I think I mentioned recently that drastic measures may be called for if my seawatching was going to improve this year, and I guess the last four days in the west of Ireland, watching from Bridges of Ross in County Clare probably qualify as "drastic measures".
Seawatching nirvana really, with birds like the gorgeous full adult Pom captured by Neill Hunt above, merely an entree before the BIG kahuna, the one and only, the breathtaking, mythical mindblowing Fea's Petrel that flew past us at 3.10pm on September 3rd.
More of the seawatching later, but when we docked at Dublin at 5am-ish on Thursday morning after a Guinnessy cruise over from Holyhead, Er Neill, Bazzo, Mike Stocker and I had already decided to take a wee detour south to Tacumshin (or "Tac" as it can be referred to by those who have successfuly passed their Guinness Proficiency Test), to check out the glut of rare birds at this remarkable site.
We were at Tacumshin by 8am in warm autumnal conditions, with plenty of hirundines, a Hen Harrier, Wheatear, Redpoll, Chiffchaff etc around the reedbeds at the northern end.
No wind, so it wasn't like we were missing any seawatching in the west.
It didn't take long for the young Pallid Harrier to rise above the reeds and promptly drop down again, but luckily it reappeared a short while later being mobbed by Rooks as it floated along.
Neill got this great shot (I managed some very blurry digiscoped shots which are best left unpublished), as it flapped south being pursued by the corvids.
Very dark on the back, with two prominent pale upperwing patches at the elbow, a lovely honey coloured belly, collar and striking face pattern, all standing out at long range - wonderful bird.
After a conflab with the extremely helpful Irish birders, we headed out onto "The Patches", a large area of mudflats, marsh grasses and standing water, that was stacked with the most amazing collection of waders.
Most amazing for me was the Sharp Tailed Sandpiper you can see creeping through the salicornia below the top Ringed Plover in the pic above - great 'scope views, but hard to digiscope as the warm air created a tricky shimmer.
First tick for me of the trip.
One Killian Mullarney (yes, that Killian Mullarney) got me onto the bird, which was nice, especially at such a big twitch for Eire - there were at least ten people there.
Notice how everyone who goes to Tacumshin wears wellies or waders.
We didn't, but hey, once you're soaked to the knees you can't get any wetter (until a squall hammers into you while seawatching at the Bridges of course - now that is proper wet).
All the local birders were happy to offer info and advice throughout the trip (thanks to 'em all), but once the talk turned to transgender equestrianism, we felt it was time to discreetly leave the mudflats of "Tac".
The numerous flocks of waders were all over the place on the mudflats and marsh, each one revealing treasures as we walked past - a nice Buff Breasted Sand with a particularly large group of Ringed Plover, crisp white and clean Semipalmated Sand with Dunlins, Curlew Sands and Little Stints, Whimbrels trilling overhead - it really was the most marvellous experience, fully justifying the detour down to Wexford.
As we piled back into Er Neill's wheels (great driving buddy), a male Marsh Harrier sailed past, but at 11.30am it was time to hit the road and head for the House Crow at Cobh.
Got to the seafront at Cobh, overlooking Cork City for 3pm, and got the House Crow almost immediately, as it scoffed unmentionable bits of offal around the fishing boats beneath Kennedy's Pier.
Good to see one again, it has been a long time since Eilat...
From there, we drove north, getting into Kilbaha, a click or two away from Loop Head and the Bridges of Ross at the western extremities of County Clare for 6pm.
We were booked into the glorious Lighthouse Inn (the word "no" doesn't exist in these folks' vocabulary), met up with seawatcher extraordinaire Niall Keogh and after a modest Guinness supper supplemented by fine seafood chowder, we hit the hay before seawatching duties began the next morning.
September 2nd was a combination of cloud, drizzle, sunny periods and persistent rain backed by a gentle south westerly, barely brushing force 5. We scoped the waves from 0700 to 1815, with a break for brekky between 1045 and 1145.
It was magnificent.
Manx Shearwater 2,000+
Sooty Shearwater 300+
Great Shearwater 1
"large" shears 8
Balearic Shearwater 3
Storm Petrel 13
Arctic Skua 20
Pom Skua 4
Black Tern 1
Arctic Tern 10
Sabine's Gull 1
Red Throated Diver 1
Common Scoter 9
8 Common and Bottle Nosed Dolphin popped up offshore, as did a Sunfish, flopping about near the surface just under the cliffs.
Bird of the day had to be a splendid Pomarine Skua, a full adult, with spoons still intact, that swept into the bay and close enough for Neill to get some some decent shots - I even tried a few point and press pix myself...a gorgeous bird.
