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Thursday, 23 April 2015

Last Days in Northern Ireland and a Day at Hoylake, Wirral

Saturday 11th April

She did too. Shirley brought me my breakfast suffering from a hangover. She had no knowledge of meeting me the night before. I have that effect on women!

Three Frenchmen joined me for breakfast and only wanted bread. My 'pigeon' French came in handy as they spoke almost no English. They were over here for a rugby game.

Another cycling day; too many of those recently. 35 miles to get to Ballycastle to catch a boat across to 3 RSPB reserves on the wonderful Rathlin Island. The first part of the road took ages as it was a long rise to the top of a high hill, not steep but too much for me to cycle up setions of it. On top there were 21 large wind turbines. I love them and think they enhance the scene. You may feel different but I remember blowing colourful smaller versions of these when I was a child. 21. I had plenty of time to count them as I pushed the bike up the hill.

Down the other side was superb, long and not too steep, it was one of those perfect downhill stretches.

A shelter under trees as a heavy hail shower quickly passed and then on to wards Ballycastle. Good to see that Ballycastle existed again on the direction signs. Back in 2010 all Ballycastle signs had been painted over. A Catholic town in a Protestant area, so I was told.

About 3 miles before the town I came across a Land Rover with a Help The Heroes poster over its bonnet. A coffee and cake morning in the local community hall. How could I resist?

Into the hall where tables with plates of cakes were arranged, I was immediately greeted by a friendly group. They wanted photographs of themselves with the stranger who had just strolled in. The stranger obliged with a bit of fun.

Coffee and cakes for a donation and a chat; I found out that some of the lads including father and sons were going to drive their Land Rover around parts of Europe to raise money for the Help The Heroes charity. They were also going to have a dinner for the same, tonight in fact.

On leaving I was given 2 packets of scones and a plate of cakes. They had so many spare and asked me to take more!

Into Ballycastle and after a bit of a wait, onto the boat over to rathlin Island. The sea was extremely rough and a conversation in the sitting area with a lady from Oxford who had moved to Rathlin quite a few years ago had to be stopped for me to get some air. Outside where I could see the sea and cliffs I had no problem. If I had been inside that cabin any longer I would have up chucked.

Outside on the car deck I sheltered behind a large trailer full of gravel, hoping that the thing wouldn't suddenly become loose from its moorings, as seawater splashed over it. The views of both the high Antrim cliffs and the oncoming Rathlin Island were spectacular as the boat lurched left and right in the swell.

Onto the quay and with the gale from the right I carefully cycled around the harbour and found Rathlin Island hostel, a superb hostel with a large kitchen overlooking the sea, a comfy lounge and usual bunk bed dormitory. As I placed the bike behind a stone storage building, a pair of chough went past. They briefly landed in a field next to the hostel before heading off towards the southern end of the island. I didn't know it then but these are the only pair of chough on the island.

Into the hostel, I met Sean, the co-owner and after a chat and a coffee I went for a walk to try to find the mythical Golden Hare.

Out into the still very strong wind, at least there was a lot of sunshine and from the top of a cliff on the east side of the island, I could see the Mull of Kyntyre easily. I'll be there in July.

On the way up the cliff there had been a flock of 30 odd greylags, a few hooded crows and a lot of meadow pipits. I had also seen over 20 Irish hares, a sub-species of the mountain hare. Amongst the 20 there had been 2 candidates for the golden hare. Is there more than one on the island these days? These two were a lot warmer in colour than the others. Maybe.

A better find, well to me anyway, was as I walked along a pathway along the cliffs of the east side. I found a flint arrowhead! It was white, completely smooth on one side and a ridge on the other gave two surfaces. Its sides showed signs of working that gave it the sharp edges it had required thousands of years ago.

To find one myself was thrilling and more than made up for the one I gave away five years ago.

Back to the road that leads down to the southern end of the island, I saw tufted duck on pools, a stonechat and the chough pair again. They were now feeding in a field of sheep just north of the largest lake on Ronvoolin RSPB reserve. The walking had been tough in the gale but the views made it all worth while.

I didn't go all the way to the end of the road, the sun was going down. So I didn't get to the area next to the small black and white lighthouse there. Instead I got to where I could see it against the Antrim cliff backdrop and turned back. I followed the road all the way to the hostel and relaxed with a plate of fairy cakes and a drink.

Sunday 12th April

A much calmer day with plenty of sunshine, the island looked wonderful as I cycled almost unladen towards the seabird centre at its west end. Birding all the way, a couple of lesser redpolls allowed some photographs. In the harbour over 90 eider were gathered, the males making their Frankie Howard pursued lip calls as they raised themselves from the water in display.
A group of Atlantic grey seals were resting on the rocks with turnstone and ringed plovers by them.
Up the steep hill and onto the higher plain I stopped at the RSPB viewpoint, an area devoted to the pair of chough. From this elevated position, the view was even better than down below and using my binoculars I could make out the famous ropebridge at xxxxxxxxxxxx

After over miles I eventually came around a corner to see the small croft used by the RSPB to house the volunteers that come in the summer. Here the tarmac road changed to bumpy stones and so I got off and pushed the bike for the last mile to the being built seabird centre.

