Tuesday, 11 March 2014

A turn up for the bird books

The first couple of months of 2014 have been challenging for water birds and waders in Ireland. High winds and storms put great pressure especially on migrating species as it means they have to spend more time, under difficult conditions, searching for food. There have been several reports of sea birds being washed ashore along the western seaboard and on the south east coast, probably as a result of exhaustion and lack of food. These storms in mid and late winter can also result in winter vagrants turning up on our shores. Species that are on passage migration to their intended winter grounds can get blown off course and turn up on our shores or further inland.

One such example was the Glossy Ibis that was spotted feeding next to the River Shannon some weeks ago. BirdWatch Ireland received a call from a local resident to say that there was a ‘black curlew’ feeding in their garden. On visiting the site, just on the edge of Shannonbridge, sure enough the caller was correct. The Glossy Ibis or ‘Black Curlew’ as it is sometimes called was busy feeding in a water logged back garden alongside some black headed gulls. Glossy Ibis are a medium size, long legged, wading bird. They have a long downward curving bill similar to a Curlew and the winter birds that arrive here have a brown black appearance to their plumage with a slight green and purple gloss to the upper parts. On migration some birds, particularly juveniles, can become separated from adults flocks and begin dispersing in all directions, which could account for this record.  The last one known to be recorded in this area was in Banagher in 1909.


Glossy Ibis feeding in a back garden in Shannonbridge in February (Photo: Rose Ryan (Top) and Colm Kenny (Right))

Elsewhere on the callows, the numbers of winter migrants have been reaching the peak numbers over the last month with thousands of Golden Plover, Lapwing and Wigeon recorded along the River Little Brosna callows with sizable flocks of Pintail, Teal, Tufted duck and smaller numbers of Pochard, Whooper swan and Greenland White-fronted Goose. By April many of the winter migrants will be leaving to return to their summer grounds, by which time we will be looking forward to the arrival of our breeding waders on the Shannon Callows.

The flood remains high at the moment with Inishee Island and most of the breeding sites remaining underwater. Hopefully this fine spell will continue over the next couple of weeks and expose some of the badly needed habitat that is crucial for prospecting breeding waders.  

Clonmacnoise, during summer 2013, taken from Bunthulla, an important breeding  wader site (Photo: C Gallagher)

Clonmacnosie in full flood this January, a perfect example of why these areas are called callows, from the Irish word caladh meaning river meadow (Photo: C Gallagher)

Posted by: Colin

Monday, 23 December 2013

Winter Wader Wonderland!

Well, it’s almost Christmas eve and we’re getting into the heart of winter but water levels on the River Shannon have been unusually low up until this weekend. Some fields were flooded just over a month ago but the river receded again and dropped to almost summer levels before rising again following the recent stormy weather. Usually the flocks of winter birds are pushed up into these fields by the flood and can be easily seen at this time of year. But as the river has been low the birds were absent from the spots where large flocks can be usually spotted. However, Bullock Island commonage, close to Shannon Harbour and the Little Brosna are still excellent spots for doing some bird watching over the Christmas.

Between the two you have a good chance of encountering large flocks of Lapwing, Golden Plover, Curlew, Wigeon and Teal as well as Pintail, Shoveler and Tufted duck among others.

Dunlin can also be seen on the Shannon Callows in winter © Brian Caffrey  

Large flocks of Golden Plover are not unusual in this area and watching them feed on the callows it’s hard to believe that this medium sized wader is somewhat responsible for all those records that have been broken since the start of the Guinness book of records. The story goes (recorded in the 31st edition of the book) that a hunting party had spent a day shooting on the Wexford Slob lands during which time they had missed some Golden Plovers in a flock. That evening there was a lively discussion about whether or not the Golden Plover was Europe’s fastest game bird. Some argued that it was the Red Grouse but it was Sir Hugh Beaver, then managing director of the Guinness breweries, that realised there was no book that could answer the question one way or another and that there must be many other similar questions that went unanswered. The first record book was published in August 1955 and by Christmas it had reached number 1 on the best sellers list. Oddly enough it wasn't until the 39th edition in 1989, that the Red Grouse was claimed by the Guinness book of records to be faster than the Golden Plover.

