Thursday, 28 September 2017

Is the stagnation about to end?

Whilst we have not had any GPS tag downloads as yet at Strangford it really is just a matter of time. We haven't done any recent counts but the numbers seem to be approximately what they were (12,000 ish) and there hasn't as yet been a significant increase in usage of the bays down the lough nor indeed from farther afield as yet.

With undoubtedly thousands still in Iceland, there were observations today of high-flying birds coming in around Scrabo; looking ahead at the weather charts (my favourites are and there are signs of assisting northerlies on Saturday and Sunday which may push more birds our direction.
Family units remain very scarce on the ground and a few groups (including a brood of 5 young) were around Horse Island this afternoon.

If you haven't yet witnessed the flocks at the NW end of Strangford you really should and the time is in the next few weeks - it never ceases to impress; the mudflats are covered with geese as far as the eye can see below the airfield at Newtownards towards Comber.

In two weekends time (around 13-15 October) we'll be conducting our major Iceland-France (and all in between) annual assessment of abundance and productivity. If you're following this blog please put this in your diary.

As ever, reports of flocks are welcome (message us here perhaps) as are particularly observations of ringed birds.

And finally - not all Brent survive the journey. This one succumbed to something or other and was found headless along the NW shore of Strangford. Perhaps Mr Fox had a nibble.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Now Is The Time To Get Out Ring-reading at Strangford Lough....

When birds first arrive on Strangford Lough at the end of August/early September, ring-reading is very difficult, because the arriving birds are nervous, and prefer to follow the out-going tide edge looking for the eel-grass. On the massive Northern mudflats here, this can make them nigh on impossible to see, let alone read rings!! Temperature is also a major factor, and you will hear us "regulars" muttering "heat-haze" under our breath as a problem.
Once this phase is over, however, the birds are forced ever further up the foreshore, even at low tide, to seek food. Combined with the fact that they become acclimatised to the low-flying aircraft practicing their take-off and landings out of Newtownards Airport, there comes a period of about a month or six weeks when they become much more accessible to the telescope. As in the title, now is the time to get out and read rings!! 75%+ of the population will be staging through Strangford Lough, possibly heading on to other small sites where there is no chance of their being picked up and read, so now is the important time for those of you who can make it here to see this great spectacle (30,000+ birds in early October!!), to get out and help!!
Current observations support the notion that this is going to be another VERY poor (<1%) breeding season.
Elsewhere, Cian Merne reports that he did a sweep of North Dublin Bay and Baldoyle Bay this morning, and couldn't find a single brent goose!!

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

First Geese Reported From Wales...

Derek Grimwood  - 5 brent at The Gann, Pembrokeshire on 18/09/17, but they didn't stay long...
At Strangford Lough today, Alex Portig scanned nearly 2,000 geese at the North End without finding a single juvenile. I scanned about 1,600 geese from the Montgomery Hide and only found two families, one with 4 young, the other with 2. At Horse Island, amongst relatively small numbers, there were again two families, one with 6 juveniles, the other with 1. As is usual at this time of year, the families tend to be located at the edge of, or away from, the main flocks.
So, there are continuing signs that it may have been a poor breeding season...

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Update on Numbers at Strangford Lough...

Alex Portig has been out estimating numbers at Strangford Lough again today - hats off to you, Alex, and a big thanks!! He reports the following:
North End: Very rough count of about 7,000
Castle Espie: 1,700
South of Castle Espie Pier: about 100
Greyabbey: 700
Hence a very approximate figure for the total of 9,500

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Dublin Off The Mark (x2)...

I have been away from Strangford Lough for a couple of days doing other things, but understand that Alex Portig read a dozen rings at Floodgates yesterday...
This afternoon, however, 16/09/2017, Tom Carroll read the first ring from Dublin, at Sutton Creek, off Santa Sabina, amongst 13 geese there, and also RECORDED THE FIRST JUVENILE HERE IN IRELAND OF THE WINTER!!
My daughter, Suzy, who sometimes walks her dogs along the length of the sea defences at Newtownards (N. Strangford Lough) reports vastly increased numbers there yesterday (I have it drilled into her to report such things!!), compared with the last time she was there.

