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An exploration of wild & interesting places in Ireland and their western European/American flora and fauna…
3: Eagles Rock, Co Leitrim


This page brings together some days walking and some photographs during Summer visits to a very small, but dramatic, micro-habitat in the Sligo/Leitrim Dartry Mountains. This is one of Ireland’s smallest mountain ranges but it is spectacular in many places with Benbulben’s famous table top and vertical cliffs and Benwiskin’s startling up-thrust but flat high top. Both of those areas are known for their alpine plants of either Lusitanian or Atlantic origin. Eagle’s Rock is on the eastern side of the Dartry Mountains, just inside Co. Leitrim and the area studied today faces away from the sea but still  retains an exciting flora and some stunning geomorphology
Click image where you see this symbol to get a larger view

Upland Habitats…

Landscape and Plants:

As you leave the mountain pass at Glenade on the road from Manorhamilton to Kinlough a small junction on the left brings you into the mountains on the western side of the valley. Eventually the road runs out at an old quarry and the view of the cliffs on the eastern flank of Truskmore open up. These are a strange (typical Sligo) mixture of measured slopes suddenly giving way to precipitous and vertical cliffs of no mean height. It is a very attractive landscape. (See image BELOW.) What attracted us to this scene is the flat plain in the foreground with an even wet pasture and water loving alders and willows leading the eye towards the sudden and imposing mountain arising from the flat lands.

Mallow, Saxifrages, Sedums and exotic Ferns.

This varied flora is the stock in trade of the these mountains, viewed here from the east, as they are for the more familiar west facing aspects of the Dartry Mountains. People often talk about the very rare Alpine Saxifrage which has its only and very limited Irish occurrence in this region. (See our article on Saxifrages.)
1. White Musk Mallow Malva moschata alba …at Quarry  Our first plant is an unusual one. Unlike many of the other exotics described here, this is probably an introduced species. The Mallows in general have many medicinal and horticultural uses but are often an introduced species emanating from gardens. But IT IS  a very beautiful plant and persistent and healthy in its lofty isolation on these rocky mountains.
2. Yellow Saxifrage Saxifraga aizoides …at Quarry Now, here we have a true mountain species — the glorious Yellow Saxifrage. This is a late flowering saxifrage and is a typical plant of limy north western mountains in Ireland. But it is very much a speciality of this location and the Dartry Mountains in general.



Eagle Rock

Observing the Geography:

To hell with geology for a while, the place and the nature of the terrain is worth considering too. Is it the geography, or landscape, or the aspect, or underlying geology that affects and creates habitats initially? The three images on the left have been chosen to reflect the nature of this place. It is surrounded by farmland and towns and beaches but yet it is an isolated place — a peaceful haven a mile or two away from the main roads.

Was there an Eagle?

There are so many reputed haunts of historic Golden Eagle in Ireland it sometimes seems that any high pinnacle or massive cliff face could be the former nesting sites of the Eagle. We shall never know! Eagles have in recent years been introduced to Glenveagh in Donegal and have been seen prospecting  in low and high grounds around Leitrim and Sligo but have not bred to date as far as we know. This looks like an ideal pinnacle for a nest. However, it towers over only a very small area of land over which a large birds of prey might range.

Is there Magic still?

Undoubtedly. Just walking up from the end of the road past an old quarry, into the glacial ravine, through old moraine and reaching the towers and the surprising and shocking long and straight cliff behind, gives this place a mystery that transcends its lack of altitude. As the plants and the horizontal strata in the pinnacle attest, this is limestone country pure and simple. (More geology later.) It is also warm sheltered and wet with its back set against strong westerly winds. All of this contributes to a unique geographical mix with cliffs, tumbled screes and green forested or grassy slopes all in close proximity.

Dartry versus Glencar

Two similar but different facies and habitats:

Facies is a geological term ascribing qualitative difference to how the character of a rock is expressed by its formation, composition, and fossil content. Two grey limestones but with different characteristics that attest to different origins and modern qualities which mean they provide a home for animals and plants in different ways. The rock towers shown (LEFT)are the closest we have seen in Ireland to the places you might expect to see Eagles or Vultures or Condors gathering… in other countries! The sheer vertical cliff shown (RIGHT) is ideal nesting country for Peregrine Falcons. Peregrine and Kestrels and Sparrow Hawks and Buzzards have been seen. In our recent visit a family of Buzzards — a species now expanding its range in Ireland — were seen soaring and hunting and calling to their young in some coniferous forestation on the lower slopes of this flank of the Dartry Mountains.

