Black Guillemots, or Tysties as they are known in Scotland, are part and parcel of Ireland's coastline, with the exception of the south east corner. They breed in sea caves generally, but have also taken to nesting in pier walls, quay walls and even road support walls. They like to nest in crevices and holes in these walls, above the high tide mark. For those living in or near Dublin, Dublin port, and its surrounding harbours, are a great place to see Tysties in all their breeding finery. They even breed far up the River Liffey in the city's quay walls near the Four Courts! One of the better places to watch them is at Poolbeg, along the Great South Wall. It is a best on a rising tide and from late morning to early afternoon. The birds fly close by, land on the wall and will ignore you if you sit quietly and be patient. They are a great subject to practice exposing dark and bright colours on a single object.
The distinctive black and white alcid is easily recognizable in the waters that traverse the nation's capital and the coastline of Ireland. In breeding plumage, they take on the jet black plumage, with white wing patches and white underwings. Their legs and mouth are bright red. The younger individuals, and those wearing their winter garb, are more white than black, and have a mottled appearance.
With the majority of the adult Tysties paired up in late April/early May, the youngsters born the previous year try to squeeze in on the territories of these pairs, which can cause some ructions amongst the loved-up pairs. They youngsters are generally chased away by one or both of the pair, which can end up with their chosen nesting hole being taken by a pair lurking around and watching it all unfold. It's quite entertaining.
The pairs often fly up from the sea surface and alight on the quay side (or wall). Here, they would call, sit, preen, reinforce their bond and chase off any other interested male who may be trying to push in on the pairing. This generally results in a face off and some quite aggressive posturing, with the pair chasing off the would-be suitor. The reaction is often never hinted at, so it is a great way to practice one's reaction to action happening in a split second. I usually find a spot where the birds rest up and sit on the opposite side of the wall to them. The later morning/afternoon is the best time for this on the Great Wall in Dublin Bay as the sun will be behind you. Not ideal in terms of disturbance, as it tends to be busy with folk walking along the Wall, but the birds won't fly away if those walkers give them some space.
The display flights are always great to witness, watching the pair match their flight pattern and chasing each other on short flights. Sometimes when they come in to land, they can misjudge a wave and literally belly flop into the sea and skim across the surface like a skipping stone. They also like to snorkel when they are looking for food by simply putting their head underwater and paddling along the surface.
The Tystie is unusual when compared to its auk cousins that also inhabit our shores (Guillemot, Razorbill and Puffin) in that they change their appearance completely from breeding to non-breeding plumages, and are unrecognisable as being the same species to those unfamiliar with them. The once dark and white plumage becomes overall white/grey with some black on the wings and around the neck. They are equally beautiful in winter as they are in summer.
Kittiwakes are brilliant. I just love watching these elegant seabirds effortlessly make their way over stormy seas with aplomb. It is a treat to listen to the contact calls of the Kittiwakes on the seacliffs around Ireland at this time of year. I went down to Dublin Port at the beginning of April on a rising tide to watch a gathering of over 100 or so Kittiwakes, having returned back to their breeding grounds around Dublin Bay following their winter sojourn out to sea. I love this time of year, as the Kittiwakes are looking resplendent and there is a backdrop of calling Arctic, Common and Sandwich Terns in the Bay. It is a real feeling that Spring is here and Summer is around the corner. Poolbeg Power Station and the Great South Wall is a fantastic place to see the gathering Kittiwakes at that time of year. The birds just saunter up and down the Great Wall into the teeth of the wind, hanging there just enough to enable some good photographs to be had. It is a real treat to watch.
It also allows one to practice one's panning technique for birds in flight and to hone one's skills in quickly adjusting camera settings to get the exposure correct while the action is happening in real time.
Because of the nature of the way the Kittiwakes make their way up along the edge of the wall here, it is an opportunity to play with the depth of field of oncoming, moving subjects. It is also fun trying to freeze some action or flight poses that the birds are exhibiting, such as certain wing angles, positions or head movements.
This sequence of images shows how the Kittiwake walks along the surface of the water, picking up food as it goes along. Always nice to watch a group of them doing this.
I was fortunate to see these seabirds in their Arctic habitat recently and I now look upon them in a whole new light. So strange seeing Kittiwakes among icebergs, sea ice and glaciers. But more on that anon...
There are a few regular Autumn and Spring migrants that have escaped me over the years. For example, after 30 years of birdwatching in Ireland, I have seen the grand total of one (1!) Ring Ouzel in this country. In fact, it's the only one I have every seen...anywhere. I've seen more Pacific Divers, Stilt Sandpipers, Least Sandpipers and Pallid Harriers in Ireland than I've seen R'ouzels! That glorious day came on 1st November 1987 on an amazing late Autumn fall of migrants on the Old Head of Kinsale in Cork. It was a day where I saw my first Yellow-browed Warblers, Ireland's 2nd Dusky Warbler, and witnessed Cork's last stronghold of Tree Sparrow, which are sadly no more.
