In this Blog we record News and Comments for 2018 pertaining to records and observations often of single days or trips in the natural environment of Ireland; what we refer to as the ‘Wild West’. We use this section to rapidly update our site about wildlife or climate or pollution News. Ireland has a very rich and diverse habitat but it is not devoid of harmful and damaging impacts of poor waste and water treatment. Water, air and unapproved dumping of waste are issues that have always been with us and whilst sometimes we see hope on other occasions we see the same old careless disregard for the environment. Our environment is the very soul and heart of our country and it rewards us copiously when we share it peacefully and carefully. Our biodiversity may be less than more continental countries but we do have some interesting plants and animals, as well as stunning scenery, and we would like to share them and protect them.
We share our information willingly and have clear proof that this is the best way (in our society) to win respect and garner care for those delicate parts of our biodiversity that need protection. Information sharing is done in several ways:1.Our major webpages, such as the feature on Burren Wildlife and the thesis of TransAtlantic Migration of Orchid seeds. These can be dense and detailed but are always backed up by years of observation and many detailed photographs by which we try to present our case.2.Our BLOG. This, unfortunately, we have struggled with (software issues), and neglected — but we promise to ‘do better!’ The Blogs in a former site (www.LoughAllenBasin.com) were well regarded and we often tied them to a particular days observations often based on boat trips. The use of a boat enabled us to both get around more easily to remote shores and also visit the many islands of Lough Allen in pursuit of one of that lakes star biodiversity, the Red=breasted Merganser. We are resolved to keep the WildWest’s BLOG more up to date in 2018. We have plenty of observations and photographs well worth recording. See below for BLOG covering the start of the year.3.This NEWS Section. We intend replacing these introductory comments with details of the investigation work we plan for this Summer as and when records become available and we get the time to regularly update this page. We will also publish any request we may have for assistance with various projects or any responses we get to various initiatives. Please send comments to us via the Contact Us page.***********Aughris is a small village on the north coast of west Co. Sligo… The image ABOVE is looking east with Knocknarea standing tall over Sligo town. In its foothills can be seen Strandhill, an expanding town but, also, a major beach and dune system with a rich flora. The large estuary of Ballysadare lies this side of Strandhill and the intervening west Sligo coastline is flat and fairly low with a great exposure to Northwesterly storms. Further west from this bay lie the Aughris Cliffs, not very long but considerable height in places with a sheer drop from the clifftop to the sea. These are limestone cliffs and as each bedding collapses through wave action layers higher up are undermined and also fall. This leads to vertical cliffs with many flat ledges and Sligo’s largest sea bird colony is found here. (More on this to follow.)
There are large numbers of Whimbrel moving through Sligo and offshore at the moment. They gather at shores and bays and grassy fields as they move northward and feed and wait until conditions are suitable for onward migration.Like all migratory birds they are heavily dependent on clear skies and sight of the stars to guide them northwards towards their breeding grounds in Northern Europe and Iceland. At this time of year on a clear night in many places in the northwest of Ireland you will hear these birds migrating through the night. They can even be seen flying across the face of a full moon if you are lucky. In the case of Whimbrels they have a perfect signature call oft repeated. It’s a piping call repeated fast and in time and they are called 7-Whistlers after this call. Whimbrels breed in Scotland, Iceland and other Atlantic islands, Nordic countries., and north Russia. The flock photographed here had 14 birds but elsewhere along a short distance of coast many more individuals and small groups were also seen.Obviously a relation of the Curlew they don’t breed in Ireland and — one wonders — for how much longer the Curlew may even breed here with its seriously diminishing numbers? The Whimbrels are smaller than Curlews but are best separated by their piping call which is given both when migrating high up in the sky or when disturbed on a beach. It is very distinctive. Their bill is more sharply bent in the middle as compared to the Curlews smoothly arced bill. That and the pronounced eye stripes are distinctive features when the birds are seen close up.Whimbrels are one of the most regular migratory waders coming through Ireland on their way to one of their biggest breeding bases, Iceland. where they breed in the 100’s of thousands. LEFT:On the beach at Aughris, a cobble with a fossil of a solitary coral that lived, died and was buried in a sea 100’s of millions of years before Whimbrels — or any birds — evolved from reptiles that evolved from fish that moved from sea ontomud way back in Carboniferous times.It’s breathtaking how life is both so ancient and how it crosses vast distances to avail of the world’s resources!***********April 9th: Warm / Calm / sporadic sunshine / high tideMahon Point, Co. Cork… Black-tailed Godwits etc.Black tailed Godwits at Mahon Point, enjoying the good weather in this muddy pond by the causeway.
