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Old Saturday 9th September 2017, 18:51   #1
Fat Paul Scholes
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Ouessant, 2 - 8th September 2017

September 2nd

The annual family/birding holiday was to be a bit earlier than usual this year. We have fallen into a pattern of doing this trip in mid October recently, coinciding with what’s probably the best time to be here for eastern vagrants, and also allowing me a week in the office to relax and recover from my autumn Sanday trips. However, the lure of some warmer weather, and opportunities to swim in the sea were too much for other members of the party, so we found ourselves on Ouessant for the first week of September. With that came a different focus for me. Seabirds and waders would take priority, and bush bashing would take a bit of a backseat - although there would still be some migrants around to look for.

You can fly to Ouessant but that would be no fun, so most people, us included, prefer to take the cheaper and more scenic route which is to take the ferry from Brest or Le Conquet. There are usually birds to be seen on these crossings, and this trip was not going to disappoint. From Brest to Le Conquet the boat stays inshore, so ‘real seabirds’ were few and far between, although I did get 3 Balearic shearwaters among the gannets, sandwich terns, Mediterranean gulls and shags. Once past Le Conquet, the boat passes through more open water, and here, among the commoner species mentioned above were a couple of great skua, 3 sooty shearwater, and best of all, about 9 Cory’s shearwater, arcing over the water and passing close to the vessel from time to time. This was a first for me in this part of the world, and testament to what shaking things up a bit time wise can do.

Once on the island we slipped firmly into holiday mode and went for a long lunch, although even with just a few minutes around the house I’d heard plenty of chiffchaffs and a couple of blackcap. Once I was finally given freedom to roam, it became clear that there were more migrants around than I was expecting. En route to the reservoirs 4 spotted and 2 pied flycatchers gave themselves up, and there were plenty of hirundines and meadow pipits on the move. The reservoirs were too full to have any sort of margin and were therefore waderless, so we moved on back towards Lampaul via Porz Noan, where a common sandpiper picked along the shore among gulls and little egrets.

In Lampaul I set off through the cemetery to have a look at Prad Meur, buoyed by the larger than expected numbers of migrants, and I was not to be disappointed. Crossbills were not what I was expecting, but there was the unmistakable sound, and then site of a small group heading over the town. They landed in a couple of pine trees so I moved slightly to try to get a better look - and promptly slipped into a bank of nettles. One sting at a time, I can live with nettles, but when your hand, arm, and lower back/upper arse are covered in them it can get quite sore! Note to self….wear a belt! I retired to the post office/bookies/bar for a beer to take my mind off things, and then one thing led to another and it was tea time. Around the house in the evening there were marsh harriers, kestrels, chiffs, blackcaps and a single wheatear, and a freshening wind that I hoped would make a seawatching session productive in the morning.
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Old Saturday 9th September 2017, 21:41   #2
JWN Andrewes
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Oh goodie! I enjoy reading your Ouessant tales, hope you had a good trip.
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Old Saturday 9th September 2017, 21:55   #3
Fat Paul Scholes
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Thanks - it was great! The next post is just for you...
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Old Saturday 9th September 2017, 22:01   #4
Fat Paul Scholes
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September 3rd

A complete write off for most of the day. I felt rotten all day long and it rained heavily until early evening. In the afternoon I decided that if I was going to sit somewhere feeling glum I might as well do it while seawatching from the Creach, but I hadn’t figured on the visibility being awful. As such I marched through the rain only to sit at the Creach to watch the occasional ghostly shape of a gannet passing within visible range. I decided that a hot chocolate was the only thing for me, and marched back again, picking up a couple of chough along the way. In the evening the sun appeared briefly, and with it a couple of juvenile whitethroat emerged from the bracken near where we were staying. These were noteworthy to me at least as it’s a species I barely ever come across on my October visits - and two juvs together did make me wonder whether they might have bred.


September 4th

Another foggy and drizzly morning, but I had my mojo back and decided to head to the far SW corner of the island first thing, before the rest go the gang got up. Here there is good wader habitat in the little seaweedy bays, and some nice open, short grassland that one might well hope to find a dotterel of buff-breasted sandpiper on at this time of year. I had none of that sort of luck, but did feel things were perking up when I bumped into a wryneck on the way over. The bays had a variety of waders, including whimbrel and common sandpiper, but the turf was disappointing, although it was covered in meadow pipits, with a few wheatear and a couple of chough.

After breakfast, I filled the tiny gap between then and lunch by continuing to look for waders, this time up at plage Yusin, on the north coast. Again, it was disappointing, with only a couple of ringed plover, but the journey over there was livened up by two nightingales calling to each other through the bracken. One eventually showed itself (and gave the best views I’ve ever had of one), although of course it slipped away into the green as soon as my camera was pointing at it. A nice island tick for me, with most nightingales a lot further south when I’m usually here in mid October.

