IWDG Rathlin Wildlife-Watching Weekend 2014

30th Aug 2014
On the weekend of 22nd July IWDG were pleased to run our first ever Wildlife-Watching Weekend on Rathlin Island, County Antrim. The idea of course was spurred on by the success of IWDG’s wildlife watching weekends on Ireland’s most Southerly Island, so we opted for the most Northerly Island off the Irish Coast. So to tempt you all to join us next year here is how we got on......
 
We started the weekend off with sunshine, clear blue skies and a small but enthusiastic group on the ferry journey from Ballycastle to Rathlin. We didn’t have to wait long until we had tallied up not one but two encounters of harbour porpoise as they raced away from our high speed ferry. These were the first, but certainly not the last, cetacean sightings of the weekend.
 
After settling into our accommodation and quickly adjusting to Island time (in which time stretches and an hour can last two or three) we managed to find our way to Mc Cuaig's Bar, the Island’s only pub, for some dinner. We then headed over to the Richard Branson Centre for our first talk on Cetacean Identification and Field Skills (we should briefly explain the link to the Virgin Airlines boss here… his Transatlantic balloon ditched off Rathlin in 1987 and he gave a wad of cash to pay for an Island community centre in appreciation for his rescue… and a fine centre it is too!).
 
On Saturday morning, armed with our new knowledge and skills, we headed for the old coastguard hut on the north side of the Island, via ‘Marys House’ (a local tourist attraction... but we’re not sure why!) and a number of fields, keeping a watchful eye out for the crazy island bull and the mystical, magical and magnificent Rathlin Golden Hare.
 
As well as being part of the Antrim Coast and Glens Area of outstanding Natural Beauty, Rathlin boasts basalt and chalk cliffs, some as high as 100m, and several sea stacks on the north and west shores of the island, giving our participants some fantastic cetacean spotting opportunities. We had great conditions (maybe a little rain) and after not too long we spotted a minke whale about 2 km distant, foraging along the edge of the deep channel which drops away to 300 m off the north coast of Rathlin. This is the most commonly sighted whale species in Northern Ireland and an exciting encounter for all! The minke remained in the area foraging for most of the watch and almost all of the group managed to get a glimpse or two, but unfortunately it did not come any closer. Not to be outdone... two harbour porpoise made an appearance about 1 km from the cliffs, foraging in among hundreds of guillemots, puffins and razorbills.
 
After a successful morning we hiked back to Mc Cuaig’s for a quick bite to eat, followed by a talk on Cetacean Ecology in the Richard Branson Centre. Everyone decided to join our optional boat based survey, so we all jumped on board the Miss-B-Haven, skippered by Damien. We took full advantage of the break in the rain and headed west towards the seabird colonies. Rathlin Island is designated a Special Protection Area (SPA) for peregrine falcons and supports a huge number of breeding seabird species including razorbill, guillemot, kittiwake, fulmar, shag, eider, common gull, herring gull, lesser black-backed gull, black guillemot, manx shearwater and puffin. Conditions were still fantastic as we headed along the south coast of the Island coast spotting some grey seals hauled out on the rocks along the way. Once we reached the west lighthouse, we quickly spotted another two harbour porpoise and plenty of puffins. We also managed to tick a few birds off the list... shag, gannet, guillemot, eider, puffin, razorbill, manx shearwater, great skua and kittiwake.
 
We then headed towards the deep trench off the north coast of Rathlin, in search of our minke from the morning watch... and who knows maybe even a sperm whale (which have been recorded on hydrophone previously in this deep channel)! On our way we had two more sightings of harbour porpoise, making five porpoise in all. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, our minke never appeared and the sperm whales must be holding out for next year’s course! We passed by the east lighthouse and headed towards Rue Point getting some spectacular views of Fair Head on our way. 
 
Back on dry(ish) land the first priority was getting down to Emma's Chip Ahoy! for fish n chips. We then settled in for our final talk of the weekend on humpback whales in Irish waters.  On sunday morning, with the best of intentions, most of the group made the hike up to the east lighthouse for our last land-based watch. After 45 minutes we had to call it a day due to wet and miserable conditions which had settled in for the day.... so we headed back to the pub for a final farewell.
 
We hope all those that took part in the weekend really enjoyed their time and we thank you for joining us! Of the six people on the course, two were from Northern Ireland (actually one of these was from Northern Spain via Belfast) and four were from south of the border (one being from Germany via Greystones). Next year we hope to see some more local members… its right there on your doorsteps folks, so get out there and enjoy it!
 
 
Suzanne Beck & Dave Wall