Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Malin Head: Ireland’s Most Northerly Point, Birdwatching Hotspot and More!!!

At the top of the Inishowen Peninsula is Ireland’s most northerly point, Malin Head. It is not just Ireland’s most northerly point, but also an area of great scenic beauty and of historical, scientific and ecological importance. The area is steeped in history and folklore. You will also find the largest sand dunes in Europe at Lagg. On Knockamany Bens you can view the famous Five Finger Strand and at low tide you can see the wreck of the Twilight, which sank in 1889 on its way to Derry. On a clear day you can see Tory Island and Muckish Mountain to the west, Rathlin Island and the Paps of Jura, Islay and the Mull of Kintyre to the East.
In the big picture of the Natural World, Ireland looks like a small place. Many people may be forgiven for thinking that not a lot happens here. Situated at 550 22 N 0070 22 W this is an area of great diversities, but unknown to a lot of people this area is steeped in natural history.

                                                                     Chough, Malin Head Sunset , Corncrake and Dunlin.
The circuit of the Head will take you past the Radio Station, built in 1910, and round the coast to Banba’s Crown, close to the most northern tip of Ireland. Here a tall derelict building known locally as “The Tower” was constructed in 1805 by the Admiralty, and later used as a Lloyds Signal Station. In its early days the station acted as an important news-link between America and Europe. At this point you could picnic on the very last headland before Greenland and Iceland. It is a wonder to behold, regardless of the weather. It is also a perfect starting point for a ramble along the cliffs to Hell’s Hole, a remarkable subterranean cavern and Geo 250 feet long and 20 feet wide, into which the tide rushes with great force. Nearby you will find a picturesque natural arch called the Devil’s Bridge and culminating in the spectacular cliffs at Procagh Bens and the sea stacks of Scheildrín Mór and Scheildrín Bég. Together these sea stacks of an area of 5 acres house important bird, flora and sea life.
From Banba’s Crown, Inishtrahull Island can be seen to the northeast. Its first lighthouse was put into operation on St. Patrick’s Day 1813; this light was discontinued on the 8th October 1958 when it was replaced by a new light on the west side of the island. This light now stands 59 metres above sea level and the light flashes 3 times every 15 seconds, and has a visible range of 19 miles. The light was first lit in 1958 and the fog signal was discontinued on the 1st May 1988. This island has the oldest rocks in Ireland i.e. Lewisian Gneiss and is closer in rock type to Greenland and Islay in the Inner Hebrides. A small community of fishermen and their families lived here until 1928 and a manned Lighthouse only became automatic in March 1987.
Below Banba’s Crown to the east lies Ballyhillin Beach, a unique raised beach system of international scientific significance. The exceptionally distinctive shorelines illustrate somewhat dramatically the changing connection between the sea and the land from the period the glaciers began to melt, some 15,000 years ago. At that time Donegal was depressed by the weight of an immense ice sheet, so the level of the sea was up to 100 feet higher than today. The beach is also well known for its semi-precious stones, such as cornelian, chalcedony, jasper, serpentine, agate, etc., all of which can be cultured and set into jewellery. From here the distinctive sight of four different stages of sea level change and glacial activity can be seen. The fields above the raised beach are a site of International importance due to the wintering Barnacle goose flock.

                            Barnacle Geese, Stookarudden, Malin Sunset, Lapland Bunting and Lloyds Signal Tower.
The small island of Dunaldragh in position 55O 23.001N 007O 22.230W meaning ‘’Fort of the Bird Flocks’’ is actually Irelands Most Northerly Point. This is a small island divided from the mainland by a narrow channel. It is rarely accessible even at low tide. Here a tidal bore can be seen during westerly winds as the tide is forced through the small channel. On the cliff top on the mainland side of the channel beside Dunaldragh, the name EIRE is printed on the ground in letter. Rocks painted white form the letters and the name was used as an aerial notification of neutrality for aircraft passing over during WW II. Close by and to the east of Dunaldragh is another Natural Arch, which has long been used as a nest site for Rock Doves.
Here the land is surrounded by the warm waters of the Gulf Stream and wafted by moist westerly winds, this is a land both of moderation and extremes. This is the windiest place in Ireland and one of the windiest places in the whole of Europe. Average wind speed is greater than 20 miles per hour 7 days a week 365 days a year. On average wind speeds in excess of 75mph is recorded on 4 occasions a year.
The highest wind speeds recorded here are a sustained wind speed of 78mph on St. Stephens Day 1997 with the highest gust recorded been that of 114mph in September 1961 when Hurricane Debbie struck. However this is an under recording as the Wind Gauge in place at the Meteorological station could only read to 114mph!
Ballyhillin has an exceptionally mild climate, the average temperature in the coldest month February is approximately 7 degrees Celsius while the average for the warmest month August is 14 degrees Celsius. The coldest temperature recorded been –7 degrees Celsius and the warmest been 26 degrees Celsius, which is surprising when you consider that Malin Head is virtually on the same line of latitude as Moscow. Due to this high latitude winter nights are long, however during the summer Civil Twilight exists all night towards the end of June. This is as close to the land of the Midnight sun as one can get in Ireland. The Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights are often seen here after spells of increased solar activity. On the 21st June Sunset at Malin head is at 22:15hrs local time. These long summer days give both flora and fauna ample opportunity to become successful. These are just some of the characteristics that make this area a unique place with a diverse and fascinating flora and fauna.