The famous Golden Plover on Bullock Island © Brian Caffrey

In the new year the breeding wader project starts to prepare for the coming breeding season and part of this includes the annual maintenance of the predator proof fence on Inishee. As you may have seen earlier this year we rely heavily on volunteers to help out with this important task, so if you think you might be interested in helping out next year go to http://www.birdwatchireland.ie/Jobs/tabid/71/Default.aspx for more details.

Small groups of whooper swan, like this one, can be seen up and down the Shannon Callows at this time of year © Brian Caffrey

I’d like to thank all of you who visited the site this year and to wish all of you a very Happy Christmas and prosperous 2014. I look forward to keeping you all up to date on the project over the next breeding season. 

Posted by: Colin

Monday, 11 November 2013

From Breeding to Feeding

The breeding season has come to a close for yet another year and thankfully it has been a successful season for breeding waders on the Shannon Callows. While the weather has been reasonably mild, winter continues to creep in and many of the migrant species that will feed on the callows over the coming months have now arrived.
It has been a fantastic year for breeding Redshank on the Callows (© Brian Caffrey)

2013 has seen a continued increase in total breeding wader numbers on the sites managed as part of the Breeding Wader Project. The final numbers were 16 pairs of Lapwing, up 8 on last year; 105 pairs of Redshank, up 26 on 2012; 22 pairs of Snipe, down 2 on last year and no change for Curlew with just 1 breeding pair recorded. The Curlew successfully fledged two young, and continued to remain around Inishee into late August when most of the other breeding waders had left.

Curlew feeding on Bullock Island (© Brian Caffrey)

The Shannon Callows remains one of the few lowland areas where breeding Curlew are recorded in Ireland. In 2007 Curlew was added to the IUCN red list of threatened species. It is estimated that there are now less than 200 breeding pairs left in the country – a 96% decline in 20 years. As well as areas like the Shannon Callows, Curlew like to breed in marginal upland areas and it is likely that afforestation, commercial peat cutting and wind farm developments have all led to their breeding range becoming more fragmented. The Halting Environmental Loss (HELP) project is a cross border initiative between RSPB Northern Ireland, RSPB South West Scotland and BirdWatch Ireland, who are focusing on the conservation of breeding curlew in the border counties of Ireland through survey and management work. Let’s hope that through these widespread efforts we will continue to hear the very evocative cry of the curlew on our wetlands and uplands for many years to come. 

Flock of Golden Plover feeding on Bullock Island (© Brian Caffrey)

Meanwhile, the winter waders have well and truly arrived. Over the past few weeks the area has seen an increase in the number of winter migrants coming in. Our small numbers of resident breeding waders are suddenly replaced by larger winter flocks that come to avail of the abundance of food on the wet grasslands at this time of year. Black-tailed Godwit, Lapwing, Teal, Golden Plover and Wigeon all occur in large flocks and are joined by other species such as Dunlin, Shovler, Pintail, Whooper Swan and Black Headed Gull. 

Whooper Swan flying in to feed on the grasses and aquatic vegetation of the Shannon Callows (© Brian Caffrey)

Posted by: Colin

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Numbers are up!

Who would have predicted in summer 2012 that we would be experiencing the kind of temperatures we are all enjoying at the moment. In June of last year juvenile Redshank were swimming in floodwaters and the Shannon was at winter flood levels; threatening the productivity of breeding waders. This year the water levels are low, the birds are dry and thankfully have had a successful breeding season. On Inishee we are keeping the chick feeding areas wet during this hot spell, by pumping water from the river onto the island to ensure that chicks can feed easily and safely within the boundaries of the predator proof fence.

Ray tends to the water pump on Inishee. 
© Colin Gallagher

Over the past couple of months our volunteers were also very busy keeping the tall vegetation down and preventing it from touching the electric wires on the fence, ensuring the maximum current was delivered. A big thank you once again to Ray and Ciaran who gave up their time to help with these important tasks.

Pumping water on Inishee.
© Colin Gallagher

Things have quietened down considerably in the past couple of weeks as Lapwing and Redshank chicks have fledged and they start to leave the area again. The Snipe continue to Chip and Drum as their breeding season continues and a single Curlew remains on Inishee, their chicks not having fledged yet. This is fantastic considering Curlew were absent from the island last year.

