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 (, 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 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.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Winter in the Callows

After a brief spell, when flooding subsided, the Callows are once again under full winter flood. Unlike in summer, when flooding leaves the Callows eerie and silent, in winter they become a hive of activity.

Wintering Lapwing& Black Headed Gull at The Commonage © B. Caffrey

Large wintering flocks of Golden Plover, Black-tailed Godwit, Lapwing, Teal and Wigeon arrive, along with other species such as Curlew, Redshank, Dunlin, Shovler, Pintail, Whooper Swan and Black Headed Gull. And it’s always worth keeping an eye out for rarer visitors, such as Ruff, American Wigeon and passage Greenshank.
Golden Plover © M. Finn 

When water levels are high, as they are now, sites like “The Commonage” between Banagher and Shannon Harbour are excellent spots to see all the above, and often provide opportunities to get quite close to birds.

It’s also a great place to try and spot colour ringed Black-tailed Godwit, which turn up occasionally. A few years ago I had seven on one visit!  Sending the records to the Schools Godwit Project, and finding out exactly what that bird has been up to for the past few years, is both exciting and extremely useful in helping researchers gather important information on the species.

Black Tailed Godwit © J. Cassidy

To learn a little more about this exciting project go to

The I-Webs season is now well underway and two counts have already been carried out on the Little Brosna. It’s a daunting task because as winter progresses, it holds huge numbers of birds. Indeed it’s an internationally important site and one of the most important in the Country, often holding more than 20,000 wintering waterbirds.

Monday, 3 September 2012

The summer that never was

Although it felt like summer never actually started, it’s now well and truly over here in the Callows.
Wintering Curlew.  © Chris Gomersall - rspb-images 

Wintering flocks of Curlew have started to arrive back. Always the first, they really mark the end of summer in the Callows.  
The farmers participating in the Breeding Wader Grant Scheme (BWGS) have already set their sights on next year’s breeding season and are now involved in preparing the habitat on their land for it.

Flooding on the Callows 2012. © K. Finney
Despite all the rain and the flooding waders did well in the Callows this year. They were extremely lucky, had flooding occurred a week or two earlier, it is likley that breeding would have completely failed. Other species, including the later nesting Corncrake were not so lucky, and it will be next year before we see the true impact of this summer’s flood. Will there be a Corncrake in the Callows at all?

Flooding on the Callows 2012. © K. Finney

Redshank chicks. © A. Copland

Last year and for the first time since 2008, wader populatins on BWGS land declined; most likley a result of the harsh winter of 2010/11. However, breeding was sucessful for many pairs and on the back of this success numbers were up again this summer. This year hatching and fledgling success continued to increase - up by 117% and 146% respectively on last year’s figures. Hopefully this should result in an even bigger population increase in 2013.

On Inishee, the final tally was 38 pairs of Redshank, eight pairs of Lapwing and 11 pairs of Snipe. All but one pair of Snipe successfully fledged chicks. The Curlew, originally recorded on Inishee, moved to a quieter spot across the river to breed and managed to fledged two chicks. As the population continues to rise on this island, birds will eventually spill out into the surrounding land and start new colonies.
The fence also provided good nesting habitat for other species. 

Water Rail nest by Inishee fence. © K. Finney
Reed Bunting / Sedge Wabler nest. © K. Finney

I’ll continue to update this blog throughout the autumn and winter months, and follow the Callows progression from an important wader breeding site to a major wintering site for waders and waterfowl.

Monday, 16 July 2012

The End of Corncrake in the Callows?

Flooding continued to get worse since the last post

The last Corncrake in the Callows is unlikely to breed successfully this year. Double brooded, its first nest would have been washed away. It should be on its second brood of eggs now, but all suitable habitat is under water. For such a short lived bird (3 years) failure to successfully fledge two broods can have devastating impacts on its population. Our bird is unlikely to fledge any young this year. The farmers and conservationists are devastated – could this be the last Corncrake in the Callows? We won’t know until next year…. it’s going to be long wait.

Corncrake  © Colum Clarke
Check out Friday’s show of “Mooney goes wild” to hear more about the impacts of this flood on Lough Ree and the Callows.!rii=9%3A3343055%3A82%3A13%2D07%2D2012%3A

Inchinalee Island is now nearly completely under water. Luckily the famer managed to swim his cattle off safely. Against all odds, the Redshank fledged its chicks and flying juveniles were seen last week on the adjacent mainland.
Red arrows marke where Inchinalee used to be. © H. Denniston

Inchinalee Island under water .©  H. Denniston

Breeding has finished on most sites and the birds have left. Their absence and the silence is a little eerie, especially on Inishee.  Apart from a few Redshank, which should be gone this week, Snipe are all that is left. They have a longer breeding season than Lapwing, Redshank and Curlew and surveying will continue for another few weeks on their sites.  
New Snipe nest on Inishee. © K. Finney

We turned up a new Snipe nest on Inishee last week. 