What forms these features?

Having examined the Geological Service website (www.GSI.ie) it seems there may be two major classification of rocks present. If you look at the image on Left, and the two below, you will note that the structure of the rocks is very much the same. These are samples of the Glencar Limestone Formation, a division of the Upper Carboniferous period of Irish Geology. However if you look at the image on the right, a more solid stronger limestone can be seen. This is the Darty Limestone Formation and is well know for forming the steep cliffs around Benbulben and other parts of the Dartry Mountains. Here it sharply defines the narrow gorge to the west of Eagle Rock with a linear vertical wall.
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Dartry Limestone Formation
Glencar Limestone Formation

Glencar Limestone Formation

This lies on top of the Benbulben Shale Formation and forms a thin band of limestone around that mountain and Tievebaun Mtn. to the north. It consists of bands of shales and limestones which may be muddy or contain much silt-sized broken fossil or other calcite material as well as some sand-sized grains.  There is a regular pattern of thin and thicker beds. The range of habitats this presents, or the variety of niches that flowers will find shelter in, is largely due to weathering of this crumbly rock. Nowadays, it is gentle rain and thawing and freezing that cracks the rocks. Some while ago it was the effect of the Ice Age, ice sheets and associated glaciers, carving out massive channels between the different limestone formations and depositing moraine near and far producing features like the Glenade Valley and Glenade Lake as well as smaller drainage pipes such as the one shown on the left. All good niches for some rare and exotic plants which benefit from protection from wandering and grazing animals. Not even the goats get up here!

Dartry Limestone Formation (top right)

The Dartry Limestone forms the steep cliffs around the Dartry Mountains and sits on top of the Glencar Limestone. It also forms the upper parts of the mountains but both are topped with sandstones. At the study site, in the Leitrim townland of Crumpaun, the tors and inselbergs to the east of the ravine are all composed of the more friable Glencar Limestone. The Dartry Limestone does not seem to provide as many opportunities for plants to establish themselves. The map (RIGHT) kindly provided by the Geological Survey of Ireland lays out clearly the lie of the terrain. The bedding on both limestone formations is by and large horizontal with some strange anomalies (40° Dip to the south) on the northern fringes?

(Some fossils and more rock pictures below.)

Benbulben Shale Formation Dartry Limestone Formation Mullaghmore Sandstone Formation GlenadeSandstoneFormation GlenadeSandstoneFormation GlencarLimestoneFormation Cliffs R280 Study Site Benbulben Ballintrillick Tievebaun  Meenymore Formation Plants of the Rocks
Holly Fern Polystichum lonchitis …wet scree in middle of ravine. An uncommon fern in Ireland typical of west coast habitats like this. An attractive fern with long shiny green fronds with many spiny teeth on the younger leaves.
New Zealand Willowherb Epilobium brunnescens. NOT a rare or cherished plant. This is an invasive species all the way from New Zealand and now widespread in mountains and wild places, often associated with dumping of garden waste.
Roseroot Sedum rosea… in cliff walls Another classic of Benbulben and other Sligo and Leitrim mountain ledges. Common enough in the right habitat and grows and flowers profusely. Looks dramatic clinging to cliff faces but often seems to occur high up in fractured Glencar Limestone like this.
Wall-Rue Asplenium ruta-muraria… among Boulders on scree slopes Common and widespread but looking very much at home among huge rounded boulders strewn along the floor and gentle slopes of the channel running between the Dartry Limestone cliff and the isolated towers on the east side
Wall Speedwell Veronica arvensis …in ravine
Male Fern Dryopteris filix-mas among large boulders
Wild Thyme Thymus polytrichus… widespread among fallen rocks The ubiquitous Thyme common in many habitats but it earns its place here with its lush growth and startling colours and large sized leaves.
Another common plant, this fern seems to really belong in among the fallen rocks disturbed by rain and frost and falling down a considerable height from the towering cliffs to the west of the ravine. The rock looks like Dartry Formation.