On sites under the management of the Breeding Wader Project, funded by National Parks & Wildlife Service, and operated by BirdWatch Ireland, the total numbers of Redshank and Lapwing have increased on last year. Although still at critically low numbers, Lapwing populations have doubled from 8 pairs in 2012 to 16 in 2013 while the numbers of Redshank have increased from 79 pairs to 104. Outside of Inishee, the greatest increase was recorded on Bunthulla, up near Clonmacnoise; 31 pairs of Redshank compared to last years 11. As Snipe haven’t finished breeding yet, we will have a better idea of overall figures when their breeding season comes to a close in late July.

Tall vegetation is kept clear of the electric wires.
© Colin Gallagher

Kathryn is now off on maternity leave and I (Colin Gallagher) will be covering for her in her absence.  I look forward to continuing to keep you updated with the sounds and sights of the Shannon Callows over the coming months.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

A Late Start

After a very late start the predator proof fence is now up and running on Inishee Island.

Some of this years volunteers. Fearon, Andrew, Colin, Ray and Paul
© A. Power

I’d like to say a BIG thank you to this year’s volunteers who worked extra hard to ensure we got on and off the island in record time, allowing the birds to settle down to breeding undisturbed. Also, a big thank you to the Heritage Council for funding this year’s work.

© A. Power

© A. Power

Numbers are up again this year and despite the cold weather, breeding is going well. In all there are at least 13 pairs of Lapwing, seven of which have already hatched chicks; 41 pairs of Redshank, 14 with chicks; at least one, and possibly two pairs of Curlew and numerous pairs of Snipe.

Numbers are so high this year that it is unlikely that we will be able to obtain completely accurate counts, even with three people surveying! When the fence was erected in 2009, there were only nine pairs of waders on the site. It’s truly amazing that in such a short space of time densities are already too high to accurately count.
One to watch this week is the first in a two part wildlife documentary “The Secret Life of the Shannon” on Sunday at 6.30pm on RTE 1. The second part will feature fabulous footage of breeding Lapwing and Redshank from Inishee Island. Definitely not to be missed.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

No let up in winter flood

It’s hard to believe that it’s late February already. Over the past few weeks instead of flood levels receding, they have been getting even higher and we are currently in the grip of a very high winter flood.

Tower Callow Bannagher© K. Finney 

Esker Rd, Bannagher © K. Finney

Winter waterbird flocks are still around, although the high water levels can make them difficult to get close to. Often they are far out on isolated islands of high ground, with only a few stragglers close by the water’s edge. They also tend to be more dispersed over a larger area, again making it more difficult to get good views.  

Ruff © D. Dillon

Of note a number of Ruff have turned up on Tower Callow. There are also good numbers of Black-Tailed Godwit on “The Commonage” on Bullock Island, a good birding spot, even when water levels are high.

Inishee Island © K Finney

The predator fence on Inishee is still very much under water. It will probably take about three weeks before water levels are low enough to begin working on it and by that stage the pressure will be on to get the work done before Lapwing, Redshank, Curlew and Snipe return to breed. Fingers crossed no serious damage has been caused by the prolonged summer and winter flooding.

Friday, 21 December 2012

As the sun goes down

Today is the winter solstice and in some respects the end of the year.  However, large wintering waterbird flocks will remain in the Callows right through the Christmas and into the New Year, before starting to disperse around late February to head to their breeding grounds.

Bullock Island © B. Caffrey

If any of you are in the area, in addition to the Commonage at Bullock Island near Shannon Harbor (http://www.birdwatchireland.ie/Default.aspx?tabid=219), the Little Brosna is also a great place to see large wintering flocks and even some less common species.

Teal © BirdWatch Ireland

Pintail © J. Fox

The other day I had 162 Pintail, 45 Shoveler, 27 Tufted Duck,  11 Little Egret,  and nine Gadwall. I’ve never seen so many of these species in one place before, so it was a lovely surprise. There were also large flocks of Wigeon, Teal and Lapwing around. It’s well worth a visit over the Christmas, you never know what else might turn up.

From here on in, days will start getting longer and thoughts will slowly turn to spring. Come January I begin organising maintenance works on the predator proof fence on Inishee. If you think you’d be interested in lending a hand, go to http://www.birdwatchireland.ie/Jobs/tabid/71/Default.aspx for more details.

I’d like to take this opportunity to wish you all a very Happy Christmas, and all the best for 2013. I hope you have enjoyed this year’s blog and look forward to keeping you up to date with next year’s happenings in the Shannon Callows.