Cork City Wildlife:
Maybe ‘city’ is a bit of an exaggeration but within a short distance of this place are large commercial enterprises, international companies going about their business, and a complex network of roads linking Cork City to its county. A recent visit to Cork allowed us to explore the richness and variety of parts of Cork Harbour, near to Mahon Point southeast of the City. It is a popular exercise area with many young and old doing their best to keep fit. Many appreciate the environment, both built and natural, that exists there. There is an well-used and delightful walkway on the route of an old railway line linking the Atlantic Pond, near the Marina in Cork, with Monkstown, and whichpasses through Mahon and the Douglas Estuary. When stopping to take photographs, particularly of this sun-bathing turtle, we always drew a crowd of people interested and concerned for their wildlife. A rather odd sight, which attracted a number of curious walkers, was this turtle (LEFT) on the shoreline. It may be a Yellow Bellied Slider Turtle, which is often kept as a pet by Reptile enthusiasts. A little out of place here, but it didn’t seem upset! The western Harbour area, and particularly the Douglas Estuary, is a great place for bird, and wildlife watching. On the day we visited, the tide was fairly high, and the first birds we saw were some Black-tailed Godwits, feeding peacefully quite close to the pathway where people were walking or running. They moved between the tide and the fields on the other side of the walkway, feeding quite happily there among horses. The Godwits were magnificent. A number of them were in summer plumage, and in great condition. See the picture (LEFT) showing this bird’s russet coloured breast plumage. A few of the Godwits exhibited aggressive or competitive behaviour towards one another.Black-tailed Godwits (Limosa limosa) can be seen in a number of Estuarine areas around Ireland in Winter. Migrant birds from Iceland visit during winter as well. They have bred in Ireland but their present status is uncertain.
Behaviour and Habitats:
LEFT:An injured Godwit feeding alone with restricted use of its right leg.RIGHT:Part of a large flock of Black-tailed Godwits regularly feeding among horsesWe tend to think of Godwits as busy birds along with Curlews marching along the tidal zone or across mudflats at low tides busily probing the silt or mud for food. However the site at Douglas Estuary offers a wide variety of choices which these birds are systematically exploiting. They were feeding at an industrial level. Moving from area to area, as the tide allowed, and combing the ground where they found rich pickings in almost a military style, chattering loudly to themselves, sometimes having small disagreements, and only moving away when horses chased them! This intensive feeding pattern might well be brought on by the need to migrate and the changes taking place into breeding plumage before they move to the breeding sites are indicative of breeding preparation. There are three very distinct habitats in this area:1.Traditional muddy shore habitat where the birds fan out following a receding tide and probe either close to the water’s edge or even in the water; these birds have long legs. This is a dispersed feeding pattern meaning that there is little competition between birds and also reducing the size of flocks.2.Special lagoon habitat: The top panorama shows a large group of Black-tailed Godwits gathering in a man-made lagoon. The pathway from Mahon Point crosses on a causeway blocking off a small bay. This has inadvertently provided a fresh source of feeding; it virtually reverses the tides. Because of a restricted feeder pipe water only enters the lagoon at high tide. Great pressure of tide fills it up quickly, especially at Spring tides but it only drains slowly. The bare mud shown in the photograph only becomes available as the filling tides has covered most similar mudflats in the open estuary. Hence the congregation of a large flock of birds here intensively feeding as deep as they can go!3.Adjoining fields: One other special site is available nearby — the Horse field. This was a raised field behind the pathway walls and beside the lagoon discussed above. This is well above the tide and when both Options 1 and 2 are flooded, the Godwits move here. It was strange to see them actively mowing the area only jumping up to get out of the way of the horses. Most of our photographs were taken here as we could get close to the birds without disturbing them. The availability of these 3 options so close to one another is probably one of the main reasons why it is so good to watch Black-tailed Godwits here. It is one of the best places to view the species, especially at this time of the year. Co. Cork is also one of Ireland’s prime locations for the species. Its close cousin, the Bar-tailed Godwit was nowhere to be seen so these similar looking species obviously have differing feeding specialities (a longer beak in the Black-tailed?).
The 3 images (BELOW) show one bird feeding and catching prey within a period of 15 seconds.Firstly the bird seems to study the ground; is it detecting its prey deep down?Then, it probes very deeply into the soil, and they can push very determinately into soil or mud.Finally, swallowing. The Godwit seems to be determined to transfer some delicious tidbit from its long beak down into its throat. This process was repeatedly endlessly as we studied this flock for about 15 minutes as this and many other birds moved across much of the 1 hectare field feeding actively. What they were catching was not possible to see but it seems to have been small and predominantly deep down in the field or the mud as the birds were routinely burying their beak in the substrate.