Other common plants of

the ravine

Further studies…

To be honest it is the geology and geomorphology of this place that attracts us; it is a pleasant change from serious botanising. There is much more to be explored here. The full length of the ravine has yet to be explored and the cliff tops are exciting as witnessed on Benbulben. The tops are of different rocks (sandstone) but largely covered in heather. In future years we hope to add more images of rarities like the Fringed Sandwort, Roseroot, the Saxifrages — maybe even the elusive Alpine Saxifrage — to this page?

The Landscape and Structure in more detail.

The Dartry Mouintains, of which this is the easterly flank, provide the dramatic backdrop to the beautiful Sligo coastline and the literary history of the area. Willam Butler Yeats loved this area and is buried on the coastal plain west of the uplands. All this area is rather undramatic in sedimentary terms. There are a series of different limestone strata deposited in varying thicknesses one on top of the other. These bedded rocks lie roughly as they were laid down millions of years ago — apart from being uplifted from sea bed to mountain top! They have not suffered great geological metamorphosis. i.e. they have not been folded or massively faulted or exposed to great heat or pressure. So the rocks we see and their fossils are very much as they would have been laid down in tropical seas c. 300 million years ago. However they have been greatly modified in Quaternary times through the actions of ice and glaciers over thousands of years. These have gouged out the the dramatic dry corrie shown on LEFT. This photograph shows the path used to enter this land of tors and cliffs and stone strewn ravine. In the photograph the cliff-forming dense limestone is on your right and the darker Glencar Limestone in on the left. These are all sharply broken and greatly fragmented pieces of rock that have probably fallen from a considerable height in comparatively modern times. Occasional larger and rounded rocks have probably remained in the ravine since the last glacier retreated. Below LEFT: This is one of largest single pieces of limestone found along the path through the gorge. It is about 1m cubed. It seems to be a fall from the high vertical cliff face. We believe it to be Dartry Limestone Formation.

Dartry Limestone Formation.

This classification is based on the GSI’s (Geological Survey of Ireland) description of the characteristics of this formation. It is described as a… ‘massive to thick bedded, mostly very fine grained and dark wackestone… Bedding is picked out by bands and nodules of irregular chert.’ (Wackestone is a limestone that contains upwards of 10% mud whereas a mudstone is defined as a mudbearing limestone where the mud is less than 10%… i.e both are an indication of proximity to a coast at time of deposition — our interpretation, please correct us if wrong… (www.wildwest.ie/contactus) In our sample a very regular band of chert can be found at the top (?) of the sample but the very fine grained nature of the rock and and lack of clear bedding is also evident. In their book, The Geology of Sligo-Leitrim, The Geological Survey also report that dolomitization (the addition of magnesium) and silification is pervasive. This may be evident in the very brittle nature of this sample and the sharp edges formed when the rock is broken. Chert is a solution rock of limestones akin to the flint found in chalk cliffs. The denseness and the strength of this rock formation leads to it formimg the spectacular vertical cliffs that ring Benbulben and other mountains in the group.

Ancient Fossils

This pair, and other similar specimens we have seen at Eagles Rock, are ‘spirifer’ type Brachiopods. These are not Molluscs but are unique in living through most of the Earth’s history — from Ordovician times to the present. The Spiriferids dominated the seas from Devonian to Carboniferous times and their numerous varieties make them crucial for dating rock strata but also tricky to identify… any help would be much appreciated…

Geology and Wildlife!