I missed a Long Tailed Skua which Niall and Neill got onto, but it didn't really matter with so much going past us over the wild Atlantic.
Several large shearwaters were just too far out to identify, but by the way they were flying, they looked like Greats.
Soaking wet, we retired to the Lighthouse Inn at 1815, and began to explore the finer points of Guinness gluttony.
Suffice to say that of the 114 pints of the black stuff consumed during the foray west (stats compiled by M. Stocker, and including guest members of the unit), the majority of 'em went down that night, and way into the small hours.
We all survived. Just.
Remember guys, what goes on tour, stays on tour.
We were still up and seawatching by 0700 on September 3rd, and kept scoping the waves until 1820, with a break for brekky between 1045 and 1130, although it is fair to say that the unit was a tad liverish as we hunkered down for the day.
Luckily Niall was on hand to pick up anything we missed, which as it turned out, was a very good thing today.
Great Shearwater 6
Sooty Shearwater 1,000
Manx Shearwater 7,000
Balearic Shearwater 1
Storm Petrel 6
Leach's Petrel 2
Fulmar 300 (inc 1 blue phase bird)
FEA'S PETREL 1
Arctic Skua 11
Pom Skua 1
Sab's Gull 6
Black Tern 1
It was a spectacular seawatch, with good numbers of shearwaters moving, and more of the big 'uns coming closer in to identify. At times the sea was just swarming with Manxies and Sootys in the gentle westerly, and visibility perked up considerably after a drizzly start to the morning.
Sooty pic above by Neill, as is the Rock Pipit shot below - this bird is used to seawatchers sitting in the bowl at the Bridges, scurrying between your legs and displaying a fondness for chocolate digestives.
Offshore, more arresting critters like a party of four beautiful adult Sabine's Gulls were moving west in bright sunlight, supercool. Numbers of Leach's were moving west in the swell too, but I only bumped into 2 of 'em.
At 1510 a thoroughly enjoyable day turned into something beyond description, when Niall shouted two words that made time stand still.
It's hard to explain what happened next - my first response was terror - here was the seabird of our dreams, but the Atlantic is a big bit of water, and it would be easily missed as it headed west with Manxies.
It was like being struck by lightning.
The seawatching gods were looking down us though, as a yacht was west of our position - the only boat we saw inshore during the whole trip - so we parked our scopes on the boat as a marker and waited for the Fea's type to emerge from the shearwater lane past the headland.
Seemed to take an eternity (it was probably only three or four seconds), then it was in my scope whooshing upwards in a life-defining shear against the deep blue sea - snow white underparts, darkish crown, black smudge thro' the eye, black underwings and a weird pointy tail.
Sweet baby J and all the saints.
We all got on it before it melted back into the Atlantic again and it was time to hug Niall, dance, gasp, curse, cheer and generally hail one of the best birding moments of our lives...incredible.
TOTALLY GON-GON: From left: Niall Keogh, Mike Stocker, JD, Neill Hunt, Barry McCarthy - moments after being Fea's-ed. Bridges of Ross, 03-09-11
It took some time to calm down, but to tell the truth the moment the Fea's swung up into my scope is still burned onto my retina now, probably always will be.
Quite a chunky looking bird, with a bulbous head, about the size of a Manxie but looked heavier, with dark underwings that are so Green Sandpiper.
Can't thank Niall Keogh enough. Excellent stuff - if you ever head out to the Bridges, hope Niall is there and stick close to him!
Regular readers of the blog will not need to be told how we celebrated that night, but it was messy.
Luckily the wind was falling away on the 4th, so after toasting Niall repeatedly we treated ourselves to a lie in, before heading out to look for migrants around Loop Head on the morning of September 4th.
Beautiful cliffs and easy to see why the area has attracted so many quality migrants and vagrants over the years.
A quick check of the bushes and fields back towards Kilbaha revealed Spotted Flycatcher, Stonechat, Meadow Pipits, Wheatear, alba wags and Rock Doves.
Rock Pipits everywhere and Hoodies and Choughs probed in the green turf.
Despite the wind coming steadily from the south (not the best conditions for seawatching the Bridges) we decided to give it one last shot before the drive back to Dublin and the ferry home.
We set up from 1145-1415, initially in bright sun, but persistent rain drove us off and stayed with us for much of the drive back east.
Not much was moving - but even a seawatching site like this can have quiet times.
Manx Shearwater 9
Sooty Shearwater 1
Storm Petrel 1
Common Scoter 8
Red Throated Diver 1
Wonderful weekend, wonderful birding, wonderful company.
Thanks all - I hope I'll be back.
Eyes to the skies everyone, eyes to the skies...