In recent years, the interest in birds and birdwatching in Ireland has grown significantly... and for good reason.
For the birdwatcher, Ireland has much to offer. It has some of the largest breeding seabird colonies in the world, huge flocks of wintering shorebirds and wildfowl, and is excellently situated for autumn seabird passage. In spring and autumn, there is also the possibility of seeing a host of rare and unusual migrant species. In addition, the remote islands off north Donegal are the last strongholds of the globally threatened Corncrake. Dublin and Wexford also hold large breeding colonies of the rare and exquisite Roseate Tern.
There have been up to 470 different species of birds recorded so far in Ireland. Of these, approximately 100 are considered as resident species. Up to 90 species are either summer or winter visitors (such as Swallows and Brent Geese respectively) while another 30 are
passage migrants using Ireland as a mere stopover on their migration (such as Whimbrels and Arctic Skuas). The other 250 species recorded are scarce, rare or extremely rare migrants and vagrants.
Ireland is unique in that, by comparison to most European countries, it has been isolated as an island for approximately 8000 years. As a result, Ireland has three distinct subspecies of breeding birds, Coal Tit, Jay and Dipper, while the Irish Red Grouse is also considered by
some to be distinct from those found elsewhere in Europe. Such early isolation also explains why many non-migratory species such as Tawny Owl and Nuthatch failed to reach Ireland and so do not occur here.
In winter, Ireland, lying on the western edge of Europe, is ideally located to attract waders, wildfowl and passerines from breeding grounds in Arctic Canada, Greenland, Iceland, northern Europe and Siberia. Our climate is dominated by the mild Atlantic weather systems and, because of this, we rarely suffer the harsh winter weather that grips our European neighbours each year. Our comparatively mild winters and the extensive areas of intertidal mudflats provide rich, soft feeding for thousands of waders, while our wet climate creates the necessary wetlands for countless wildfowl. Each year ‘northern’ gulls such as Iceland and Glaucous Gulls arrive in northern and western counties, while American Herring Gulls are now annual visitors. For many, Ireland offers a rare opportunity to gain experience of these species that rarely venture into mainland Europe. As well as that, our relatively snow-free weather provides ideal wintering grounds for migrant thrushes and finches, while our resident species enjoy a lower winter mortality rate than those on mainland Europe.
Shaped by the power of the sea, the rugged Irish coastline varies from the low, rocky shorelines of the east coast to the high cliffs of the headlands and islands of southern and western regions. Surrounded by food-rich waters, such habitat is ideal for breeding seabirds in summer, and few European countries can surpass the variety and sheer numbers found along our coastline. Birds like Razorbills, Guillemots and Kittiwakes nest on the steepest cliffs, while on the islands off Kerry, the largest breeding numbers of Storm Petrels in the world can be found. The dramatic Skellig Islands are home to over 28,000 pairs of Gannets.
In autumn, the annual passage of seabirds off the western seaboard is unsurpassed. Shearwaters, petrels and skuas pass headlands like Ramore Head in Antrim, Kilcummin in Mayo, the Bridges of Ross in Clare, as well as the headlands and islands off the southwestern counties of Kerry and Cork in suitable weather conditions.
In recent years, Ireland has become the destination for a chance encounter with Fea’s Petrel. Breeding in the Cape Verde Islands and Madeira, this species was virtually unknown in Irish waters before the 1990s but is now seen annually. Deciduous forests make up a small proportion of Ireland’s woodlands, with coniferous plantations dominating many upland regions. True Oak forests are confined to small areas in Wicklow and Kerry. However, Ireland’s hedgerows are a unique feature of our countryside. With up to 70 per cent of theIrish countryside consisting of farmland, hedgerows still act as natural borders to land and Ireland provides some of the best examples of such habitat to be found anywhere in Europe. Thousands of kilometres of hedgerows meander across the landscape and, in summer, these ancient land boundaries are alive with songs of resident and visiting species alike.
Ireland holds one last superb attraction to the visiting birdwatcher – solitude. Birdwatching is still in its youth in Ireland and it’s not unusual to spend a midweek day at one of Europe’s birdwatching hotspots in perfect weather conditions, at the right time of the year, and not meet another person. The opportunity of discovering your own birds is immense and this makes birdwatching in Ireland a very special experience indeed.
Finding Birds in Ireland. The Comple Guide by Eric Dempsey and illustrated by Michael O’Cleary is now available nationwide & in our Online Bookshop (RPP: €19.99)