Friday, 15 September 2017

Update from autumn staging areas in Iceland

An unimaginative title but this is a short report on our September trip to the staging areas. A two car team have been here all week focussing our work on locating and downloading GPS data from tagged geese and cannon-netting birds. Thus far we've failed on the latter front (as but could have caught small numbers) but we've had some mighty success with downloads and more awaits. At this time of year of course the most interesting information is where the tagged birds have been all summer in the Canadian Arctic. And our picture is building.

So we've had 4-5,000 geese at Alftafjordur in Breidafjordur and tried to catch there (close but no cigar) and read a few rings on birds drinking at freshwater inflows or hauled up on skerries. Not much else to report that we can see on the northern side of Snaefellsness.

Then to the south in Faxafloi we've seen birds at a range of sites but found concentrations and thus spent most of our time in the convoluted series of islands and shallow inlets which make up Myrar. We estimate anything in the region of 10-12,000 birds there. Like Alftafjordur these birds are there because of the large beds of Zostera that are present. Smaller numbers are present at Grunnafjordur too - 1-2,000.

We've managed to download tags there (some stonking data to be revealed shortly), read some rings (some of the first read there in autumn) and are trying to catch. It's been a really valuable time there as we've got some exercise and got a real sense of the place and how it is used. Historically this is second only to Strangford in terms of its concentrations of birds but it is way less accessible. 

We've seen some young but certainly not many family groups. It may be the case that the majority of family groups are yet to come in from Canada and Greenland. Of what we've seen the proportion of young is very low (< 2%) but that may well change.

We'll provide a more cohesive summary later but for now its goodbye from Iceland.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017


NO juveniles noted to date...............
Perhaps the team out in Iceland could expand on their views on productivity, in advance of the main arrival here?

Things Are On The Move At Last...

Alex Portig and I were out again today at the north end of Strangford Lough, and big changes are happening, following the recent northerlies. Still nothing seen down the east side of the Lough, but there are now 4,500 - 5,000 geese present between Floodgates and Castle Espie (where the brent hide is inexplicably closed, height of season, for construction works!!). Current forecasts look like bringing in more geese until the end of the week at least.
Our French observers will be pleased to note that one of their regular pairs, KDRY & KIRY, have made it back this far....!!
Alex, who did his PhD on zostera (the eel-grass which attracts the brent as their favourite food) has been out surveying in his wellies today, despite the rather inclement weather:

Generally he was pleased with the amount and extent he found, with a few exceptions.
For those of you unfamiliar with what it looks like, this is an example of the zostera growing at Castle Espie North, just off Island Hill:

And a general overall impression of what the zostera beds today at Gasworks look like:

Now worth getting out there to look for ringed birds!!
I'm still keen to report "first seen" records away from Strangford Lough...

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Still Slow...

Very few records coming in, presumably due to the bad weather.
Dermot Breen - 12 geese at Ballymoran Strand, County Sligo, which headed west (towards Mayo) after being disturbed. These included the first ringed bird seen away from Strangford Lough this winter - UHWB - which has never been seen in Ireland away from Castlemaine Harbour, County Kerry, where it was ringed. Presumably staging on its way there for another winter!
Cian Merne - 4 geese at Merrion Gates, South Dublin Bay
Kieran Griffin - just in - 30 geese reported and photographed by his neighbour, co-incidentally at Cromane, where UHWB was caught and ringed!! I wonder whether it was amongst them!!

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Dribs and Drabs...

