Cape Clear Island: a birdwatching bonanza

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Even repeated viewings of the old Alfred Hitchcock classic, The Birds, won't prepare you for the surreal sight of a clear Irish sky, darkening suddenly as it's swamped by a massive cloud of migrating birds. Only a trip to Cape Clear Island will do the trick.

When a bird observatory was established on this little island off the southwest coast of Ireland in 1959,  it already had a reputation as a top spot for seeing rare birds that had strayed over from North America or Asia. But no one realised at the time that the island would soon become one of the top ‘seawatching’ sites in the world.

This arcane exercise in watching the sea for migrating birds could only have been invented by fanatical birdwatchers. Some of the most stupendous viewing days come when the wind is blowing a gale and the rain is bucketing down– and it takes a stiff upper lip and a whole lot of enthusiasm to find pleasure in a pastime like this.

But it’s not really that bad, with the rewards of a visit to Cape Clear more than making up for any inconvenience experienced along the way. For starters, this enchanting 5km-long island is home to 125 laid-back residents living in splendid pastoral isolation within sight of mainland Ireland. Due to the island’s diminutive size and overall dearth of vehicles, it's an absolute delight to stroll country lanes overlooking Roaringwater Bay and the Celtic Sea.

Of course, the real reward is the spectacular seabird migration, peaking in the third week of August as countless birds from the immense North Atlantic seabird colonies rush towards the southern hemisphere. On big days, truly amazing counts of 20,000 Manx shearwaters per hour have been recorded. Hourly counts of 1600 Cory’s shearwaters and 800 great shearwaters have also been noted, along with an impressive stream of razorbills, cormorants, skuas, puffins, kittiwakes and fulmars.

These stats do little justice to the incredible visual energy of this phenomenon as birds race by in the fierce pushing winds. Shearwaters are particularly stunning to watch - they're fast, powerful fliers that arc and swoop in the highest winds like three-dimensional figure-skaters.

Further information

A daily ferry from Baltimore, southwest of Cork, provides access to the island. There are a number of accommodation options, including a self-catering hostel at the island’s famous bird observatory, plus a pub, restaurant and a few markets. Bring along rainproof gear, a foam pad for sitting on and a thermos for hot drinks.

Check out the Cape Clear Island website for more details.

Mingling with the locals is an essential part of any travel experience - and that includes the feathered and furry inhabitants of your destination! Share your wildlife-watching stories on our Thorn Tree travellers' forum, or plan your next fauna-friendly trip with A Year of Watching Wildlife, our new week-by-week guide to the world's best critter-spotting opportunities .