                                          Sparrow, Eider Duck, Fulmar, Golden Plover and Grasshopper Warbler.
In 1961 a Bird Observatory was set up here to study the passage of seabirds and to study the movements of other birds off the north coast. It was during this time that a huge amount of knowledge was assembled about the migration of bird species around this coast. It was not just the sometimes, amazing movements of birds that were discovered, but a number of either new, or exceptionally rare species of birds were also discovered to frequent the Malin Head area at certain times of the year. Imagine the experience of these birdwatchers sitting at Banba’s Crown, when they first sighted the magnificent Black-Browed Albatross, only the second time this species had ever been recorded in Ireland, especially when the first was recorded only two days previously near Cape Clear Island off the Cork coast.
It was notable that this sea watching established the regularity of westerly autumn passage of sea birds, the conditions producing large-scale autumn movements around Malin Head usually started with Southwest to west winds, cloud and rain associated with weather fronts, and heralding the approach of a depression from the Atlantic. It was during this time that a number of species thought to be rare in Irish waters were found to be more common than previously though. Sometimes during the above mentioned favourable weather conditions, influxes of rarer seabirds such as the Sooty Shearwater, Great Shearwater and Leach’s Petrels would appear close into shore.
Sea watching activities during this time showed that the Great Skua, Arctic Skua, Pomarine Skua and Long-tailed Skua occurred more frequently than previously thought. These species are now classed as regular migrants and appear in late May and from early July to early October.

                                                                              Twite, Knot, Wheatear, Malin Head.
Even today all the above-mentioned species can appear in large numbers from July to perhaps mid-November. Take for example the Sooty Shearwater, with this species, a visitor who breeds in the South Atlantic makes a loop migration around the Atlantic and comes close to our shores in September when up to 500 birds per hour have passed the tower at Banba’s Crown.  The Great Shearwater those entire world populations is approximately 2.5 million birds and breeds only on Tristan da Cunha, an island in the south Atlantic, regularly appears off the Malin Head coast in Autumn. The Little Shearwater was first sighted in Ireland in the late 18th century and was not seen in this country for another 110 years when in 1960’s 2 birds were seen on passage around Malin Head.
Regarding our other bird species? Malin Head has bird species that are of international and national importance. The Eider Duck is a typical example of this. It first bred in Ireland in 1912 on Inishtrahull Island, and now there is approximately 200 pairs breeding around the Malin Head area, which is up to 1/3 of the total Irish population. Inishtrahull is the largest Eider Duck breeding colony in Ireland.
In a survey carried out in 1992 it suggested that there were 906 pairs of Chough breeding in Ireland of which it is thought at least 25 pairs breed alone the North Inishowen coast alone, with flocks in access of 100 birds being recorded on a number of occasions.
As the decline of the Corncrake is a well-known and well-documented event, this bird is still holding on and one of its last remaining refuges in Ireland is in Malin Head. The Corncrake is the only globally endangered species of bird to breed in Malin Head. Numbers fluctuate from year to year but it is hoped that with further management the use of Corncrake friendly mowing methods and the current programme of sowing nettles for early cover, that numbers will further increase. Already this year 4 Corncrakes have been found in song in Malin Head.
In 1961 there was 1 pair of Buzzard in Ireland, breeding only on Rathlin Island, and it too is an established breeding bird in Malin Head, surprising enough some of the Buzzards here actually use cliff nest sites. The Peregrine falcon is long established breeding bird in Malin Head, where it can regularly be seen on the hunt for unsuspecting Pigeons.