Hanna the Breeding Wader Fieldworker finished up last week. A big thank you to her for all her hard work. It’s been a difficult season and I’m sure she never imagined she’d spend so much of her summer wading through food waters!
Hanna wading through flood waters on Inishee last week. © K. Finney

Friday, 29 June 2012

More Rain and More Flooding

The summer flood has progressively got worse since my last blog and is now the worst summer flood that I’ve experience in my eight years working on breeding waders in the Shannon Callows. Flooding is now at proper winter levels.

Flooding on Inishhee © K. Finney 

Inishee Island is partially under water and I’ve had to turn off the predator proof fence. The water levels in some sections are so high they are interfering with the electric current and there's a risk that it could blow the fencer unit.
Flood waters nearly covering the predator fence. © K Finney

Mark boating up a flooded drain to pick me up. © K Finney

The flood has meant that I can't get to some of our island sites. Luckily Mark the NPWS predator control operative was able to give me a lift out to these sites.

Inchinalee Island, up near Athlone is nearly completely under water, the cattle stranded on what is left of the island. The distance to shore has increased from about 30 to over 500 meters and the current is so strong that swimming them off the island is impossible, for now. They have enough grass, but if flood waters persist or rise the farmer will have to provide them with additional feed or find some way of getting them off the island. Amazingly the last remaining pair of Redshank managed to sucessfully hatch its chicks in the worst of the weather and the male is continuing to raise them.
Flooding on Inchinalee Island. © K Finney
Flooding on Inchinalee island. © K FInney

Redshank fledgling swimming in flood waters. © K Finney

Although there have been wader nest losses, we have been lucky. Many sites had already fledged or hatched their chicks before the flood rose. Inishee has done amazingly well despite the weather, probably because the chicks were already a few weeks old before the worst of it hit. Splashing through puddles this week we turned up 27 Redshank, seven Lapwing and five Snipe fledglings.  Breeding is still ongoing for 16 pairs…. hopefully predators will stay away even though the fence is off.

We’ve been helping out with the Whinchat survey and although many areas are inaccessible we have turned up a number of breeding pairs in meadows that are nearly completely under water.  We’ve even recorded some birds carrying food to chicks, so some at least are surviving.
Flood waters on Fanns Callow and a breeding male Whinchat (circled in red). © K Finney 

Flood waters on Esker Callows. © K. Finney

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

A Summer Flood

Poor weather in summer puts everybody in bad form, but for the Callows farmers and its wildlife it has a real impact.

Flooding on the Callows 2012 ©  H. Denniston

Last week it rained for over 48 hours straight, in some parts three inches falling in just a day. Wader chicks would have been unable to feed, the adults having to brood them constantly to keep them dry and warm. Young chicks would have suffered the most and anything unlucky enough to be hatching during this period is unlikely to have survived.

Anyone who saw the BBC’s Spring Watch on Monday would have seen the devastation that prolonged heavy rain can have on young Lapwing.

Flooding on the hay meadows 2012  ©  K. Finney
The river Shannon drains a fifth of Ireland and when heavy rain is experienced nationwide, as was the case last week, much of the water makes its way into the river system. The Callows are now under a summer flood, its true extent hidden by the long meadow grass. Nests will have been flooded, chicks displaced and the farmers have lost their grazing land, in a year when grass has been in short supply. If the flood persists, they are in danger of losing their winter fodder – the grass in the hay meadows will simply rot.

It may be weeks until we can assess the extent of the damage. Some sites are inaccessible and we have been unable to survey them, while on others we can only carry out a partial survey.

Thankfully the Corncrake meadow is not yet under flood, although there is a risk of further flooding as more heavy rain is forecast.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

The Callows Farmers

The Callows farmers really get behind conservation projects and the wader grant scheme farmers are no different.  Often they go out of their way to help us in our daily work; many lend us their boats, so we can survey their islands on the Shannon. Others change their whole stocking system around so we won’t have to survey a field with a bull in it. Still more keep watch over the birds between our survey visits, filling us in on anything we may have missed and letting us know when predators are about.

