Following an eventful day on St. Mary’s the previous day, Oliver Metcalf and I drove straight back north to Bristol from Penzance following the docking of the Scillonian. We then headed back west to Pembroke to catch the 02:45 ferry to Rosslare, docking just after 06:00. First port of call before the long drive to Mayo was Lingstown reedbed at Tacumshin. In the early morning light, up to 6 Hen and 2 Marsh Harriers were noted before the target bird – the long-staying juvenile Pallid Harrier – appeared and gave stunning views at close range. A good start, especially for Ollie for it was a lifer for him.
And so the tedious drive northwest to Mayo began. We stopped at only a couple of sites (Shannon Airport Lagoon and Rahasane Turlough), although both were uninspiring due to an over-abundancy of water. I haven’t seen Shannon looking good for years! So it was some relief when we finally arrived at Carrowmore Beach, just north of Louisburgh (Mayo) mid-afternoon to find this little beauty bracing the blasting westerly by the river outflow:
A fantastic start to the trip that was soon to be made far better as we arrived at Corragaun Lough, some 12km to the south. This site is one of Ireland’s hidden jewels; basically a mini Carrahane Strand with open machair, saltmarsh, a muddy lough and lots of small pools that constantly look like they will imminently attract Nearctic shorebirds. And it doesn’t even get checked much!
We soon got on to Richard Bonser’s adult White-rumped Sandpiper from the weekend, and there were also 2 juvenile Little Stints and 2 juvenile Curlew Sandpipers present amongst around 25 Dunlin. A short while later, a juvenile Pectoral Sandpiper popped out of nowhere to join the flock:
And then, in came another flock of Dunlin (perhaps 20 or so). With them were these two stunning juvenile Semipalmated Sandpipers:
By this point, exhaustion and fatigue had been entirely over-ridden by adrenalin. Such a yank-filled start to the trip had not even been anticipated despite the deluge of rarities further south and some very exciting weather charts in the days leading up to our visit. With great excitement we headed round Clew Bay to Achill Island for the final couple of hours of daylight. Needless to say, we couldn’t locate anything of note on Achill in our two hours there, which brought us back down towards earth somewhat. Still, there was always the next morning.
Overnight, the weather had gotten pretty serious as a front swept through off the leading edge of what had been Hurricane Maria. As we emerged from the car at dawn, we were greeted by a howling southwesterly wind that must have been gusting to as much as 60mph. We struggled in to the wind as we walked south from the clubhouse at Keel golf course towards the area of rough ground where Rich had found two Baird’s Sandpipers on Saturday. As well as a Ringed Plover struggling in to the wind, we noticed a wader flying towards, calling with a distinct (almost Spotted Redshank-like) “dluu-eeep”. It turned and landed around 10 yards away, showing lovely grey underwings as it did so – a smart juvenile American Golden Plover! The bird lingered for just a few seconds before getting up in to the wind and subsequently blown inland across the golf course – really encouraging early score on day 2; judging by behaviour it must have just arrived in off the Atlantic. Fired up once more, Staines and I set out on our twice-daily hike around the golf course. We soon located one of Rich’s Baird’s sheltering with a few Ringed Plovers and Dunlin just inland of the shingle bank some 400 metres or so southeast of the clubhouse, but the golf course was otherwise quiet. On the way back, we checked the small flock with the Baird’s again only to see a juvenile Buff-breasted Sandpiper fly in and begin to feed – things were getting better and better!
We headed around to Doogort, at the northeast end of the island, in order to check one of last year’s hotspots – the wet machair around Achill Rovers FC football ground and the adjacent Barnynagappul Strand. We had a Pec and a couple of Buff-breasts here last year, although the area was disappointingly devoid of birds this time around and we struggled to find little more than a Black-tailed Godwit and a few Sanderlings. With that, we decided to head around to Sruhill Lough to see what was happening. We located the usual adult drake Black Duck with relative ease, and I also noticed that there were a few small waders on mud and sand by the lough outflow. As a result, we decided to walk along the beach south to the outflow to check the flock – on the approach it was clear there were two stint-sized waders running around amongst the Dunlin (c.40) and Ringed Plovers (c.40). Closer views confirmed that there were in fact four stints, and all of them were Semipalmated Sandpipers!
Whilst I blasted off some record shots, Staines located a juvenile Sabine’s Gull feeding off the outflow with Arctic and Sandwich Terns. Afterwards, we headed back to Doogort valley and had a sniff about for passerines, although the best it got was a flock of 25 Chough and a couple of Chiffchaffs plus small flocks of Lesser Redpolls heading over. Another walk of Keel Golf Course produced the three yanks from earlier, although the AGP was still very unsettled.
With much of the late afternoon and evening left, we decided to head back around to the sites around Clew Bay and further south. First stop was the harbour at Mulrany, which has always looked decent but never really produced anything. The tide was out, and there were plenty of smalls (mainly Ringed Plovers with about 10 each of Sanderling and Dunlin) feeding on the mudflats. Eventually, a juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper appeared from nowhere amongst the flock, and proceeded to show very well – our fifth of the day and seventh of the trip, it was perhaps not surprising to hear the words “another Semipee?! Why not something else” uttered from Staines’ lips. We weren’t complaining, though.
