Cape Clear Observatory

It seems appropriate that, as the Branch’s next event is an outing to Cape Clear, this island and its Bird Observatory should be the focus of this month’s article writes Nicholas Mitchell.

Cape Clear is now the only Bird Observatory in Ireland. It came into being when five young Englishmen (four were mere secondary school pupils!) ventured to Cape in the autumn of 1959, landing there on August 19.  Their trip was supported by the British Trust for Ornithology, allowing them to arrive with all the necessary bird-ringing equipment and a set of bird skins (to assist bird identification). During the next eleven weeks 17 bird species, previously considered rarities in Ireland, were recorded. The success of this small expedition culminated in the establishment of a permanent observatory on Cape the following year. By the end of 1962, Harbour House, situated in North Harbour, was purchased. This has been the home of the Observatory ever since and in 2000 it came under the management of BirdWatch Ireland.

Since its founding over sixty years ago, the work and importance of the Observatory has changed. During the 60s, it was initially one of discovery as the incumbent warden(s) and volunteers started to record and learn about the migration patterns of birds through this south-west corner of Ireland. Later, as the records built up, volunteers were able to monitor and recognise any changes and this continues to this day. By the end of the decade an educational element was introduced with residential courses being run at the Observatory for budding young ornithologists. These have become a main fixture of the calendar. Circa 2007, my own introduction to birdwatching (albeit at the later age of fifty) was a trip to Cape that autumn with the Branch, followed by a weekend course on Cape the following spring with the warden Steve Wing.  Therefore, from experience, I thoroughly recommend signing up for one of these courses (details below).

In Steve Wing’s excellent book ‘The Natural History of Cape Clear 1959 – 2019’ (an invaluable source for this article!) he lists rare birds recorded on a day-by-day basis, so I thought it would be interesting to see what birds have been recorded over the years on September 17, the date of our next outing. The list includes Pectoral Sandpiper, Wryneck, Melodious Warbler, Aquatic Warbler, Bluethroat and Snow Bunting. The Pectoral Sandpiper breeds in North America and north-east Siberia. Those breeding in eastern Canada follow great circle routes on their post-breeding migration route down to Argentina in the later summer and early autumn. This can bring them quite far east and explains why this American wader turns up so frequently here in Ireland. The other birds all breed in different parts of Europe and are passage migrants.  As none of these birds breed in Ireland, the only time that they can be seen in here is during migration, and Cape Clear is one of the best places to be in spring and autumn for migrant and vagrant birds from Europe and North America.  

Following on from the article last month by Karl Woods, Cape Clear is another outstanding place in West Cork for sea-watching, and not just for birds. Situated as it is, a few miles off the mainland, it is a great place for searching the seas for cetaceans. Eight of the twenty-four cetacean species recorded in Irish waters can be seen off Cape, these being Harbour Porpoise, Minke Whale, Common Dolphin, Fin Whale, Bottlenose Dolphin, Risso’s Dolphin, Killer Whale and Humpback Whale.

Cape Clear is special place and, if you have not been, it is well worth a visit, whether for a day out, a weekend break, on a Branch outing or on a BirdWatch Ireland course.  The Observatory, and the important work that it does, also needs your support, whether it is through BirdWatch Ireland membership subscription or donation. Last year the Branch donated €1,000 to the Observatory. This was only made possible from fund-raising during our events and the public’s generous support. So thank you very much and we look forward to seeing old faces and meeting new ones at future outings.

BirdWatch Ireland Cape Clear courses

From Seabirds to Songbirds September 11-15

Wildlife Weekend September 23-24

Ring 01 281 9878 or visit for more information.

BirdWatch Ireland West Cork Branch News

Upcoming events being held by the Branch are:

Cape Clear: Sunday Sept 17

The Mizen: Sunday Oct 15

Visit our website for more information about these events.  To receive news and reminders about our events join our mailing list by sending an email to  For more information about the Branch, contact Fiona O’Neill at
Twitter @BWIWestCork

Cape Clear Observatory Warden Steve Wing

WCP Staff

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