                                                          Wheatear, Robin, Peregrine, Skylark and Snow Bunting.
In winter Malin Head can be a barren and desolate place. However fortunate favours the brave and birds such as Barnacle geese (approx. 2,500 winter in the area), Red throated Diver, Great Northern Diver, Snow Bunting, Twite, and Purple Sandpiper can be found without too much difficulty.
All year round this area has something to offer, should it be the spring passage of Whimbrel, White wagtails and Wheatear, to the wonderful early days of summer when the air is full of the sound of Sedge and Grasshopper warbler, to the drumming of Snipe, the call of the Cuckoo and the song of the Corncrake. Whilst in the autumn, the air and sky can often be filled with flocks of Barnacle geese, Whooper Swans and the various northern thrush, buntings and finches on their southern trek towards warmer climes.

                                  Pink footed Goose, Pracha Bends, Purple Sandpiper, Redwing and Ringed Plover.

Areas on the Malin Head peninsula to Birdwatch
Here will concentrate on a few locations throughout Malin Head and what species of bird may be seen.
Birdwatching at Dunaldragh
In times past this area was an important seabird colony and local people remove some eggs for the dinner plate. In the 1970’s hundreds of Herring Gull, Common Gull, Great black backed gull the occasional Lesser Black Backed Gull, Eider ducks, Red breasted Mergansers and on one occasion the Manx Shearwater nested in this inhospitable place. Unfortunately in 1994 a total desertion of the colony took place. It is though that a predator such as an American Mink /Fox managed to make it on to the island. Good number of shag and fulmar as well as Rock pipit, Wheatear, Ring plovers and Oystercatchers do nest. Fortunately in 2004 the first Common Gulls returned to nest, so it is hoped this colony will return to its former glory. Most of Ballyhillin’s Sea gulls now nest near Scheildren. In spring and autumn good numbers of migrating Whimbrel can be found here. Rare birds such as the Shore lark have appeared here on at least one occasion. Occasionally Little Auks can be seen here during harsh winter weather.
Birdwatching at Ballyhillin.
As one approaches Banbas Crown the road continues around towards Ineuran Bay. On the left and right hand side of the road two flooded areas of bog can be found. Long dense grasses and boggy vegetation surround these small pools. This is good spot for observing Heron, Mallard and Moorhen. Both of the latter species nest here each year along with Reed Bunting, Grasshopper warbler, Sedge Warbler, Meadow pipit and Wheatear. Recently one of Ireland newest colonists was recorded here for the first time, the Little Egret, a species more akin to a Mediterranean lifestyle. Occasionally Lapwing can be seen displaying in this area in spring and have been known to breed. During harsh autumnal weather the very rare Red neck phalarope has been attracted to this spot. Teal, Snipe and Jack snipe favour this spot in winter. These two areas have also been used as a staging post for larger species of bird such as Whooper swan and Greenland white fronted geese when they arrive from the North. Unfortunately this area was once known to have up to 15 pairs of Corn Bunting, but ceased to breed in the early 1990’s. This species is now extinct as a breeding bird in Ireland. Eurasian Bittern has been recorded at this site.
The areas of bramble and other dense vegetation also hold number of common birds such as Robin, Wren, Blackbird, Song thrush, House sparrow, Linnet, Skylarks, Swallows, Swifts and House Martins also frequent this area. The area towards Banbas Crown known locally as the tower hill is a good vantage point for the observation of migration species such as the Skylarks, Snow, Lapland Buntings and the Northern thrushes i.e. Redwing and Fieldfare. Occasionally Twite can be seen in this location and Corncrakes are a yearly visitor to the local meadows. Rare birds such as the Tree pipit and Wood Warbler have been found here.
During harsh winter weather species such as Golden and Grey Plover as well as Lapwings appear in larger numbers. Harsh winters particular in Scotland attract above average numbers of Snow Buntings, which can often be seen arriving from over the sea. This type of weather also swells the local Passerine bird population, with increasing numbers of Song and Mistle thrush as well as other common birds such as Blue/Great/Coal tit. The flooded local fields in harsh autumn weather can host flocks of Curlew, Bar tailed Godwit and various other waders.
Culoort or White Strand Bay