There was quite a variety of wildlife present with several waders species, Little Egret seen, though these are now common in Cork. And some attractive and interesting small plants,Below we show some a Teal, Sweet Violet, and some White Ivy-leaved Toadflax.The Teal (Anas crecca) were widely dispersed often in pairs and following the rise and ebb of the tide. Sweet Violet (Viola odorata) is one of our less common violets associated with old walls or buildings, and often not native. It was flowering well along the margins of some of the paths around the estuary.Finally, the Ivy-leaved Toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis) found on every stone bridge in Ireland and other similar habitats. But it is normally an attractive purple and yellow flowered plant with smaller leaves than the specimens photographed. These plants were probably a garden cultivar (var…Nana Alba)?***********March 26th:11:44am / Cool, overcast, calm and dryLough Gara, Co. Sligo… Whooper SwansABOVE: Panorama of the southern L. Gara near where the Boyle River leaves it, showing a gathering of Whooper Swans… over 500 in this photograph…This mornings trip was a modest one, down to the an area of Lough Gara where Whooper Swans are known to congregate prior to leaving Ireland on their migration northwards. The numbers gathering here can be considerable.LEFT: Part of a large gathering of Whoopers. Note how many are up-ended feeding intensively in the shallow water!Lough Gara is a large area of relatively shallow waters in a limestone basin with little development close to its shores. It can, therefore, be a good reserve for waterfowl and also contains many orchid species including one spectacular area with hundreds of Fragrant Orchids. (More anon.) It is also a geographically complex body of water with two lakes (both called L. Gara) separated from one another. The smaller lake lies to the south and is fed by the Lung and Breedogue Rivers. Water exits from the north of that lake, via the Boyle River, and enters the slightly larger L. Gara to the north. This northern branch of the water system is more accessible with two roads crossing north and south of it. It is often called Upper Lough Gara in deference to its more northerly position, but it is actually at a lower level and water exiting, again on the northern shore, travels via the Boyle River (which is now a significant river) and passes through Boyle and Lough Key, Co. Roscommon to join the Shannon south of Leitrim Village.We estimate that there were 565 Whoopers in this area. We also suspect that this might represent the majority of the flock in the Lough Gara at this time of year though we did not sample the larger area of L. Gara to the north. There is something about this area that seems to attract and satisfy this species at the start of its Winter migration to Ireland and at its end. Given some good weather this huge flock will probably move north soon. The TOP picture is a panorama of a series of photographs. The red lines have been inserted to facilitate counting. (Large image available.)***********March 24th:Midday/ Cool, sunny but later showeryLough Cullin, Co. Mayo… Golden PloversLough Cullin is an important site for the rare orchid, Spiranthes romanzoffiana, and it is an area much studied in Summer. However, this shore has not been surveyed for this species, as far as we can determine, and from our experience at the northern end of the lake it seemed suitable habitat.
Good numbers of Lapwing were present, also Curlew calling in the distance and Redshank nearby. Whooper Swans, Teal and Mallard were seen in good numbers, plentiful Snipe and 1 solitary Jack Snipe which is a bit unusual. Others may have been present.However, the stars of the day were hiding in the wet grassland shown in the foreground of this picture — about 70 Golden Plover in a great array of Winter/Summer plumage. We reckoned they were either delayed in migrating or were near their breeding areas. The Golden Plover (Pluvialis apricaria) is known to breed in the mountains of North West Ireland and we have seen them before gathering in wet areas below suitable breeding zones. The distant mountain in the background is Nephin and they have been recorded breeding in the Nephinbeg Range.These are the most beautiful of birds, both in Summer and Winter — when they have no black underneath. They are magnificent fliers and their plaintive piping call from high up may be the first indication of their presence in an area. They form big flocks in estuaries and seashores in Winter but lack the golden or black colouration. The photos on RIGHT show that many are changing moult rapidly; the back also affects the golden colour on their back. Females have less black than males but we weren’t able to photograph full Summer plumage.BELOW: As close as we could get to birds on the ground. Notice how well they are camouflaged.