After eating lunch, I persisted with the wader theme by heading up to the open headland at Cadoran. Here, atlantic heath, with its stunted heather merges in with short cropped turf, creating quite an extensive area that has been good for waders like dotterel in the past, as well as pipits, buntings etc. I saw none of that, but I did spend a very pleasant hour or so sitting on the clifftop scanning the sea below with my bins. Cory’s and Balearic shearwaters, great skuas and the odd fulmar all passed within range, 3 grey seals cavorted in the swell, and two groups of common dolphin, about 40 animals in all, passed by. I probably missed a lot of stuff by not having the scope.

On the way back I picked up Firecrest and bullfinch, and ended the day around Lampaul, with the usual little egrets, Mediterranean gulls, and a willow warbler calling among the myriad of chiffchaff noises - lots were making the standard ‘hweet’ call but many were also ‘swee-oo’ing. Which is of interest to pretty much nobody but me…
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Old Sunday 10th September 2017, 07:13   #5
Fat Paul Scholes
My real name is Mark Lewis

 
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September 5th

Up before dawn to cycle out to the Phare du Creac’h for a spot of seawatching, and what a session I had. In 90 minutes I’d notched up hundreds of shearwaters, almost all of them passing within comfortable ID range (or to put it more simply, giving pretty good views!) Sooty and Cory’s shearwater dominated, with 67 and 62 respectively. 28 manxies passed by, with 11 Balearics, but by far and away the best were the 19 great shearwaters. It was hard keeping track of the numbers at times, especially when you’ve got a scopeful of one each of great, Cory’s, sooty and Manx! Among them were 14 great skuas, 2 Arctics, a couple of fulmar and a single med gull, and hundreds of gannets. It was so much fun I went for seconds later on…

Before meeting the holiday team for breakfast, I went to check the bushes around Cost ar Reun, but hadn’t got far when I noticed a wader feeding in a tiny, muddy puddle. With the brakes still screeching, i got the bins up and couldn't decide whether I was pleased or disappointed to see that it was a wood sandpiper. As I watched it feeding away I realised that a) wood sandpipers are pretty cool and b) wood sandpipers are pretty rare on Ouessant (about 1 record per year) so I decided that I was pleased (and that I had plenty more time to find an American wader…). Cost ar Reun was hard work, with the bushes bending and rustling in the wind, but still produced sparrowhawk, willow warbler, and whinchat.

With the whole team now on bikes we headed to the far south east of the island before lunch, to Penn ar Land. There is a wooded valley here that is very productive later in the autumn, and it did not let me down today, with long tailed tit, firecrest and bullfinch among the ubiquitous chiffchaffs and blackcaps. A yellow wagtail passed overhead here too, adding a little more quality to the migrant list, and offshore, swirling below a group of feeding gannets, were shearwaters again. This time, without the scope, they were a little more difficult to ID but there were definitely Cory’s, Balearic and Sooty among their number. Slightly closer inshore was a common tern, a record I didn't think too much of, but they are surprisingly rare (or under recorded) on the island, with generally fewer than 10 records per year.

After lunch it was time for more seawtaching. The afternoon session was bit slower than first thing this morning, but I still managed 24 each of sooty and Cory’s, 25 Manx, 7 great, and 48 Balearic shearwaters. Again there were 14 great skuas and 2 Arctics, and a few fulmars, and a single guillemot struggled south, giving me a taste of home. Common dolphins and harbour porpoise also appeared in the rather large troughs, completing an excellent days seawtaching. The coast here had plenty of wheatear, meadow pipit and chough, and the wood sandpiper remained faithful to his little puddle. A good day.
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Old Sunday 10th September 2017, 20:53   #6
Fat Paul Scholes
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September 6th

I had figured seawatching might be my best chance at something a bit tasty on this trip so I found myself at Phare du Creac’h at first light again - a tactic I’d repeat every morning to the end of the holiday. Again, the seawtaching was pretty epic by the standards I’m used to. No big rares, but hundreds of shearwaters in the two hours I sat there, including 133 Manx, 71 sooty, 46 Balearic, 26 Cory's and just 2 greats. 18 great skuas, and single arctic skua and common scoter made up the numbers, and common dolphin put in another appearance too. All this to a backdrop of stunning scenery, choughs calling overhead, and a comfortable seawtaching spot. Bliss!

My time to be sociable came far too soon, so I headed back towards the house, quickly checking that the wood sandpiper was still present, and nabbing a showy whinchat on some brambles on my way. With things progressing slowly at the house, I nipped out to the reservoirs where a spotted flycatcher was the only migrant on show.

Lunch required a trip into Lampaul, not the end of the world from a birding point of view. As we passed Prad meur, water rails called through the drizzle, and spotted flycatcher called away from some sycamores in the town itself. Our return to the house was enlivened by a flyover greenshank, lost from view to the murk, but calling all the time to make its presence known. Like with any other migrant hotspot, interesting birds can, and do, appear anywhere on Ouessant.