Very few records yet coming in to report on:
Alex Portig - about the same numbers at the north end of Strangford Lough
Duncan Macneill - 2 below Islay airport
Tom & Maureen Carroll - 1 at North Bull Causeway, Dublin
Graham McElwaine - 1 at Millquarter Bay, Strangford Lough Narrows
Kieran Griffin - 6 at Glenbeigh, Castletown Harbour, County Kerry
There are only a couple of reports of small numbers from Sligo (20) and Meath (1) on the "Irish Birding" Website, so clearly not a lot happening yet.....

Wednesday, 6 September 2017


Some of the Brent team are shortly heading to western Iceland to survey Brent. I personally don`t recall having ever been there so early in autumn so it will interesting to see what are probably peak numbers there. These birds will only have arrived in the last few weeks and undoubtedly birds will be arriving throughout September and into October whilst at the same time some (likely few) birds may entirely bypass Iceland and there will also be a slow and steady movement southwards to Strangford and other Irish sites. 

So we'd expect to see several tens of thousands of Brent occupying the main intertidal sites in Faxafloi and Brediafjordur, at some Brent being belly-deep in Zostera beds. Unfortunately many of these big sites are vast convoluted bays, on the whole inaccessible unless you can fly or swim. Neither of which I can do. 

It is likely that family groups will already be present but the majority will be slower to migrate from the Arctic, through the breeding islands and across the inland ice of Greenland. For we avid Brent watchers it will be the first time we'll get an idea of what sort of a breeding year it has been. The journey is undoubtedly tough and in Iceland the young Brent will be especially vulnerable to a new experience - in a fast form Gyrfalcons will patrol these bays trying to pick off waders, ducks and geese; a slower but no less serious threat comes in the form of White tailed Eagles. We'd expect peak numbers in Iceland mid- to late September and that peak shifts south to Irish sites by mid-October. 

We'll try to keep you posted on what we're seeing up there.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

All Quiet on the Northern Front...

Was out yesterday, 04 September, again with Alex Portig. A co-ordinated count between Castle Espie and Greyabbey yielded circa. 620 geese, ie. apparently static numbers, which isn't surprising given current weather patterns. Nothing found on the east side below Floodgates. Alex read 4 ringed birds at the Sewage Works, none of which were ones we had had before........

Friday, 1 September 2017

Update on Strangford Lough...

Alex Portig and I visited the north end of Strangford Lough today, and a big change in numbers!!
We managed a quick count of Floodgates to Castle Espie, and came up with an overall total for the northern mudflats of 600+ geese, compared with the 50 reported on the NI Birds blog yesterday (which could well have been the same birds reported by Cameron Moore the night before). About 250 checked for marked birds, with 6 ringed birds read. And so another winter commences................

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Guess Who Spoke Too Soon....

Well, I suppose I was tempting fate!! No sooner had I entered the last post than Cameron Moore from Whitehead phoned, to say that 50 - 55 brent geese had just flown over him there, and headed straight across Belfast Lough towards Bangor!! Undoubtedly these birds will be new arrivals, en route to Strangford Lough.............

O Solo Mio...

The North end of Strangford Lough was checked out yesterday (29 August 2017) by Cian & Rachel Merne and myself. Only a single brent goose was encountered, opposite the car park at Ballreagh / Maltings, where we were joined by Seamus Magouran.
With no further reports having been received to date, and no sightings apparent from the usual NI and ROI birding blogs, it seems that we are still awaiting the main vanguard of birds to arrive................

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Early Sightings....

Could these be the vanguard of an early arrival this winter? Normally we expect the first arrivals at Strangford Lough, Co. Down to be during the last week in August.....
First report was from Mike Peacock and Peter Roberts, of a flock of 11 "small geese" flying in off the sea from the NW towards the Rhinns of Islay, Frenchman' Rocks, then heading south. Both are contributors to our project, thought they were brent geese, and would know their birds.
As a result of that sighting, I checked out the north end of Strangford Lough on 11 August, but found no geese.
Then, yesterday, I got a report of "three large groups of very noisy brent geese flying over Aughnanure Castle, Co. Galway in the past few days" from Jenny Young, who regularly reports her first sightings from there. Such birds may well be en route to Co. Kerry, where records of birds arriving as early as Strangford Lough are not unusual.
So, keep watching out!! Reports to me - - of first sightings of the winter are very welcome, and I am happy to place the earliest ones on the blog!!..........

