Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Where have all the Little Auks gone?

Little Auk © John N Murphy

In recent years the Little Auk (Alle alle) or Dovekie has gone missing, with very few sighthings throughout Ireland.  So, what has happened?  Where have all these small auks gone?  Looking back at past records, most normal winters would turn out observations of anywhere between 10 to 100 per annum. But in the last three years it is hard to find one, and not for the want of looking.  

Little Auks are easily identified since they are only about the size of a Starling. These stubby little seabirds are so short and fat they seem to have no neck and no bill. In Ireland they normally occur in winter plumage, white from bill to tail and black above. The black extends over the eye making a black eye-mask and there are curious white 'scratch marks' on their backs.

The Little Auk breeds on islands of the high Arctic. They have a wide distribution and are found on islands in the Bering Sea, from east Baffin Island in Canada, through Greenland to Iceland, Spitsbergen, Bear Island and the Jan Mayen Islands to Norway, stretching to Novaya Zemlya, Severnaya Zemlya and Franz Josef Land in Russia. They are migratory, expanding its range in winter to include the North Atlantic Ocean as far south as the Ireland and the north-east coast of the USA.

Main distribution of Little Auk © Checklist Worldtick Map

The Little Auk feeds mainly on small invertebrates such as copepods, amphipods and euphausiids and on fish larvae. The precise timing of its spring arrival at breeding colonies is variable depending on locality, from late February on Franz Josef Land to early May in north-west Greenland. Immense colonies are formed on sea coasts, usually nesting in crevices in rock scree of maritime slopes and on coastal cliffs. Colonies are abandoned in August with individuals seeking more southerly water.

In winter after severe North Westerly Storms, birds often appear off Irish waters.  This is something we have had a lot of in recent autumns, plenty of gales and storms coming across the North Atlantic.  But it still has not produced many Little Auks around our coasts.  One of the reasons for this might be the abundance of food available in the wintering grounds off the North East American coastline.  The warm labrador current meets cold waters flowing down from Baffin Bay and the high Arctic.  Where these waters meet planxtonic life forms are plentiful.

Copepods are essential components of marine food webs worldwide. In the North Atlantic, they are thought to perform vertical migration and to remain at depths more than 500 m during winter. Winter feeding ecology of Little Auks and other seabirds in the North Atlantic found a high abundance of planktivorous life forms as their staple diet. By combining stable isotope and behavioral analyses, it is strongly suggested that swarms of copepods are still available to their predators in water surface layers (less than 50 m) during winter, even during short daylight periods. Using a new bioenergetic model, scientists have estimated that the huge numbers of little auks (20–40 million birds), wintering off southwest Greenland, consume 3600–7200 tonnes of copepods daily, strongly suggesting substantial zooplankton stocks in surface waters of the North Atlantic in the middle of the boreal winter.  This abundance of food 
must be one of the main reasons why Little Auks are not turning up here in winter. If they do get here chances are they might starve to death.

A small group of Copepods

So some advice for the Christmas Holiday period.  If you are getting to the coast take your binoculars and camera.  Search the tide and bays for small seabirds no bigger than a Starling.  They must be here and remember, after the weather conditions we've had over the past few weeks, these Little Auks could just as easily be on an inland lake, wrecked due to these storms. They might even be in you back garden!

There have been 7 records thus far for 2011 in Ireland.  They were:  one at Ballinskelligs, one at Bray, one at Ramore Head, one at Tory Island, one at Island Magee, one at Timoleague and one at Dursey Island.

Sunday, December 18, 2011


Had a great days birding in Waterford yesterday 17th December 2011. Got the Bluethroat again as you can see from the attached photos. Also managed to clock up for the day; Buff-bellied Pipit, 5 Black Redstarts, two Velvets Scoters, a Spoonbill, the Black Brant Goose, one Black-necked Grebe, a Slavonian Grebe, Hen Harrier and two Short-eared Owls. Excellent day, excellent birds and a beautiful part of Ireland for a days bird watching.

Common Seal

I was back in Waterford again yesterday Saturday 17th December 2011 to look for more birds.  While searching Dungarvan bay along the Gold Coast I came across this young Common Seal out sunbathing on a sand bar.  He was not too worried about people and passing cars along the roadside, not a worry in the world did he have.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Least Sandpiper

The Least Sandpiper is a small North American vagrant wader that occasionally get blown across the Atlantic in late Autumn and end up in Ireland and Britain.  This bird at Black Rock precedes an earlier bird found in September at nearby Carrahane Strand. It is possibly the same individual.  The bird yesterday was fairly jumpy and would not allow you get too close for a photo.  As you can see from the shots it was a fairly dull day and we were happy just to have seen the bird.


While observing waders on the beach yesterday at Black Rock in Kerry, I noticed what looked like little plastic bubbles or balls about 1 inch long, washed up on the sand.  As I carefully opened one, I discovered a small wiggling translucent Lobster inside.  These egg sacks of the Lobster must have been dislodged from seaweed or kelp and strewn up on the beach after recent storms. I am amazed that the gulls did not cop onto them and wolf down the lot.  In the first photo you can see the baby lobster is still inside his protective cocoon.

Little Egret

This Little Egret was feeding along the shore at Black Rock in Kerry yesterday.  Its bright yellow legs reminded me of how similar they are to Snowy Egret from the US and I keep wondering how long will it be before we see our first Snowy Egret arrive in Ireland.

Bar-tailed Godwit

On Black Rock strand there were small flocks of Bar-tailed Godwits actively feeding and preening throughout the day.

Great Northern Diver

I went off to Black Rock in Kerry yesterday Saturday10th December to try and see the Least Sandpiper that was present for the past few weeks.  While there we got great views of the Least Sandpiper and lots of other birds including this Great Northern Diver who has damaged or grazed under his chin.  You can see the bloody scare clearly in the first image.

Fallow Deer

I have always had Fallow deer coming to my garden.  When I first built my house in 2000 they came close to the backdoor and sunroom.  But in recent years they have become a little more scarce and I have not seen one up my wood in ages.  These two young bucks were in a field near my house, one sitting in the sunshine warming himself up while the other grazed the edge of the field.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Red-throated Diver

I travelled down to Wicklow and Kilcoole from Dublin last weekend. While there, I photographed five different winter plumaged Red-throated Divers that were feeding just offshore.

Fallow Deer

I was in the Phoenix Park, Dublin last weekend doing a radio interview with Paddy Kavanagh of Liffey Valley Radio. While there I managed to photograph some of the resident herd of fallow deer, which I have not seen in many years (see photos).  Also in a small pond to the west side of the park were some Mandarin ducks, which are supposidly breeding in the wild in this neck of the woods.

Friday, December 2, 2011


I was back at Ballinclamper beach, Clonea in Waterford last week to try and get a better shot of the Bluethroat and Buff-bellied Pipit. Unfortunately I did not relocate either on the day but did manage to snap of a few shots of the resident flock of Choughs.