The rest of the evening was spent around Louisburgh and down at Corragaun Lough, where the White-rumped Sandpiper was roosting on the beach with other smalls and an adult Whooper Swan was amongst the Mutes.
With lighter winds forecasted, today was planned as a day to hammer the bushes across Achill as hard as possible. The usual dawn walk around the golf course revealed the American Golden Plover, and Baird’s and Buff-breasted Sandpipers still just inland of the shingle bank, and generally associating together:
We spent a couple of hours walking around the gardens in Dooagh and Keel, although many were too difficult to view to work properly. Needless to say there was a dearth of migrants save for a single Yellow-browed Warbler that was head calling in the Art Gallery garden. With that, we headed round to the valley at Dooagh where we spent a couple more hours. Once more, there was little on the bird front save a couple of Chiffchaffs and Goldcrests, and 20+ Lesser Redpolls flying around. Of greatest interest was a very large dragonfly found over a boggy field at the end of the cul-de-sac off the upper road in the valley; my initial impression was of Emperor (size-wise) but with this being somewhat unlikely on Achill Island in September in big westerlies, I began to think of Green Darner. Although I never managed perched views, the dragonfly seemed uniformly brownish in flight, but little more detail was obtained. Guess it will have to go down as one that got away.
Round at Sruhill Lough, the four juvenile Semipalmated Sandpipers were still performing well by the outflow, but the arguable highlight was a brief juvenile Red-necked Phalarope that spent about five minutes on the lough before flying out to sea. There were also a couple of female Black Duck x Mallard hybrids; one looks particularly like a female BD, being very dark and uniform:
A dog Otter was also a pleasant bonus as it showed very well at the south end of the lough. Nearby in Dooniver we had a second Yellow-browed Warbler in roadside bushes – found by call as we drove past at 70kph! I slammed on the brakes, reversed and we enjoyed brief flight views and more calling before it flew north and buried itself in a thicket 100m or so from the road. A Pintail was also on a nearby lough; the first I’ve seen on Achill.
With evening fast approaching, we decided to head back off Achill to Mulrany, to see if the Semipalmated Sandpiper was still present. Rather remarkably, yesterday’s bird had been joined by a second juvenile, and we enjoyed fine views of both birds in the fading light alongside increased numbers of Dunlin (25) and Sanderling (15).
Our final day began with the usual early morning walk around the golf course revealed the Baird’s and Buff-breasted Sandpipers still together in the wake of the shingle ridge, although we couldn’t find the AGP. We also spent an hour or so walking the marsh at Sruhillbeg Lough, but couldn’t find anything new in there either. An adult Arctic Tern was on Keel Lough, but there seemed little else about.
A search of the machair around Achill Rovers was again quiet. This site still looks excellent and it is perhaps just chance that birds are not present this year. Round at Sruhill Lough, we found two juvenile Semipalmated Sandpipers still amongst reduced wader numbers – it probably didn’t help that a massive immature Peregrine had scattered the flock on our arrival. The drake Black Duck was still on the lough with associated Mallards and hybrids, but there wasn’t much else immediately obvious. Then, on the far bank, I noticed an Actitis sandpiper feeding amongst a group of Teal. Distance and strong winds were making a sure identification impossible, so we decided to head around the lough to try and get closer views. As well as Teal, the sandpiper was also in the immediate vicinity of a roosting flock of Curlews and Greenshanks, and I discussed the realistic probably that the bird would flush with Staines. Once we had halved the distance, we had another scan and were relieved to find the bird still there but mobile. From this distance the legs looked obviously yellowish and the bill had an extensive ivory-pink wash to the base – it seemed likely the bird would be a Spotted but we needed better views to confirm. Walking further round the bay we flushed the Curlews, Greenshanks and Teal as suspected, and frustratingly lost the bird. Not for long, however:
Out it popped from a hidden bay – a stunning juvenile Spotted Sandpiper, showing very well indeed! I called Ollie over and we enjoyed some point-blank views of the bird as it fed around the south shore over the next 45 minutes or so:
The Spotted Sand proved to be the final find of the trip, being the thirteenth Nearctic wader found over the few days we spent in Mayo – the rest of the afternoon was spent at Corragaun where the two Semipees were still present. Although we had been very fortunate with the weather and year (it has been one of the best Septembers for American waders on record), we hope that our experiences around the County through the week further highlight the huge potential that it offers, further backing up the efforts put in by ourselves and others last year. Since we left, it seems the Punks have gone to town in Kerry, finding both Semipalmated Plover and Least Sandpiper amongst more ‘regular’ vagrants. If only time was on my side; I think both Ollie and I would have been more than happy to spend another week out west! I guess that Nearctic passerine will have to be a find for the future.