 Finally you come to a level path with a stone cliff on one side. I was startled by the groaning call of a Puffin concealed in its burrow in the rocks that lined the path. The groan sounds something like a chain saw.

Here he ( or she) is peering out at me. Puffins prefer to burrow in soft dirt, but those that fail to get a burrow site will settle for a hole in the rocks.

The Monestary on Skellig Michael

The Monastery
I am a slow climber and was soon the last in line on the stairs. Eventually passengers on the later boats arrived and passed me too.
By the time I reached the monastery, the ranger was giving a long talk on the history of the island. While she was very good, I had heard all of this the day before at the Skellig Experience so I passed up the talk and explored the beehive huts.
Beehive huts are not unusual and I saw more on the Dingle Peninsula. What mean existence they must have offered on the cold, dank island

While I was at the monastery I observed several Fulmars flying past. Gannets do not nest on Skellig Michael, but on adjacent islands.

Beehive huts were home to the monks

The huts are made of flat stone laid without mortar. They do not leak rain water because each stone is carefully placed higher on the inside of the hut and lower on the outside. The water drips from the top stones to the ground.

There was no fire wood. Since it was often foggy, it was cool in the summer at least.

The monks collected rain water in cisterns, They ate birds and eggs and fished the seas. They traded eggs and skins. They also kept goats which happily have been removed from the island.

Killibegs - The Irish Fishing Fleet
On one of my last days in the Irish Republic, I drove out the peninsula to Killibegs the home of the Irish North Atlantic Fishing Fleet. For some reason the fleet was in port and the lack of activity around the boats indicated they were not going out soon. Expensive boats like these do not stay in port unless they are forced. At any rate it was a good chance to see and photograph the state of art of fishing boats.

The technology of fishing has outstripped the ability of the fish to reproduce and fish stocks have declined drastically. These three boats are not a family fishing fleet. This is state of the art corporation fishing. Just beyond these boats were some smaller boats which looked more like the fishing boats I am familiar with from Gloucester. Interestingly one of the stories on the evening news was about small fishermen blaming Gray Seals for the poor fishing. Wake up guys it is not the seals.

Irish Fishing Fleet at Killibegs Irish State of the Art Fishing Boats rear view.

This rear shot of one of the big ships shows the superstructure that supports the huge nets up to 26 miles long. Ireland is certainly not the only high-tech fishing country. Iceland, Norway, Japan, and United States are among the large fishing countries. I publish these photographs just because I was there and caught the fleet in port.  In fact may be showing more restraint than other countries since I was told that the reason this ships were in port was that Ireland had closed the fishing for a time.

Northern Ireland
Crossing the border from the Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland is very simple. I don't remember even stopping. You still drive on the left hand side of the road, the money changes from Euros to British pounds, and the roads improve somewhat.

I stayed at the hostel in Bushmills. It is a very nice hostel where I had a five bed room to myself. The hostel has a lovely kitchen and there was a grocery store within walking distance. Another beautiful hostel is located right on the beach at Whitepark Bay but it was fully booked by a group from the U.S.

At the end of my stay in Ireland (month of June) I went to Belfast and took a city tour which included the battling Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. Only in Belfast was there any sign of the "Troubles" as they are called and I felt very safe during my visit. It is probably best not to be in Belfast during July when "the marching season" causes tension between the Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods.

The birding in Northern Ireland in June was not exceptional. If birds are your only interest you should probably spend your time elsewhere. If experiencing Europe is your objective then by all means include a trip to Northern Ireland.

The Giant's Causeway
The Giant's Causeway is a geologic formation of hexagonal basaltic columns exposed by erosion along the beach. The formation continues across the Irish Sea and I saw the other end on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. It is a beautiful and interesting spot. I parked outside to save 5£ and walked down and back. There is a bus from the parking lot that charges a minimal amount and saves you the long climb back.  Thanks to all the walking on this trip I am getting to be in pretty good shape.

To the right of the formation known as the "Organ" is a small colony of Fulmars. I also saw Stonechat, Oystercatcher, Kittiwake, Gannets and Guillemots here.

Carrick-A- Rede Bridge
Another scenic feature you do not want to pass by is the man made bridge at Carrick-A-Rede or "Rock in the Road". There is a large sea mount separated from the mainland by a narrow channel. Salmon migrating along the coast mostly in July bump into this formation and find the channel too narrow so they detour around the sea mount. Since 1640 fishermen set their nets to catch the salmon and were able to catch some 300 fish a day during the month of July. Every year they built a swinging rope bridge across the gap to reach the sea mount. Of course today there are no Salmon and Irish Fisheries has closed down the fishing. The rope bridge is maintained only for tourists.

Nesting Northern Fulmars

I crossed the rope bridge and spent about an hour enjoying the view from the rock which included this pair of Fulmars guarding their nest. I saw so many Fulmars on this part of the trip, I called it the Fulmar coast.

There are also Guillemots, Razorbills, and Kittiwakes nesting on the seamount.

Rathlin Island
Rathlin Island has a reputation as a good spot to bird during migration. My visit at the end of June was outside of any migration.
The main summer birding on the island is at the west end lighthouse and Bird Observatory where there is a large seabird colony including Guillemots, Puffins, Fulmars, and Kittiwakes. Since you have probably already seen these birds elsewhere, Rathlin Island can be missed.

To reach the island take the ferry from Ballycastle at 10 AM for 8.5£. It is slow ferry and I saw Guillemots, Razorbills, Gannets, Fulmar, and gulls on the trip. When you arrive on the island the problem is to get out to the lighthouse. The transportation concession is owned by Raghery Tours and Mr. Raghery only runs the shuttle when he has enough people to make it worth his while. He shows up at the dock to meet the ferry and decides if a trip is worth his time. You can walk, but the road is up and down hill almost all the way and takes about 2 hours. I got lucky. Raghery decided he had a profitable trip. He would only guarantee me a return seat at 12:30 or 1:30. I elected the 1:30 return which gave me about 2 hours at the observatory.On the ride out I saw Pheasant, European Goldfinch, Skylark, Wheatear, and Chaffinch. All birds you can see almost anywhere.

Rathlin Island cliffs Rathlin Island lighthouse

The Bird Observatory is down a long flight of steps and from the platform you can see a few pairs of Puffins on the cliff beyond.

Much of Rathlin Island is surrounded by steep cliffs. This photographer is dangerously close to the edge since from where he is standing he cannot see where the drop off really is. Nor do I see why he would take such a risk. He probably did not fall as there was no commotion later. Just behind this view is a pass in the cliffs where the Kittiwakes streamed through on their way to drink from a fresh water pond. Gulls unlike true seabirds cannot drink seawater.

Bird cliff on Rathlin Island

The view of the bird cliff from the Bird Observatory.

Rathlin Island Fulmar nest

Another Fulmar nest on the cliff next to the steps.  Imagine looking down on a Fulmar nest,.

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