Steven unlocking his boat for us. © K. Finney 

A number of our farmers have gone far beyond the requirements of their management agreement to improve their land for breeding waders. Several farmers have granted permission for scrub and tree removal, while others have allowed drains to be reprofiled and the creation of wader scrapes. On Inishee the farmers worked closely with us and allowed us to erect a predator proof fence, a first for Ireland.

Mute Swans using Brendan's newly created wader pond. © K. Finney
All have partaken in regular workshops on wader ecology and receive numerous advisory visits and phone calls each year. Many ring us for advice or “just to pass things by us”. It’s a system that works well and today it was really great to see it pay off for one of our farmers.

When cleaning his drains last autumn Brendan asked us to advise him on how to make them more suitable for chick rearing. He duly implemented our recommendations and today we recorded up to six pairs of Redshank, two pair of Lapwing and a pair of Mute Swans using his field. A great result.

Brendan and myself talking about his plan to usurp Inishee.
© K. Finney

His land is adjacent to Inishee and he is determined to rival its success. In fact he prides himself on the fact that the Lapwing moved over from Inshee to rear their chicks on his land!!

Friday, 25 May 2012

Summer in the Callows

Everywhere is beautiful in weather like this, but the Callows are special.

On weeks like this I have the best job. Out and about by the water’s edge, the calm gentle meandering river; the quite buzz of insects and bees, the happy summer sound of skylark in song, the soft piping of Redshank on guard - just keeping watch.  

On our way to work on Inishee © K. Finney  

On Inishee, 30 of the 34-37 pairs of Redshank have chicks, some now a few weeks old. More often than not, the male is left to finish rearing the chicks alone and there are now 15 single fathers on the island. The Lapwing have nearly all hatched and one pair have moved their chicks across the river to an adjacent field, also under management. They do this every year, hopefully their chicks will eventually breed in this field.  

Pumping water on Inishee © K. Finney  
Pumping water on Inishee © K. Finney

The hot dry spell means that we have begun pumping water into the drains, ensuring the chicks have enough wet patches to feed around.  

Both Alan and Anita managed to fit a quick site visit into their busy schedule. Both were suitably impressed that all the hard work has paid off. 

 Alan Lauder CEO on Inishee this week © K. Finney
Anita Donaghy, Project Manager on Inisee this week © K. Finney

The fine weather has also allowed more accurate surveys of the rest of our wader sites and we are turning up more pairs, some expanding out into new areas, also under management. The farmers will be so pleased, all their hard work to create suitable breeding habitat is paying off.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Summer is peeping through

They’re back - Corncrake are back!  The wind has died down, the hail has stopped falling and summer is peeping through.

More so than with anything else, the Callows farmers associate the Corncrake with summer. It’s a bird they hold close to their hearts, lamenting often, the dramatic declines of the past few years, made worse by successive summer floods. Together with BirdWatch Ireland and NPWS many of them have worked so hard to ensure its survival, making the years of successive summer floods all the more cruel… I guess that’s what they mean by nature can be cruel. While only one calling male was confirmed last year, its existence made everyone feel better. But it was always feared that this year might be 'the year there were none'. So you can imagine how happy it made myself and Hanna to hear one. The farmers will be so happy. Hopefully there will be more.

Corncrake © B. Clarke

Things are looking a little brighter on the wader sites too, although there is still very little growth for the farmers. The calm bright weather has turned up more birds, especially on sites where numbers were looking lower than normal. Quite a number of Redshank are hanging around in small groups by the shore and hopefully with some better weather these will settle down to breed, if they’ve not already started.

Grass growth on the Callows as of this week. ©   K. Finney  

Inishee has exploded with life and I feel really proud of what we have achieved. It’s a real example of how funders, landowners, conservationists and volunteers all working together can make a real difference.  Although I must admit that this feeling is replaced by sheer frustration when trying to get a count on the birds!

Lapwing chick on the move  © B. Caffrey
The latest and most up to date count is eight pairs of Lapwing (with possibly a ninth pair), 32-34 pairs of Redshank (we think it’s 34, but couldn’t confirm on this visit), one pair of Curlew and numerous Snipe (its still a bit early to get an accurate count). With up to 94 birds in the air, lifting and landing, circling and calling, landing, lifting, joining others and circling, you can see why counting them has become such a trauma!

27 pairs of Redshank and seven pairs of Lapwing have already hatched chicks, so at the moment there could be as many as 136 chicks running around the island, with more on the way!

