18th - 22nd February 2008

A trip to Ireland is a popular winter break for many British birders.  Margaret and Mark Breaks & I have enjoyed previous winter trips to the west coast and this year we decided to head to Mayo, Sligo and Donegal.  We booked with Ryanair from Liverpool and this still worked out good value despite the multitude of extras now included.  However, the toilets are still free, for now!


18th February


We arrived in Knock early and were soon on the road to Belmullet.  The weather in the weeks before our trip had been pretty grim so we were glad to have a bright day with light winds.


Within a couple of hours we arrived at Carrowmore Lake near Bangor.  This enormous lake is quite daunting but we had excellent advice from resident birder Dave Suddaby and soon we found the wintering drake Green Winged Teal.  This was a really smart bird with a full suite of plumage features to separate it from its European cousins alongside.

Green-winged Teal

Also here were some lovely Whooper Swans serenely sailing across the lake and a range of other common waterfowl.


Whooper Swan

Soon after we arrived in Belmullet and after a quick check of the quay we headed out towards Annagh Beach.  On the approach road we stopped for a quick scan of the fields at Macecrump.  Dave had mentioned that a white morph Snow Goose was wintering in the area but that it was ranging widely.  Mark picked it up on his first scan – he’s very sharp!  The Snow Goose was with 6 Barnacle and 32 Greylag Geese.


Snow Goose

Onto Annagh Beach where we quickly found 2 first winter Glaucous Gulls and then the distinctive barking calls of Barnacle Geese drifted over from Annagh Head.  We soon picked up the wavering flocks as 600 birds headed off to roost, an evocative sight as the light began to fade.


Finally, we called at Cross Lough where another flock of 400 Barnacle Geese and 14 Scaup nicely rounded off the day.  After a meal in Belmullet we headed down to the lovely Leim Siar B & B and a warm welcome from Hannah.


19th February


Up early we headed out to the Standing Stones on Termon Hill.  Unfortunately we couldn’t find the Snowy Owl that sometimes calls this moorland home.  However, this is a magical area and we enjoyed our pre breakfast walk in surprisingly mild weather. 


After a warming full Irish we found ourselves part of an impromptu film set.  A group of young ladies staying with Hannah staging what appeared to be a Gaelic version of Bugsy Malone! 

We then moved down to the quay near Aghleam and on a flat calm sea we saw 25 Great Northern Diver, 5 Red-throated Diver, 8 Black Guillemot, 50 Common Scoter and 7 Pale-bellied Brent Geese.


Great Northern Diver

As we headed back north along the Mullet we stopped at Leam Lough where a range of common waders included 6 Greenshank.  Nearby, we stopped at Cross Beach in search of a seal carcass that was attracting a number of artic gulls.  Here we found 2 adult and 2 first winter Glaucous Gulls.  


Ring-billed Gull

More news from Dave and we found ourselves on the on the outskirts of Belmullet watching an excellent first winter Ring-billed Gull. 


Ring-billed Gull

After enjoying excellent views we decided to have another look at Annagh Beach.  Here we found no fewer than 8 Glaucous Gulls (4 adults, 2 second winters and two 2 first winters).  Some of the adults were particularly impressive being as large as nearby Greater Black Backed Gulls.  Behind the beach we found a dead first winter Glaucous Gull alongside a dead Red Fox and we wondered if they had both taken poisoned bait?


A search for the Snow Goose eventually came up trumps when we discovered it with Greylags on the picturesque Termoncarragh Lake.  Our final site of the day was a return visit to Carrowmore Lake.  The drake Green-winged Teal was still present along with 6 Scaup but the wintering Ring Necked Duck was nowhere to be seen.


As we drove along the north coast of Mayo and into Sligo we reflected on how fortunate we had been to get such benign weather on the wild west coast.  As an amazing sunset painted Drumcliff Bay deep red we hoped our good fortune would continue for the rest of the trip.  


20th February


We were up early and quickly located the shellfish farm at Lissadell.  Once again with his first scan Mark found us our target birds, a first winter male and a female King Eider in the nearest channel. 


King Eiders

These excellent birds were regularly catching small crabs and trying to scoff them down before being mugged by the attendant GBB Gulls! 


This lovely spot provided great views of the Eiders along with Great Northern & Red Throated Divers, Black Guillemots and Great Crested Grebes.  Also Common and Grey Seals hauled out on sand banks between the channels.


Barnacle Geese

We then went searching for the Barnacle Geese, for which this area is famous, and found 600 feeding in fields by Lissadell Hall.  We then moved on to Raghley and were all impressed with the majestic surroundings in the continuing good weather.


