By @SimonCocking

Great interview with the dynamic and inspiring Sam Bailey who has been instrumental in getting the Cape Clear Bird Obs backup and running. Pictures above and below (Sam in a boat with cows) by Paloma Kriehsher

When did you first come here?

May 24th, for 6 months in 2016, and now I’m delighted to be back for the 2017 season too

Had you been to Ireland before?

Yes I was here the previous October in Cork. I moved to Ireland, then the job came up.

Had you heard of Cape Clear before you came to Ireland?

Yes in 2000, I was working in Manchester, and one of the guys there was an active twitcher and a blue winged warbler turned up on Cape. This guy chartered a boat specially to come over. It was the first one ever seen in Europe, so it was big news for birdwatchers and a great advert for Cape Clear’s bird watching potential.

I was working for Manchester City Council at the time, as a ranger, on local nature, Chiltern National park, (where the Bee Gees came from).

I then got the job on Cape in 2016, and I was excited to come. Cape Clear has a big name as one of the best known spots for birds. It was a good place to come to, both personally and professionally it was a good opportunity.

What did you think it would be like?

I knew the size of the island, but not how ‘big’ it was. It is a bigger area than I expected, and more varied than I was expecting, in terrain and landscape too with sea cliffs, marshes, fields, and all sorts of other places too. I was a bit unsure what it would be like with the community, such a small population, and how it would it be. But everyone has been amazingly welcoming, friendly, helpful and couldn’t do enough to help. They have made me feel part of the island. I am still learning the Irish birds and wildlife, so took a while to appreciate what was unusual and what was not, but that is enjoyable too.

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What have you seen so far?

Cape is known for its sea life, and migrant seabirds, and cetaceans, and in this regard they have not let me down. It was an awesome year for cetaceans in 2016, including some I’ve some I’ve never seen before. The whales, basking sharks and dolphins are not common in the south east of England where I come from, we get harbour porpoises but not rest. The seabird passage has been fantastic too. The 3rd of September was incredible, there was an almighty passage of great and Corys shearwaters. Normally you might get double figures, but that day there were 1000s of each. In five hours we saw over 5000 great shearwaters, and 4000 Cory’s shearwaters passing by.

This is unusual nowadays for Cape, in the 1970s and 80s it was common, but populations of seabirds have dropped since then and there is also not the number of people watching here that there used to be. The next day there were five of each, so virtually nothing, it can be wind, sea food, related, but we don’t know enough to pin it down, there are of variables, – hard to say, they breed in South Atlantic, so they are coming up, for the churning waters. Movements of seabirds are still poorly known, what they do can vary from year to year, and we’re only seeing a slice of what they do, satellite tracking would be the only way to know for sure, and that is very expensive. You’d need to tag lots of birds, at their breeding sites, on east Atlantic islands, in the winter in the South Atlantic. Great shearwaters breed in the South Atlantic, and winter in North America, but some do different things, with migration past here to the east coast of America too. But Cory shearwaters are slightly different, as they are all going northwest. There were more people here on Cape in the 70s and 80s than now, and the way it works now is different, before people stayed here for few weeks, whereas now, things move faster and people wait to see what is seen before coming over. The pros of this are that when something is seen, then you can let people know, and show them quickly. I was pleased with Irish bird community in October, great that they came, there was good support once the news came that there was stuff to see. People then came, and luckily the Bird Observatory was open, so this meant Cape was more visible. People also want to help support the Obs, to show that it is important, especially as it is the only of its kind.

In relation to the first occupant, and their legacy and history, it felt like big shoes to fill, but while lots of the recording in the obs is the same, each warden gives its own flavour, and their own preferences. Some are more into sea watching, some more on the land. For me, my focus is bird ringing.

This can help give us more data about the birds and their sightings. With modern technology, and there are more online data bases too, eventually a lot of this info can be put online. This can then be used for more reasons and to examine different ideas. This is better than it being just siloed in one place which is not helpful for conversation, and is better when it is shared. For example with the shearwaters, we’re only seeing one point, so it’s far better if it can be shared.

Twitter is helpful too for notable sightings, but we can do more to create a scientific build up of information. We’re still getting there, it would be good to have it all online, but this needs funds, resources and time.

Is there anything you would have done differently?

Visiting the island prior to getting the job might have helped me to get a feel for it, but it’s good to be thrown into it too. The surprise of the place was part of the joy of it, it’s good to not know too much, and have a fresh approach. I’d like to have more of the community involved in the obs, we did a bit, and could have done more, and will hopefully do more, esp with the school. Time ran out, but hopefully next year if we can manage it with the school year, which is a busy time. The islanders were good at keeping me informed when seeing things and letting me know about interesting sightings. This is good as it means the Obs is part of the island, and people have on the island have grown up with it.

Now in 2017 we will continue how we started, and look at opportunities to get more people involved. The Bird Observatory is always about birds, but in summer it can be used by anyone, for accommodation. We also found that different parts of the island yields diff types of birds. The west of island has more variety, with lake, cliff, heath, and farmland, whereas the east side more pastoral, and more sheltered, and more wooded. It would be good to study the raven and chough, to see where they are breeding, and the new ones such as Bullfinch and Blackcap, who are new to the island perhaps due to habitat change. It would also be interesting to study / factor in habitat here, 100 years ago, there were more arable species, more Yellowhammer and corncrake, and other waders, there less of them now, partly due to habitat changes. 

Birdwatch Ireland have been a great help, and are a charity, so the Observatory is funded by a charity, and we always have to fundraise. We’re hoping to do more courses and events to help in this respect. There is also the photography, bird watching, corporate events, and ringing, all to help get people more involved. You can email us here to find out more [email protected]


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