Just before I rounded the last corner 3 wheatears gave me the first year tick of the day. Bird number 181.

With fencing around the hopefully soon to be completed seabird centre, I left the bike against the gate and walked around to the highest point to look over the extremely high cliffs here. I knew what I would see but was still excited by the prospect.

There was the old lighthouse on its prominent platform, closed at the moment but full of memories from my last visit. There were the tall stacks but here there was a major difference to 2010. There were no auks. Not one! Hundreds of kittiwakes yes but not the ten of thousands of guillemot, razorbill and puffins that would be there soon. They were still all out at sea.

Immediately in my head I changed my reserve itinerary! Bempton would have to be visited in June. I needed an auk fix of Bempton proportions.

Auks may not have been there but the views were fabulous nonetheless.

On retracing my tracks I stopped off at a house belonging to one of the RSPB people on the island and so met Alison. Over coffee she showed me her collection of Stone Age implements and a dolphin skull. It's great to meet people who collect these sort of things.

Back down to the harbour eventually to collect my things from the hostel and catch the boat back to Ballycastle. Actually I felt a little guilty at not staying longer on this wonderful island but the needs of the year list meant that time was at a premium.

After a much smoother passage than the previous day, with a couple of close manx shearwaters seen, I cycled to and met a great couple in a pub that advertised Bed and Breakfast. They were both passionate cyclists and so the next hour was spent talking cycling. No bed available after a pint that I actually enjoyed, Shipwick I think, I went to the next hotel and enjoyed a comfortable night.

Monday 13th April

Now I shouldn't have called in that pub and I definitely shouldn't have had a night in a comfy hotel. That had not been the intention. “Get as far as you can along the road to Larne before camping,” I had told myself. The weather is perfect so get the distance covered.

I hadn't and the weather Gods were going to make me pay for it. A strong gale in the face. Cloudy with a band of heavy rain as well. I made progress as well as I could and got to Larne after a few painful hours.

Along to the far end of Larne Lough to look for an American duck, a green-winged teal. Instead of finding that I found a pair of birders who told me that just a few days before the bridge that we were now standing on had been the scene of birding chaos. Police had been called to control the crowds vying for views of the vagrant.

The rarity causing such a fuss, an avocet.

With much improved weather, still windy but now with some sunshine, I was cycling back to the main road to head towards Belfast when a motorist stopped me and asked if he could take some photographs of me and the bike for the local Larne newspaper.

Castleferrgus and a few birds on the beach to watch, pale-bellied brents and golden plover; the latter sporting spangling summer plumage. Then to Belfast dock for the overnight ferry via a cycle way.

Tuesday 14th April

Straight from the docked ferry I went along the cycle path around the north of the Wirral. I knew this path well. It's the one I had cycled more than once in parts before heading for Northern Ireland. I was on my way to have another attempt at seeing surf scoter. Up to 7 had been reported from Hoylake beach in my short absence.

No sign of the laughing gull as I went past New Brighton's marine lake. Recently it had started to to go across the Mersey to Seaforth Docks nature reserve, adding to their extensive list of American birds.

Arriving at Government Road, Hoylake, I hid the bike behind some buildings and walked out to the distant tideline. There were already two birders, Lyndsey and Gareth from near reston, searching through the scoter flock but the sea was just too rough and the birds just too far out to be able to get a fix on any likely candidate. After a couple of hours of trying, with Lyndsey being very helpful to my cause by saying “your need is greater than mine,” when lending me her telescope, it was decided to have a break and try again later at low tide. The weather forecast for then was sunshine and less wind so hopefully better conditions for viewing.

Back around 12, I met another birder as I walked out further than before named Andy Vincent. He was actually going back to his car but turned around to 'have another go'. At the tideline now were a few birders all searching for the surfies. Lyndsey and Gareth returned and just after, with a much flatter sea and a bit of hazy sunshine, Andy shouted out he'd got one. Between turbine 13 and 14 from the left. Then I found it! It was to the right of turbine 14, level with a distant gas platform. Other birders got onto it as they say and so bird number 182 was added to the list and what a good one too, a '54' no less. I texted my birding friends and was told that a hoopoe had been seen first thing in the morning at Thurstaston but not since.

A pair of surf scoter were then found and seen by all, not the best views of this great little American duck I'd ever had but adequate and on texting Phil Andrews I received the reply that 3 was 2 more than I needed.

On leaving to head towards Liverpool for a few days rest I retrieved the hidden bike and started to cycle along the seafront road. After just a couple of hundred yards, Andy Vincent stopped me. He had been to look for little owls nearby and had found one. With his directions in my head I found the spot and indeed, there was a little owl difficult to see amongst the branches and leaves of a low down bush next to a large cracked willow. Bird number 183 seen and photographed, the owl became my Facebook heading photo for a week or so, a gorgeous little introduced bird.

Now please have a look at my Facebook page -

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