After enjoying the spectacle we moved northwards along the eastern shore heading (eventually) to the known orchid sites in NE Cullin. It was soon evident that the topography, habitat and plant associations were very similar to other local Mayo lakes where Spiranthes has been found, often in good numbers.The pattern of rocky islands, shrubby Alders and Willows and the presence of many large glacially deposited zenoliths provide the ideal location for this orchid to thrive. Spiranthes romanzoffiana is also known as Irish Lady’s Tress — but we prefer its latin name with the Russian connotation!
Other breeding birds:
As weather deteriorated and we had many muddy ditches to cross it was necessary to curtail our survey at this stage. But, it was good. Clearly this is a site of interest for the rare S. romanzoffiana and it will be on our list for August! But this location is highly recommended for anyone interested in birds, orchids, other wildlife or landscape and geology. The Golden Plover breed in the nearby Ballycroy National Park and, presumably, also on Nephin which towers nearer to Lough Cullin.Before the trip ended we saw some display and pair bonding with an Irish breeding wader — the Redshank (Tringa totanus) an irregular breeder mostly in midlands and flat marshy areas. So Lough Cullin didn’t seem ideal but there was definitely a lot of calling and whistling going on. It sounded like more than two birds but that’s all there were and our attention was first drawn to the somewhat plaintive (female?) sitting on a lonely rock top out from the shore.“There once was a lonely Redshank with a shrill and piping voice, her feathers all cold and wet, ‘til along came her gallant partner to greet her and flew happily away together!” That is a good (bad) example) of anthropomorphism, where you attribute human feelings to animals. But they do bond, and some for extended periods of their lives, and they do mate and they do crave the attention of the opposite sex. So, what is their to disguise; they are just keeping their species going. It would seem, from the continuous calling, and this behaviour, that these birds were forming a a pair and might indeed breed nearby? It is not easy to sex Redshanks but we reckon the picture on the Right is the male? These birds are still in Winter plumage as shown by the largely white breasts.***********February 2nd:11:44am / Cool, overcast, calm and dryNorth west coast of Co. Sligo… Fossils and Glaucous Gull
12 pm Streedagh Point / Carboniferous Fossils
One of our first trips of 2018 and it was rocks that beckoned! Streedagh Head, between Streedagh Beach and Streedagh Cove is a gently tilting limestone pavement with a dip of c. 5° facing into the westerly storms. This shallow incline and exposure has led to large bands of rock being removed en masse and vertical steps rising up from the flat bedding. This shows both above and edge on views of specimens. Most of the large fossils are lying where they fell with their long axes parallel to the bedding. These animals fell down onto the ocean floor and, mostly, were buried and fossilised after they died. LEFT A single massive colonial coral, photographed from above,with its tapered ‘root’ embedded in several layers of rock below.However, there were some colonial corals that seem to have been fossilised as they lived with a fine filigree of tubes reaching up in branching manner from the root of the ‘colony’. Most of the fossils seen were corals and corals grow in shallow warm water being totally dependent on strong sunlight to flourish. Deep water limestones would not contain such colonies in the location they had grown. But neither would this colony and its wealth of coral fossils have existed at 54° North! These fossils originated in shallow tropical waters much further south and only ended up in Sligo through the phenomenon of Continental Drift.
As you can see, this was a place of biodiversity and intensive growth and productivity in a rich ocean c.340 million years ago. It is now a place of intense excitement once you start to appreciate what was happening here. The large loose slab on LEFT is probably lying in its proper position. Why? Well, if you look carefully you can see that the large solitary corals are mostly shown in cross section. They do not protrude through the upper surface. That surface is flat and gritty with few visible fossils indicating, perhaps, a later calmer period of sand deposition. This is confirmed by the thin speckly band that can be seen towards the upper surface of the slab, presumably made up of smaller shells and broken coral that was laid down when conditions became calmer. This is a fascinating place to spend an hour or two — and it’s always there! But tread warily; it can be slippy and waves and tides have to be respected...
What species are these?