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Week 3 May - numbers probably at peak and the countdown to departure has started

It's been a very busy few weeks - hence the lack of posted messages. Lots of rings were read, over 130 birds were colour-ringed at catches at four locations, two each in Faxafloi and Breidafjordur. The detail of these will appear in due course. Having just returned exhausted from the field myself for now here is a just broadcast piece. We managed to make the national TV news and front page of the national newspaper last week! The news piece (which includes archive footage from Canada) focuses mostly on a catch in Alftanes, SW Iceland and interviews with some of us involved with the project:

Thursday, 11 May 2017

It's all go..geese in their last 2-3 weeks of staging

It's been a very busy period for us all in Iceland. Even with a large team there are so many widely dispersed sites, many thousands of birds and tasks that need carried out that it is full on.
So currently the team are broadly split into 3; a catching and marking team engaged primarily with cannon-netting and taking various samples and measurements. To date we have captured around 70 geese in 5 catches at Alftanes near Reykjavik. The arrival of 30 beautifully crafted decoys made and couriered by Dr Chris Nicolai has helped a little - they look great, birds and landing and staying with them in catch and certainly when we have mobile flocks the speed at which one can set and there is potential to catch seems to be fast. They are realistic enough for us to think they are real Brent (before we remember we placed them there), for the passing public to think it is remarkable that we can just walked up to these geese and pet them (!!) and most importantly that real Brent think they're the real deal!
There are then a second team, aptly known as the 'pooh crew'. No, they don't have part-time jobs cleaning sewers in Reykjavik. These are a small team of students doing some fantastic work on behaviour of colour-marked Brent, rates of body mass gain (assessed through visual observation of their abdominal profiles), and looking at diets of these birds using stable N and C isotopes. Some other stuff too we will talk about later. The latter question is where the pooh comes in. Quite an art watching an individual drop a little bomb, remotely guiding folk to collect that poo (a poo drone) and bagging that little parcel of loveliness in a labelled bag. Laborious no doubt but very valuable.
Last but not least are Team Jameson. They are driving round between flocks, bars and nightclubs mostly reading rings, looking for some GPS tagged birds and aiming for 'gold' aka birds which we may not otherwise see etc.

Monday, 1 May 2017

And Further South...

An email tonight from Philippe Lemarinel, which includes comments on observations from long-standing ring-readers in Normandy, Alain Livory and Roselyne Coulomb, indicates that the geese have now effectively vacated their most significant southerly site there, at Regneville.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

'Old blood, fresh blood'

So this is the first of a series of updates which will continue through to late May, giving a 'from the field' perspective as we follow the Brent north while they stage in western Iceland.
After a flight maybe or maybe not taking in the western Scottish islands, we expect most birds will make this crossing within < 30 hours, making landfall or hugging the coast and moving west to the first main site on the SW tip of Iceland. A stopover on the south coast will be purely a resting/sleeping job, whilst the final destination is where the refuelling begins and indeed has to start in anticipation of the more unpredictable and longer migration the birds will undertake in early June. We got a nice shot from Duncan posted to Islay Birds and WIldlife Facebook page of 3 colour-ringed birds at Port Ellen, Islay.

The first of our intrepid goosologists made this journey late yesterday and as the title suggests this comprises some 'old' hands - two previous PhD students who have published more on our Brent than any - and 3 Msc/postdocs who are visiting Iceland for the first time and working on Brent. So for a few days the vanguard is 5 strong and no doubt will be getting geared up for many hundreds of hours looking down a telescope over the next 4 weeks!

First Ever Record from the Faeroe Islands...

In the same year that we received our first ever record from Spain, now comes news that H6WR  has been recorded from the Faeroe Islands.

