Guernsey, a magnet for migrating birds and a haven for breeding species
The Bailiwick of Guernsey consists of four major islands, Alderney, Herm, Sark and Guernsey, together with several smaller islands, the larger of which include Jethou, Brecqhou and Lihou. Whilst not in the Scilly or Fair Isle class, the islands are a magnet for migrating birds, with some spectacular ‘falls’ and many rarities. The location of the islands in La Baie du Mont St. Michel, close to the French mainland, gives a continental flavour, from both human and ornithological point of view.
For instance, the Short-toed Treecreeper is a fairly common resident while the Serin is an occasional breeder. The islands see many continental overshoots in the Spring including almost annual Bee-eaters, Golden Orioles and Hoopoes. From high, sea-cliffs and wooded valleys in the south to low, sandy, beaches and reedbeds in the north, Guernsey has a great variety of habitats to provide food and nesting sites for birds. This diversity of landscapes is reflected in the range of species seen. Whilst covering only 25 square miles the island has seen over 300 species, with several more recorded on the smaller isles. The Bailiwick breeding species total of around 74 species is less impressive, but it includes a great variety of birds from Fulmar to Reed Bunting, and such rarities as Storm Petrel, Manx Shearwater, Peregrine Falcon, Dartford Warbler and Short-toed Treecreeper.
A Haven for Seabirds
Being an island environment, seabirds form a major part of the Bailiwick’s avifauna. Recent studies for the Seabird Colony Register has shown a healthy state of affairs for most of our 13 breeding species, with only Puffin and Storm Petrel numbers giving cause for concern. Other species, however, are expanding. The Fulmar, unrecorded as a breeding species 25 years ago, is now common along Guernsey’s south cliffs and in the other larger islands.Spring and autumn are the highlights of the birdwatching year. From March until early June the islands become resting and refuelling stops for excellent numbers of waders and, passerines. Following the passage of weather fronts, the headlands of Pleinmont, Jerbourg and Fort Doyle can see hundreds of Wheatears, chats and other migrants trying to reorientate themselves before continuing their journey northwards to their breeding grounds. Overshooting birds are common, including in recent years, Red-footed Falcons, Night Herons, White Storks, Black-winged Stilt, Alpine and Little Swift and Red-rumped Swallow.
The autumn migration is less predictable, but rarities come from both sides of the globe. North American vagrants include Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Spotted, Pectoral, Buff-breasted and Upland Sandpipers, while eastern ‘jewels’ include Barred, Pallas’ and Yellow-browed Warblers, Red-breasted Flycatchers and Richard’s Pipits. Autumn is also the peak sea-watching period. During north-westerly storms Gannets, Kittiwakes, Arctic Skuas, Bonxies, Manx and Sooty Shearwaters are blown towards the island as they battle their way down the English Channel towards the Bay of Biscay, and it is at Chouet headland that this spectacle can best be observed. In the summer months, this is also the foremost locality to see Storm Petrels as they venture out at dusk from their local breeding colonies.But for really spectacular seabirds, a trip to Alderney is essential. The highlight of a visit to this most northerly Channel Isle is a trip around the Gannet colonies of Les Etacs and Ortac. With over 2000 nests on each of these rocks, the air is filled with the sight and sound of these magnificent birds.
The other larger isles of Herm and Sark should also be visited for day trips or longer. Both are reached by boat from St. Peter Port, and excellent views of the islands’ breeding seabirds should be obtainable en-route. It is also worth looking out for the Brehon Tower, an old Napoleonic fort, which lies halfway between Guernsey and Herm, as up to 60 pairs of Common Terns nest on the upper storey of this ruin.Several of Guernsey’s smaller islets can be visited at low tide, but caution should be observed, as incoming tides are dangerous. Lihou Island, off the south-west coast is probably the most accessible as a causeway links it with the mainland. A beach close by was host to the Channel Island’s first Desert Wheatear in 1990.For excellent views of waders, any of the bays from Rocquaine in the south-west round to Bellegreve on the east coast will impress. Incidentally, Guernsey has been a site of international importance for wintering Turnstones, with peak winter counts approaching 1000 birds.The shortage of ponds and muddy scrapes on the island means that when rarities turn up they are concentrated in these scarce habitats. One such site is Pulias Pond. This brackish pool has been host, in the last few years, to the Channel Island’s first Black-winged Stilt, a Wilson’s Phalarope, Little Egrets, and, in March 1988, a flock of 14 Night Herons! Among the other fragments of wetland, the Vale Pond, Les Grands Marais and La Claire Mare are the most important as they hold the island’s remaining reedbeds. Here, Reed Bunting, Reed and Sedge Warbler breed, and many migrant waders stop to feed up. Cetti’s Warbler is an occasional breeder and Bearded Tit, Penduline Tit and Fan Tailed Warbler have all been seen recently.
The expanse of invertebrate-rich mud at these reserves is also a magnet for hundreds of hungry waders throughout the year, including several vagrant species.The most picturesque and unspoilt part of Guernsey is the south and east cliffs, which are dissected at several points by sheltered wooded valleys, which provide temporary cover for tired migrants and more permanent home for species such as Short-toed Treecreepers, Firecrests, and Long-eared Owls. Seabirds nest between Pleinmont and Les Tielles with numerous pairs of Fulmars, Shags, Greater Black-backed, Lesser Black-backed and Herring Gulls nesting on precarious ledges. The greatest rarity of this area however, is the Dartford Warbler. This shy but delightful bird became totally extinct as a result of the severe winters of the late 1980s, but thankfully is making a comeback with pairs re-established at Pleinmont, Le Prevôté, La Corbière and Le Gouffre, as well as Fort Le Marchant and Fort Doyle in the north of the island.Guernsey has only a small number of birders so the rarities we find are probably only the tip of the iceberg. Lying mid-way between the rarity meccas of the Scilly Isles and Ile d’ Ouessant, it is probable that the Bailiwick receives many more vagrants than our records suggest.