Subject to correction, the big rugose corals shown above may be a solitary genus called Caninia. These are from the Carboniferous of about 340 mya. And from a warm marine shallow water environment.The colonial colony shown (LEFT) (formerly known as Lithostrotion) is also a rugose coral but this time it is colonial with many ‘pipes’ sprouting from a common source and spreading outwards ultimately being flattened by subsequent deposition. The belong to the genus Siphonodendron. See a research project from UCD HERE2pm Tralua, North Sligo / a rare GullOur second port of call this afternoon was a windswept wide sandy beach facing the Atlantic. Here we were hoping to see Eiders but instead came upon a single immature Glaucous Gull. These are often found around the Sligo coast, mostly immatures like this one, and are a conspicuously different gull once seen.They are distinguished by a smooth but slightly flecked fawn or oaten colour with darker patches all over the body but with no black tips on wing or tail. They are only one of two gulls found in Ireland to be without black wing tips and are also very large — almost as large as a Great Black-backed Gull.Glaucous Gulls can also be regularly seen in Sligo Town and Aughris Cliff in west Sligo. The Glaucous Gull breeds in Spitsbergen and Iceland but is really an arctic bird with visitors to western Europe being mainly in Winter though we have seen a similar bird cruising the cliffs at Aughris when the Auks were breeding!***********January 9th: Mild/ Calm / occasional sunshine / low tideLissadell, Co. Sligo… Barnacle GeeseEarly January and 1,000’s of Barnacle Geese are busy wintering in this (and adjoining) fields near Ballygilgan, Lissadell, in north County Sligo. This has been a haven for a significant portion of the world’s Barnacle Geese emanating from Greenland.
The Bird Hide and Goose Counting
This gathering every Winter is one of the great spectacles of Irish ornithology and it is a great pleasure to visit the location and just watch or listen to the geese, sometimes take photographs and every so often, take detailed photos covering all the Geese in the field. (Last year , 2017, this yielded a pretty precise count of 3237 and some probably missed behind others.) Also, this is just for this one field and the geese now use other fields in the north west Sligo area as well as retreating each evening to Inishmurray Island 13km NW where they roost in securely isolated splendour!This experience is open to all from October to April while this species is resident in Ireland. There is a Hide available in the woods at Lissadell on the western edge of this field and fairly convenient to a car park. The site is managed by the National Parks and Wildlife service. So, thanks to them. Enjoy the facility and this wonderful wild spectacle!***********January 7th:11:40am / Frosty, sunny morning / calm and dryWetland area near Leitrim Village, Co. Leitrim… Winter Wildlife
A temporary Home.
A fairly large pond floods and forms a largely temporary wildlife habitat in a swampy basin a few miles east of Leitrim every Winter. In Summer, depending on weather, it can be merely a wet pool in the centre of a marshy area. But, in Winter, in provides a valuable haven for Whooper Swans (Cygnus cygnus) dispersing in north west counties after their migration from their breeding grounds in Iceland. This is a small home for this species similar to other small and large lakes throughout the north west of Ireland. However, much larger numbers can be found on Lough Gara. Coming up to migration time these swans will move from scattered smaller lakes to larger shallow lakes with large areas of shallow water for feeding prior to the long migration north. In the Winter small parties of Whoopers will typically be found grazing any green pastures they can find adjacent to a body of water large enough to afford them protection when their grazing is interrupted. Their main diet is freshwater vegetation and they really love rooting around in muddy shorelines for their favourite roots — Bogbean. This is often reflected in an amber colour on their necks, not part of normal plumage, but derived from hours spent with their necks under water in muddy lakesThe sight, and sound, of a large party of Whooper Swans moving regularly from one winter lake to another and to nearby pastures, is one of the great natural sounds of the West of Ireland. These magnificent fliers are too often not seen individually. Take the bird above; see how it is adapted to long journeys across seas. Broad wings are supported on a very muscular body with the wings having the shape and the attitude to provide lift and fast forward motion. Note the curled up primaries on this down stroke curved smoothly upwards to control any eddies that might spoil a classic aerodynamic profile. Legs are placed way back both for streamlining and to balance the head so as to maintain a heads up attitude. On landing those legs will come forward and the body and wings tilt upwards to slow motion and allow the swan to land on its feet on calm water.
On a field nearby other members of the flock graze. Whooper Swans really enjoy grazing on short grassy fields. In some areas large numbers do this and they must have an impact on farming. But these swans are part of Irish Folklore and country people know and respect their distinguished visitors. Irish Whooper Swans migrate from Iceland and stay here from October to April.On this same pond outside Leitrim village an excited flock of Lapwing was seen. Now decreasing as a Winter visitor the Lapwings are disappearing as breeders and they should be encouraged to breed again by providing undisturbed flat open land near water.Also present here were Mallard, Teal and Wigeon possibly more in the rushes on the far side of this small temporary Lake. As Global Warming progresses and Winters become less severe in Europe, fewer wintering wildfowl and waders will come from the Continent. However waterfowl from Greenland or Iceland still find Ireland an attractive destination. Whooper Swans in particular are always present in Winter wherever peaceful lakes and good grazing exist side by side. Apart from grazing fields Whooper Swans are very partial to tearing up the long roots of the Bogbean plants that fringe many of the small lakes they visit.
Click on image where you see this symbol to get a larger view.