In the afternoon I decided to try Porz Doun and Runiou again, in the south west of the island. I was disappointed to see at least three coaches parked up on arrival, and there must have been about 100 tourists wandering round. I thought this would scupper my chances, but they cleared off quite quickly leaving us in peace. Almost as soon as they left a dotterel flew in, passing by at close range and calling, before disappearing over a rise never to be seen again. Later in the day, Ouessant’s only resident birder found a buff-breasted sandpiper in the same place. I wonder if that too had been disturbed by the crowds. Other waders in the area included a flyover dunlin and a little flock of 11 knot, with a whimbrel feeding on the beach at Porz Doun.

A whinchat in the bracken reminded me not to neglect the passerines, so the rest of the afternoon was spent at a few sites around Lampaul, where among the chiffchaffs, blackcaps etc there were two spotted flycatcher, firecrest, and a willow warbler. The birding day ended with distant views of the hooded crow that has been resident on the island for a few years now. I only saw it this one time (compared to bumping into it almost daily in years gone by) so I wonder if it moves with other corvids around the different islands in the Mer d’Iroise.
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Old Wednesday 13th September 2017, 17:32   #7
Fat Paul Scholes
My real name is Mark Lewis

 
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September 7th

Another morning, another seawatch, this time dominated by the big shearwaters. My totals included 58 Cory’s and 36 greats, 69 sooties, 37 Balearics and 34 manx - so a little quieter than before but some of the greats were very close inshore and gave terrific views, occasionally in the company of Cory’s, offering great opportunities to compare the two. The supporting cast included great skuas and a couple of Mediterranean gulls, and the morning session ended in fine style as I slowly cycled past a roadside wryneck on my way home! Before lunch, the others wanted to go and look at a photo exhibition, but i wasn’t going to waste my time indoors, so I wandered around some spots in the north of the island. Migrants included a couple of firecrest, willow warbler, whitethroat, bullfinch, a grey wagtail, and a fine pied flycatcher, but on the whole it felt quiet. However, my choice of giving the exhibition a body swerve was a good one, as there were only 12 photos on show and I’d seen most of them online, on postcards and the like. Give me a pied fly any day…

The plan for the afternoon was to visit the lighthouse at the Stiff, but of course a siesta was required first, giving me licence to head back out into the field. I made my way towards the Stiff via the reservoirs (having made a quick detour back to the house as I forgot my bins…) where a moorhen called, and a firecrest showed beautifully. further along, I was delighted to see a hoopoe bounce over the road ahead of me. These are regular in spring on the island but much rarer in autumn, so was an island tick for me, and not something I expected at all. Unfortunately it flew into the big fort in the middle of the island - just about the only bit that there is no access to, so I had to make do with my brief views.

At the Stang a Stiff, my regular stomping ground from our first ever visit, there were loads of chiffchaffs and a couple of firecrest too. It definitely felt like there had been a wee arrival of these stripey gems as they were turning up with much greater frequency than at the beginning of the week. Having missed the lighthouse opening hours (too much siesta) we ended up all together, standing on the cliff overlooking the harbour at the stiff, scanning the water for the dolphin that can sometimes be seen there. My attention soon turned towards a gull that was flying about. I’m not used to yellow-legged gull at all, but there surely was a 1 cy flying around with the GBBGs and herring gulls. A few photos confirmed it - another island tick for me, and another bird that is surprisingly rare in this part of Brittany, so much so that I think a lot of the Ouessant regulars still need it. I was pleased enough with that but the only swift of the week, which darted just a few metres over our heads, seemed like an excellent way to end the last full day of the holiday.
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Old Saturday 16th September 2017, 11:50   #8
Fat Paul Scholes
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September 8th

The last day - one last seawatch, one last roll of the dice, and again, it was brilliant. It was nearly all shearwaters again, but in bigger numbers. In 2 hours from first light I counted 248 Manxies, 196 sooties, 65 Balearics, 30 Cory’s, and a whopping 52 great shearwaters. To put this into context, the Ouessant annual report doesn’t always have great shearwater in it - and when it does, it’s always very low counts. Again, this is surely a result of the fact that almost all the birders go there that little bit later in the season - but I reckon that with some effort and luck at this time of year, Fea’s petrels and little shearwater must be possible. The supporting cast on this seawatch included a couple of bonxies and Arctic skuas, and an absolutely stonking pale adult pomarine skua that flew past at close range.

The weather closed in shortly after I got back to the house and was verging on unbirdable for part of the day. As such, there’s very little in my notebook until we went to get on the ferry. The yellow-legged gull was still in the port, and as usual, the crossing offered opportunities to look at some more seabirds. Small numbers of Manx, Balearic and Cory’s shearwaters were seen, and skuas included single bonxie, 2 arctic, and another pomarine, that gave great views as it was flushed by the boat. The undoubted highlight however was the petrel that showed distantly as we neared Le Conquet - big, with a big white rump, grey carpal bars and that unmistakable Leach’s petrel jizz. What a smashing way to end the holiday.
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Old Saturday 16th September 2017, 14:37   #9
MKinHK
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Another great report - I'm a big fan of DIY migration birding - and very envious of all those shearwaters.

Cheers
Mike
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Old Saturday 16th September 2017, 14:53   #10
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Nice report as usual Mark, not only some special birds but you had the island almost to yourself this time!
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