From the harbour picked out 2 pairs of Long-tailed Duck, 100 Common Scoter, 4 Eider, 25 Great Northern Diver and 20 Pale-bellied Brent Geese.  Regular encounters with these beautiful and photogenic geese was a highlight of the trip.


Pale-bellied Brent Geese

Leaving Sligo we headed into Donegal and onto the fishing port of Killybegs famous for its winter concentrations of gulls.  Finding our bearings we quickly found a few first winter Iceland & Glaucous Gulls on the old quay and one Iceland Gull performed particularly well tempted by a loaf of bread.


Iceland Gull

It soon became clear though that, whilst hundreds of Herring Gulls could be found in the town, the majority of white winged gulls were feeding distantly off the end of the new pier.  Due to security concerns there was no access to the new pier, which was very frustrating. 


Iceland Gull

Thankfully a chance meeting with an old friend, James Hunter, pointed us in the direction of a quay on the other side of the bay.  After going across a very tight single track bridge we drove along to a spot opposite the new quay.  This spot provided good views of the mass of gulls feeding over the water.  Very soon we had found an adult Kumlien’s Gull, 10+ first winter Iceland and 5+ first winter Glaucous Gulls – this was more like it!


Glaucous Gull

James then picked up a Black-throated Diver which all too quickly flew out to sea but a brief flight view suggested it had no obvious white flank patch? 


Satisfied that we were getting to grips with the site we booked into a nice B & B and went out for something to eat.  We enjoyed fish and chips but with a pint costing £4 (due to the poor exchange rate) we then had an early night!  


21st February


Waking up early we searched Killybegs town and the nearby estuary at which many of the gulls bathe and drink.  We began to get a better idea of the sheer numbers of gulls with thousands of Herring Gulls and our first older immature and adult Iceland & Glaucous Gulls.


Iceland Gull

A return to the spot opposite the new quay proved to be the most productive period of the trip with up to 15 white wingers in a single scan.  Whilst we watched the gulls the Black Throated Diver reappeared in the company of a Great Northern Diver.


Iceland Gull

It looked tiny in comparison and alarm bells started ringing.  Conditions were difficult with views being distant and brief but again there was no sign of a white flank patch.  A rather rounded head shape and seemingly fine bill all grabbed attention.   


Mark and I then headed up onto a small headland looking into the mouth of the bay, where the diver appeared to be feeding.  For an hour and a half there was no sign but this vantage point highlighted even more white winged Gulls along the shoreline and following in fishing boats.


Kumlien's Gull

The adult Kumlien’s Gull reappeared and showed well and we also picked out some interesting looking hybrids with two Glaucous x Herring Gulls and what appeared to be an adult Herring x Lesser Black Backed Gull.


Kumlien's Gull with a Herring Gull

Unfortunately at this point the weather closed in for the first time on the trip, just as Mark picked up the diver again.  A boat entering the bay caused it to head back out to sea and then the rain and gloom drew the day to a premature close.   

To our great surprise Margaret then produced some pictures of the diver which considering the conditions was an extraordinary feat.  These were intriguing but inconclusive so we let Irish birders know and kept figures crossed someone else would get better views.




On our way back to Sligo we counted up the days blizzard of white wing gull sightings and came up with amazing totals of 1 ad Kumliens Gull, 23 Iceland Gulls (2 adults, a third winter, 2 second winters and 18 first winters) and 15 Glaucous Gulls (2 adults, 3 second winters and 10 first winters).


Glaucous Gull

22nd February


Another day dawned bright and we returned to the Lissadell and Ballintemple area to look for geese.  In a specially prepared field at Lissadell 1200 Barnacle Geese, including 3 with neck collars, proved to be particularly approachable. Around Ballintemple another 1000 Barnacle Geese played hide and seek in the undulating fields.  Unfortunately no Small Canada Geese could be found in what is a traditional late winter haunt for one or two.


Ring-billed Gull and Common Gull

Our final stop was the Quay Street car park in Sligo town and this proved productive with an adult Ring-billed Gull, first winter Glaucous Gull and a showy juvenile Great Northern Diver.  After a trouble free flight home we walked back to the car at Liverpool airport and picked up an adult Mediterranean Gull overhead - ending an enjoyable trip in style.


Glaucous Gull with Black-headed Gulls


John Wright


All Images taken by Margaret and Mark Breaks, Copyright - © Breaks Bird Photography