I hope some of the fencing volunteers are reading this, well done guys you should be really proud of yourselves, I am.

Monday, 14 May 2012

I’m sure May is in Summer?

I’m glad I didn’t call this blog “Summer in the Callows”! I can’t believe it’s the middle of May, we’re wrapped up as if its winter when out doing fieldwork; dodging the hail showers and trying to warm our hands under our armpits. And the wind, there are actual waves on the river most days!

I’ve never seen so little grass on the Callows, which says a lot given that I’m born and raised here. There's been so little growth that most of the wader sites look like the winter flood has just receded. The poor farmers are really starting to struggle, many have had to re-house livestock and resume winter feeding. If this weather keeps up they are going to be very short of feed which could make adhering to the grant scheme stocking restrictions very difficult. 

On Inishee Island the Redshank count is up to between 23 - 25 pairs, we also think there is an eighth pair of Lapwing; were hoping to confirm these numbers later in the week.  Eight pairs of Redshank have already hatched chicks and we expect a few more the next time were out. The chicks will still be nothing more than tiny balls of fluff; it’s hard to believe they have to fend for themselves. The weather must be punishing on them, how they’ll manage the frosts that are promised I just don’t know. I can’t imagine that food is too easy to find at the moment either, for while there are lots of shallow muddy pools, they’re not exactly alive with flies and insects. Fingers crossed they manage to keep warm and find enough food.

Day old Redshank chicks, just before they leave the nest. © A. Copland

Lapwing don’t seem to be having a very good year on the Callows. It looks like quite a few pairs have taken a year out and not even tried to breed. Birds returned as normal and hung around for a while, but never started breeding and many of them had left by the end of April. It’s not unusual for them to miss a year when the weather is this bad.

Lapwing and chick circa 1 week old.  ©  R. Kennedy RSPB images 
Sadly we already lost our first two broods; they only survived for about a week.  We spotted a fox hunting in the area last week, so we’re not sure if they perished because of the weather or depredation. There was no sign of them when we surveyed the site last Friday and I came across the adults feeding in a flock just down river. They took off, flying high and away from the Callows. When they fail, they leave the Callows almost immediately.

The Whimbrel have started to flock and are getting ready to move on. Whinchat have arrived back to some of their usual sites and Wheatear are now passing through. They must have gotten a shock, given the weather. I even turned up four Turnstone on Friday. They were so totally out of context that I spent the first few minutes trying to turn them into Ringed Plover!! I’ve never seen them on the Callows before and even more amazingly, the only other record of them in the Midlands, that I know of, is from Lough Boora in 2010 - on the same date!

Fingers crossed the weather improves soon.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

The 2012 season beguins

Redshank post sitting ©   B. Caffrey  
The 2012 wader breeding season is now well underway, despite the cold weather.  The birds started to arrive back to their breeding grounds around mid February, pair up and establish territories. Nesting seems to be late this year though and although some birds are very obviously on eggs, so far only one pair of Redshank have hatched chicks. The high winds and cold weather has possibly delayed breeding a little. The weathers also been hampering our efforts. Survey work is difficult and not very accurate in such strong winds and some boat crossings are just not possible, site visits having to be abandoned. Not at all midlands weather!

Predator proof fence, Inishee Island ©  Kilian Kelly 


The predator proof fence on Inishee Island has been on for the last month and as always is working like a dream. A big thank you to this year’s volunteers.

Lapwing in flight  ©  J. Veldman 
This week’s count tuned up seven pairs of Lapwing, approximately 20 Redshank pairs, one, possibly two pairs of Curlew and numerous snipe.  Since its erection in 2009 the population has increased each year, this year being no exception. Once dubbed the island of death by Fieldworkers because depredation rates were so high, it couldn’t be more alive today.  Lapwing with their characteristic call of an old fashioned radio being tuned, tumble and dive in display flight overhead. The meadows watchdog, the Redshank stand guard on the fence posts, alerting all of our approach before ganging up and performing a noise high speed fly-by.  The Curlew must be on eggs, instead of both performing their usual gurgling call and display flight, one now sneaks off from their nesting area in low flight and without a sound.  A third bird is causing confusion, it remains to be seen whether it too is breeding on the island – fingers crossed. The May Bird - Whimbrel are back in the Callows all of a sudden, with a flock of 20 birds feeding on the island. Skylark and Meadow Pipits practically explode from every area of ground and the sky fills with their parachute flight. Definitely not the island of death anymore!