The second species that has escaped me is Firecrest. I have only seen 2-3 in Ireland, and all have been on Cape Clear Island in Autumn. So, when a report came in of a Firecrest in Swords in Co. Dublin in March(!), I was amazed. Firecrests are rarely reported from Dublin. This was apparently the first report since the 1980s. Winter records of Firecrest in Ireland are quite scarce. It turns out there were at least 3 Firecrest wintering in Ireland in 2015/16 (one in Dublin, two in Cork). With daily reports of the bird coming in that week when i was in work, I managed to get there as soon as I could, which for me was a week after the event. Not too shabby given my previous "ah shur, if it's there in a few weeks, I might go for it"-type of attitude to twitching these days. And it was worth the trip to see this little gem of a bird.
Firecrest in all its glory.
The Firecrest is a small passerine that is not too much bigger than our resident Goldcrest and is very similar in plumage as well. The bold eye-stripe and supercillium combination gives it away when compared to the open-faced Goldcrest. I have always found that Firecrests look a bit angrier than the startled-looking Goldcrest.
Goldcrest in all its startled glory!
I had never photographed Firecrest before either, so this was all very exciting for me. I had brought my 500mm and 100mm-400mm lenses with me. I wanted to use the 500mm so that I could stand back and let the bird behave naturally and not to be put out by me peering in over the wall or into the hedge. The area was over a low wall and by a river bank with thick undergrowth and thicket. Perfect for the miniature bird to forage and feed. Not great for getting clear shots though!
The problem was that there were too many people there, jostling for position, trying to photograph the sprite. I sort of stood back and watched the bird do a circuit. I figured it would make its way out of one area and into a clearing, so I positioned myself in a decent spot and waited. Sure enough, the bird appeared like a shinkansen out of the hedge and darted up the tree. It was difficult to get a clean shot of the bird through the small branches and busy undergrowth. Manual focus was called for to try and get a sharp image. Autofocus was pointless given the amount of distracting branches in front of the bird. Add to the fact that the bird moved so fast, it was difficult to lock on to it using manual focus. Oh how fast we get accustomed to autofocus!
It did pop out in the open for a brief second every now and then, though, which was nice. A bonus was that the Firecrest had started singing! It was a lovely song and the first time I had heard it.
The conditions were difficult to get a sharp flight shot, despite the 1/2000s shutter speed...
While waiting for the Firecrest to make an appearance, a pair of Bullfinches were gorging themselves on the freshly emerged buds on the trees. The female kept herself quite hidden, but the male was quite bullish in feeding away at the top of the trees. Always fantastic to see.
It was a great few hours spent with the Firecrest, frustrating at times with the rush of people trying to get photographs. However, it was also nice to catch up with some folk I had not seen in quite a while.
On my way home from work one evening in March, at dusk, I was making my way across the Luas bridge over the Grand Canal. As per usual, I was plugged in to my mobile device listening to choons at the end of a stressful day at the salt mine. As I glanced over to the west, admiring the sunset, I noticed a large dark bird about 10 metres up a tree along the edge of the Canal. I thought that it looked too big for a Blackbird, too rotund for a Pigeon and not a Moorhen because it was in a tree. I paused on the bridge, took a closer look. Lo and behold, it was a Moorhen! A Swamp Hen up a tree. I couldn't believe it. I can only imagine that the bird was there to avoid being predated on by foxes, rats, cats, dogs, mink or other predators along the Canal. It certainly made me smile and I plodded on home with a bit more pep in my step having witnessed that.
Over the next couple of weeks, I had the same experience every evening I was walking home. However, the single Moorhen became a pair of Moorhen in the same tree. Judging by the amount of bird dropping stains on the branches of the tree, they had been roosting there for quite some time. I brought my camera down to the Canal on Saturday evening when the light was reasonably good. Sure enough, there were the pair, setting up shop for the night. There was some jostling for position and a bit of "walk the plank" antics caused one of the birds to fall off the branch and into the Canal. Trying to get a decent angle for the birds was tough given the height they were at and the level I was at, either on the canal bank or on the Luas bridge. I used the 100-400mm Canon lens, which allowed me to (a) travel light and (b) use the the versatility of the zoom lens in trying to capture the image I wanted. The tricky aspect of this kind of scenario (time of day and tree branches) is that the shadows of the branches are quite long and broad and difficult to see smaller twigs, thus making for a clear shot very difficult to come by.