This area is a vast stretch of reef surrounded by an even bigger raised beach. This area is particularly good for waders. This beach is often the last stop before northern migrants such as Knot, Dunlin, Sanderling and Turnstone head towards their breeding grounds, giving opportunities to see these waders in their summer finery. Small numbers of other species such as Great Northern Diver, Red breasted Merganser, Eider Duck and Purple Sandpiper as well as the various species of gulls can be found here. The gull roost at the mouth of the Culoort River is worth looking at in the depths of winter for any roosting Northern gulls. The fields behind the raised beach host Corncrake in the summer and in winter Twite can be found feeding. This area has also hosted a number of rare vagrants to include, Spoonbill, White-rumped Sandpiper and Semi-palmated Sandpiper.
Birdwatching at Inishtrahull the islands and Sea Stacks
This unique island, which is a declared nature reserve, holds large numbers of breeding birds, but is also known as an area that attracts rare migrants. In its height the Herring Gull population was up to 3,000 pairs in the 1970’s. This number is now much reduced, due to a number of factors such as botulism and to the modern nature of this species feeding on landfill sites. Other breeding species of the Island include a recently discovered Storm Petrel colony, Arctic and Common Tern, Common Gulls, Shag, Black Guillemot, Eider Duck as well as passerine species such as Dunnock, Tree sparrow, Wren, Wheatear, Rock Doves and Pied Wagtail.
However this island is probably better known for its attraction of passing seabirds and rare migrants. Thousands of Sooty and Manx shearwater are regularly recorded here. Rarer seabirds such as the Little Shearwater, Cory’s Shearwater and the four species of Skua namely Arctic, Great, Pomarine and Long tailed have been recorded here. The rarer passerines too have been recorded frequently and the list includes, Barred Warbler, Red-backed shrike, Short toed lark, Common Rosefinch, Mealy Redpoll and Red necked phalarope. Other rare species to be recorded here have included Snowy Owl, Golden Eagle, Buzzard, Gyrfalcon, and Black browed Albatross. Regular migrants through the island include Turtle and Collared Doves, Barnacle/Greenland White fronted/Greylag/Pink footed geese, Whooper and Bewick’s swan, Lapland Bunting, Whinchat, Cuckoo and Snow Bunting. This island is rarely visited by ornithologists, however boat trip to the island can be organised from Portmór pier. The pier itself is a good vantage point for viewing the birds on the near islands as well as a good spot of viewing the various diver, auk and various other seabirds that frequent the area. Arctic, Common and Little tern can be seen here during the summer months feeding on the local sandeels.
The Garbh Isles, Lackgolana (also known as the Saddle rock) and Stookarudden are important sites for breeding seabirds. Species such as Great Black Backed Gull, Lesser Black backed gull, Fulmar and Shag breed here in good numbers. A walk exists between the ‘Wee House of Malin’ and Stookarudden, a tough walk over heavy terrain but the observer can be rewarded by spectacular scenery with cliffs of up to 600 feet high and small scattered colonies of Razorbill and Common Guillemot. Puffin has been recorded here in recent times and has been suspected of breeding in the area.
Scheildrín more and Scheildrín beag are two large seastacks at Malin head. These two sites are important sites for breeding Lesser Black back, Herring and Common gulls. Jackdaw, Rock dove, Chough and Raven are also know to nest in the area. This area also holds good numbers of breeding Shag and Black Guillemot are commonplace. This area can hold large rafts of post breeding Eider Ducks in autumn, these flocks are well worth looking through for the rarer Northern race of Eider, the Borealis Eider and American Eider (the 2nd ever European record) has been recorded close to this area.
Over the years the area has lost species such as Corn Bunting, Red Grouse and Common Partridge and Twite and Yellowhammer are just about hanging on as breeding species. However other species are on the increase and doing well such as Coal tit and Lesser Redpoll. With the recent recovery of the Corncrake and various other rare breeding species such as Great Skua summering on a regular basis it is hoped that these species as well as the recently recorded Little Egret will continue to augment and thrive in the area.
Malin head can be a land of extremes, from some of the fiercest Atlantic storm, full blown blizzards to stunning long hot summer days. It is an area steeped in history, folklore and hosts a wide variety of Flora and fauna. So if you fancy birding on the edge with some great birds to watch and some breathtaking scenery in serene peace and tranquility this is the place for you.

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