The following comments by observer Svein-Ole Mikalsen on the status of brent geese on the Faeroes are of interest:

"During my 8 years in the Faroe Islands, I have seen brent 4 times (well, the first time, in April 2010, I observed (probably) the same 3 brents a couple a days apart). The last time was in fact today, a single bird seen around 23 km (air) NW of from the observation of the ringed one. All my observed brents have been light bellied. Three of the observations are in April, one in September. All my observations of brents are registered in eBird, which you may know ( > explore data > explore a region > write Faroe Islands > go to bar chart > click on map for brent > click on observation points), but if you check it within the next 24 h, today's observation may not yet be seen (no photo added).

Dark-bellied have also been seen, but more rarely (and never by me).

Brents are migratory guests. Probably there are visits (nearly?) every year, but it seems like they are fewer in number than for example migrating greylag or pink-footed. It seems like no nesting has been found here. More Faroese photos of brents can be found at
indicating that it is not extremely rare."

Here in Ireland, there are indications that migration is being delayed by the period of northerly winds last week. An estimated 2,000 birds were still located in Dundalk Bay, mainly way out on the large salt marsh there, last Friday, observed by Patricia Watson and myself, and I also had reasonable numbers at Outer Ards the day before. In both cases, many of the rings read were birds which had moved up from Dublin.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Numbers still high in the north and no doubt building in Iceland)

As Graham mentioned in the last post (and I too apologise for the delay in posting anything) there are by now lots of Brent in western Iceland and while numbers between Co. Down and Dublin are certainly down to relatively small numbers (unlike the thousands of a few weeks ago), we've reasonable numbers hanging on further north.

And at this time of year often calling in the background are Sandwich Terns, Whimbrel and that gorgeous splash of colour is provided by flocks of Black-tailed Godwits. The latter two both destined for setting up territories in the Icelandic landscape.

Yesterday in Co. Louth there were again large numbers of increasingly colourful Godwits including two colour-ringed birds and easily the largest groups of Whimbrel I've ever seen.
Admittedly I don't get out much, but 480 Whimbrel mixed with Black-tailed Godwits flying between a restricted high tide roost space and some soft grass invertebrate-filled fields was impressive. For those of you who haven't read this, a lovely insight into the migratory schedules and routes of Icelandic Whimbrel is in Jose Alves and co-authors paper -

Even without reading rings today at Dundrum it was evident there were new kids in town with an especially pale plumaged noticeable individual and 2 dark-bellied (nominate bernicla) birds present. A metal-ringed BY and a BB were new to me and we're still getting good positional data from some of the neck-collared and GPS backpacked birds. When we get some downloads from Iceland (APB's being issued on target birds there) we'll endeavour to show some maps showing how the birds made the journey from Ireland- Iceland. Not via aircraft which is our vehicle of choice in the next few weeks.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Birds On The Move Again...

This blog seems to have degenerated into a half-yearly epistle!! Apologies about that!! And apologies also that my feedback is so far behind still - currently just over a month!! As I keep saying, I ought to be sacked, but no-one else would be mad enough to take it on!!
However, as quite a large team of us prepare to head out on our annual pilgrimage to the staging grounds in Iceland, records coming in tell us that this is timely (although there are conflicting stories of cold weather there......).
Out in Iceland, Ólafur Torfason has been sending us in records of marked birds from the south Reykjavk area since early this month. From the Scottish Islands, such as Tiree, Barra, Islay, North & South Uist, records have been coming in from numerous observers (many thanks!!), all indicating that birds are on their way.
Here in Ireland the same is the case, with places like Dublin Bay reportedly going down radically in numbers, whilst here, in Northern Ireland, we are starting to see some turnover at our sites, despite numbers also reducing, but more gradually. Places like Killough Harbour and Dundrum Bay seem to be used by birds with families to nurture up the weakest juveniles for their long journey north, first to Iceland, then onwards to High Arctic Canada.