For example, in this shot I wanted to make sure that I got some catchlight from the setting sun in the eye of the Moorhen. I was at the other side of the canal so it was difficult to gauge where the shadows were and whether there were any small branches going across the face/head of the Moorhen. The dark plumage of the bird against the background also made it difficult to judge whether there were nuisance branches or shadows in the way. This was the best of the images I managed that evening.
Another image I wanted to capture was that of the encroachment of man in our natural world, but also how wildlife has adapted to fill the niches that are being created by man's building and encroachment. In this shot, after a long day foraging along the man-made canal, the Moorhen is preening in a tree that is growing on the roadside while a car passes by and a LUAS arrives into the stop on the bridge. It was sort of what I was looking for, but not quite what I wanted. What I was very surprised at was seeing one of the Moorhen actually climbing up the branches of the tree rather than flying up to their branch of choice. A mixture of grappling feet and flapping wings propelled the Moorhen up the branches in no time whatsoever! It was a strange sight to see but it certainly brought thoughts to the fore of how their ancestors must have also climbed trees using their additional claws on their "elbows".
I finished off the little photoshoot with some silhouette images of the Moorhens in the tree, with some city centre/urban backgrounds. I was careful to frame the Moorhen within the branches but to leave enough space around the bird to give it some room. A bit of climbing on some railings and using the aching knees as anchors, I was able to achieve that. I will have to head back again before the leaves escape from their buds and close off all views of the roosting Swamp Hens and try to get some more perspectives and action images.
A recent brief trip to Cobh to visit the folks, one of the siblings and her progeny (my adorable nieces and nephew), resulted in an even quicker scoot over to my old local patch, Cuskinny Marsh Nature Reserve. The usual suspects of the duck variety were present, as well as Dabchicks, Moorhens and gulls. The gulls are always worth checking out on the marsh as the turnover of gulls is quite high. The gulls come in for a snooze and a wash, and so there is a constant change of the guard. The Reserve has produced the usual species (Herring, Greater Black-backed, Lesser Black-backed, Black-headed, Common, Glaucous, Iceland, Mediterranean), but has also turned up Thayer's Gull, Kumlien's Gull, Bonaparte's Gull, Sabine's Gull, Franklin's Gull and Laughing Gull. One regularly gets Ring-billed Gull, and on this occasion, there was a nice adult Ring-billed Gull on one of the pontoons, beginning to come out of winter plumage and enter breeding plumage. The light was nice for a change. The best time to view the marsh for photography in terms of light is the afternoon/evening, as the light is behind the viewer and shines out on to the lake there.
I saw my first Ring-billed Gull in Cobh in the late-1980s, back when the species was a real rarity. We have seen up to 8(!) Ring-billed Gulls on the Reserve at one time in the past! Always a treat to see.
However, I didn't have to travel too far to see a Ring-billed Gull. Within a 20 minute walk of my apartment in Dublin, a near-adult Ring-billed Gull has been hanging out around the Grand Canal Dock and within striking distance of the Grand Canal Theatre (or the Bord Gais Theatre, or whatever they are calling it these days). With a few hours to spare one Sunday morning in March, I headed down for a gander to see if the beast was about. I brought my Canon 7DII and Canon 100-400mm II lens for ease of transport when heading down to the area on Dublin Bikes. The light was not too shabby, despite the overcast conditions. The cloud was high and light, so enough light was getting through to work with. Shortly after getting there, I was checking some of the gulls on the deck and on the water, but I just could not see it. Thinking I might be in for a bit of a wait, I happened to glance upwards, over where I was standing, and lo-and-behold, there was the target...sitting on one of the red posts on the quay edge.
The bird stayed there for quite a while, making some forays out for a wash and then returning to the posts again to rest. I guessed that maybe the gulls had been fed earlier that morning and were not too interested in foraging for a while. As it was Mother's Day, I gave my Mum a call for a chat (it being after 10am on a Sunday, a dignified hour) and kept an eye on the Ringer. When I got off the phone from Mother, I didn't have to wait long before a few kids started feeding the gulls some popcorn (better than white bread!) and the Ringer came down from its lofty perch and started to feed voraciously. Buoyed by the birds hunger, I made may over to the feeding frenzy and managed to get a few shots. It was so tame!! It came within a foot of where I was standing. It was a fantastic opportunity to see the species up close and it was also calling and was quite vocal when feeding in amongst the pigeons and other gulls.
Having had my fill of the Ringer, or more accurately, after the Ringer flew off out into Dublin Bay, I finished the morning off with a shot I had been planning for ages but never managed to strike lucky with...Brent Geese flying over the rooftops of Dublin with the Poolbeg chimneys in the background...that'll do (for now).
Always be prepared!