15 Jul 2010

Rathlin Island

Map of Rathlin

I have been meaning to go to Rathlin Island for years. Rathlin Island is off the coast of Northern Ireland, and is its most northern point. Rathlin is the only inhabited offshore island in Northern Ireland, with a population of now just over 100 people, and is the most northerly inhabited island off the Irish coast. The L-shaped island is 5 miles from east to west, and 3 miles from north to south. 7 miles from the mainland and only 15 miles from Scotland.

The last time I was there was as a teenager in August 1979.(My only real memory of the visit was that we were camping for a weekend after the Ballycastle Tennis tournament, that is held every year, and I learnt not to pee into the wind!) So I made my way up to Ballycastle, where the ferry leaves for Rathlin. I hoped to connect with a Laughing Gull, a rare American vagrant that had been found there a few days earlier. I parked and went to look on the beach next to the town where a river runs into the sea. It wasn't there, only a few Herring Gulls washing themselves. I looked over the Ballycastle grass courts towards a community centre where there were quite a few Black-headed Gulls and with a bit of relief there it was sitting amongst them.

Laughing Gull at Ballycastle 2010

The day was not looking particularly promising for photography with the prospect of showers in the morning and then clearing up in the afternoon. I made my way to the Rathlin Island ferry terminal and bought my return ticket costing nine pounds. I then headed down the ramp and got on the fast ferry as opposed to the car ferry which takes quite a bit longer. As we left the harbour there was a number of cormorants riding in the swell. As we crossed the sound there were lots of Guillemots and Razorbills flying across our path. Near the island a couple of Manx Shearwater glided by.

Church Bay and Harbour Rathlin Island

As we entered the island harbour an Eider Duck was trying to swallow a crab, it had eaten the legs and was trying to swallow the body in one. It succeeded!!!

Eider Duck with Crab Carapace

I got off the ferry and headed straight for the Puffin Bus. The Puffin Bus takes you the four miles to the west end of the island to the seabird colony and lighthouse. Five pounds return or three pounds one way. I paid The driver giving a running commentary which I doubt could be heard further back than the first row. I saw Peregrine, Sparrowhawk and Kestrel on the way as well as a family group of Ravens. In one field I saw six hares. Then we were there at the top of the cliffs where there is a seabird centre.

The cliffs at the west end of Rathlin Island are a wonderful sight and the most important seabird breeding site in Northern Ireland. There are over 80,000 Guillemots, 10500 Razorbill,10,000 Kittiwake, 1000 Fulmar, 750 Puffin, 50 Shags and 100 Black guillemots breeding here. So as you get off the bus the smell of guano hits you immediately. The lighthouse is set halfway down the cliff and there is a viewing platform next to it where you overlook half the colony.

Rathlin Seabird Viewing Platform

Even though it was drizzling I have to say it was brilliant to be so close to Fulmars, Kittiwakes and Razorbills. Immediately below the platform there were breeding Fulmar and the noise is really loud. There were Kittiwakes yelling at each other and fighting, some would join together and fall in a spiral almost down to the sea before breaking apart and returning to their nests.

Kittiwake Nests

Fulmar coming into land

At the bottom of the cliffs is an area where Puffins nest. I am always shocked when I see them as they are so much smaller than you imagine them to be. This one was flying below so looking down on top of it.

Flying Puffin

It was a slightly frustrating morning because I would watch these showers coming over from the west and then the camera had to be put under cover. They would last about forty five minutes and after the second one I decided I had had enough. So I climbed back up the fairly steep steps to the top of the cliff and looked southwards. There was somebody with a telescope obviously doing a bird count can you see them in the photo below.

Looking towards Antrim from Rathlin

Looking back towards the harbour from the west end is a lough and I thought I would go and walk round it. As I made my way down in a fairly heavy shower I could see lots of Black-headed and Common gulls on the water as well as some Tufted Duck and Mallard. A few Curlew flew away screaming in alarm as I came over this little bump along with about thirty Oystercatcher. On the water there were three Little Grebe of which two were young.

Little Grebe Chicks

In the reeds around the lough there were a lot of sedge warbler calling. Then out of the blue this Great Skua flew low over the ground towards me.

Great Skua

As it passed me another flew fairly close by

They both headed for a Hooded Crow and started to harrass it. I watched them for about half an hour which was a real treat as I have never observed them for any length of time before. During this time they headed off a party of Ravens and one harrassed a Gannet.

Great Skua on Rathlin Island

Then three Buzzards appeared and they disappeared and I didn't see them again. I wonder whether this was Northern Ireland's first breeding pair.

On the walk back to the harbour I came across this large beetle crossing the road and as the bus was coming I decided to move it out of the way. I have no idea what species it is.

Beetle on Rathlin

I also saw a number of dragonflies which I think were Brown Hawkers.
There were lots of Willow Warblers, Sedge warblers and a single Blackcap. Then in the field that I saw the six Hares in the morning this one popped up.

Irish Hare on Rathlin Island

As I was coming down the hill towards the island's catholic chapel there was a Spotted Flycatcher hawking insects. I mentioned this to Gerard McGeehan and Shirley Dunlop and they had seen one at this spot the previous year.
The afternoon had warmed up considerably and I was knackered from the walk so I headed to the Manor House for a lovely pint of guinness before heading back on the ferry.

The Rathlin Car Ferry

I had a most wonderful day and it will not be 31 years until I return again. As we were leaving the harbour I noticed how the sky seemed to reflect the wake of the ferry.

View of Rathlin from Ferry


Timothy Belmont said...

I enjoyed a terrific break there about a year ago, staying for two days at the Manor-house.

I hired a bike for one day, which is a great way of seeing the island; though I wore the wrong footwear - heavy leather brogues! There was a sustained period of rain and they became saturated; I had to leave them on the radiator in my room in an attempt to dry them! Thus I acquired a pair of Brashers with Goretex.

Anthony Dixon said...

A very nice set of images.
I really like the 'View of Rathlin from Ferry' shot...It almost looks like the waves (or is it the wake from behind the boat?) are a reflection of the clouds in the sea.
A strange effect that works well particularly in B&W.

Anonymous said...

Great images of Rathlin - thanks for sharing the story and the pictures. Just looked through your flickr site - amazing stuff! Beautiful. David

Anonymous said...

Gorgeous photos! Looks beautiful! Must go to see those hares one day!
PS the beetle could be a Dor Beetle (Geotrupes stercorarius)

Stephina Suzzane said...

Our happiest moments as tourists always seem to come when we stumble upon one thing while in pursuit of something else. Flights to New York

Dave said...

very nice story and photos! I'll be there next Friday, and so far the forecast is no rain, so fingers crossed!

Gleb Gulyaev said...

about the beetle: imho it is some Geotrupes sp.