The endless allure of geology is the knowledge that the ground we are walking on is so much more ancient than any human involvement. These limestone rocks described here are dated from 300 - 350 million years ago. Also, they weren’t uplands then but formed deep under sea water as witnessed by the fossils. The turbidity of the rocks from shales to silt and mudstone to pure blue limestone indicates the clarity and depth of the water at the time of deposition. Water levels increased and decreased over the millions of years and this fact is reflected by different rocks encroaching on one another, older rock being eroded and new sand or mud or lime deposits being placed across older bedding strata. The spiriferid Brachiopods shown above did not survive into modern times but there is a famous Brachiopod, called Lingula, that has survived from the Cambrian and is still alive today! Common Buzzard Buteo buteo… a welcome addition to Ireland’s fauna Our final image has to be of the Common Buzzard. A group of 3 Buzzards were soaring in the skies most of the time we were exploring the habitat. It is a welcome sight, accompanied by the loud high-pitched mewing sound that they emit when soaring. These three birds were evidently from the area and, presumably, bred in the area. Apart from the contented cruising around in circles carried by the wind high above the mountains, one of the group was seen anxiously flying fast and low over a conifer plantation making a stronger sharper contact call. Perhaps there was a young bird at a nest nearby? Buzzards were largely missing from Ireland until the 80’s but were present in Northern Ireland since 1930. They have now made a welcome return and can be seen (heard) in most suitable places in Ireland. The habitat for a Buzzard is trees, both native and conifers, can be on marginal hill land, but just as likely on good farm land. They are no risk to farming as the biggest prey they would take would probably be young Rabbits and a lot of their feeding is more like to be on small rodents and other mammals and invertebrates. So enjoy them… listen out for their mewing and watch them circle endlessly in the sky high above you. Apologies for neglecting the zoology while being enthralled by the stunning botany and geology. Hopefully, it will be possible to re-visit this site and photograph more of the bird-life. Any images from this site would be very welcome. (www.wildwest.ie/contactus)
Eagle’s Rock is ideal Bird of Prey territory. Peregrines can be seen hunting around these cliffs and they bred this year on the western slopes of the Dartry Mountains. They appreciate vertical cliffs with shelter overhead and safe access directly by flying to and from the nest.
This bird (and the images are of the same bird) is from another cliff nesting site shown (CENTRE). The location is Leitrim and Peregrines successfully nested in a recess shown on the cliff face A different type of limestone but with a similar niche for these wild falcons to settle in.
Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus… cliffs and mountains. In the past poisoned by pesticides now recovering and can be seen all around the country and may be conspicuous with a high pitched contact call near nesting sites
Thanks GSI!
A   big   word   of   appreciation   to   the   Geological   Survey   of   Ireland    and   the   work their   dedicated   teams   have   done   over   the   centuries.   For   many   years   we   have used   their   resources   to   try   and   understand   patterns   of   landscape,   and   even the   reason   for   rare   plants   to   be   present,   based   on   the   underlying   rock   and drainage   structures.   The   simple   base-versus-acid   nature   of   rocks   influences the    pH    of    the    soil    and    some    of    our    favourite    plants    (Orchids)    are    very sensitive   to   this.   Some   like   limestone   rocks   (as   in   the   Burren)   others   more tolerant of acidic conditions such as found in sandstones and gneisses. We   acknowledge   the   vast   amount   of   data   they   make   available   to   the   public and   would   highly   recommend   that   more   field   naturalists   should   use   their website   ( www.gsi.ie ).   Their   viewer   enables   anyone   to   get   a   fairly   accurate awareness   of   the   ground   below   and   to   understand   the   geomorphology   and the geology that creates the amazing landscape of Ireland. It    is    very    gratifying    to    see    a    Public    Body    that    declares…    the    information presented   on   their   website   and   media   is   considered   public   information   and   may be   distributes   or   copied…   as   long   as   the   GSI   is   acknowledged. ’   This   we   are   happy to   do.   It   is   always   a   great   pleasure   to   combine   the   three   natural   sciences   of botany,    zoology    and    geology.    Of    these,    Geology    is    perhaps    the    most intriguing but sadly, probably, the least enjoyed by amateur naturalists. So    go    study    them    rocks…    and    thanks,    thanks,    thanks    to    the    Geological Service! It is a brilliant resource!

Stratigraphy of Eagle’s Rock and surrounding areas of the Dartry Mountains.

The above map was obtained from the The GSI website using their Public Viewer. The Red and Black texts are added by us based on stratigraphical information shown elsewhere on that site but not apparent on this part of the image. i.e the various strata are coded with different colours. There are so many layers within the Upper Carboniferous that these maps carry many colours so we have taken the liberty to point to the Glencar and the Dartry Limestone formations which are the main players in our exploration of rare plants and animals. More information can be found for this area (or your own area) by exploring the GSI maps and then walking the hills and searching. (We acknowledge the volume of fascinating material that the Geological Survey of Ireland has made publicly available…)
Finally, some modern Wildlife!
Eagle’s Rock is a place redolent with wildlife; we don’t doubt that the Fox and the Pine Marten roam here. Even in high Summer the visiting warblers could be recognised by their songs, Grasshopper, Sedge and Willow Warbler along with the Blackcap. Doubtless there are many more intriguing stories to be gleaned and we hope to return to this special place for many more years. The trouble is that there are so many magical places for animals, rocks and wild plants all along the West of Ireland. (See the Wild Atlantic Way, for example.)
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