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Meeting the birds of Ireland’s ancient east


Stretching for 15 kilometres from Kilcoole in the north to Wicklow town in the south, the Murrough wetlands of County Wicklow form the largest wetland complex on the east coast of Ireland. It reaches back in time to the pre-human era that followed the last Ice Age and throughout that period, has provided a home and refuge for wildlife, particularly birds, the descendents of which continue to flock here today.

East Coast Nature Reserve

I entered Birdwatch Ireland’s East Coast Nature Reserve from a small lay-by on a narrow road from Newcastle (how many of those are there in the world?). Crossing a wooden footbridge, I was assailed by incessant birdsong, coming mainly from blue tits and chaffinches, augmented by smaller numbers of goldfinches, spotted flycatchers and a solitary bullfinch. A vividly colourful ‘bug hotel’ adorned a fence, while numerous butterflies, comma, speckled wood, ringlet and painted lady sucked nectar from the trackside brambles. Swallows swooped over the adjacent field, that was cropped by contented sheep.

A secondary track through a tunnel of trees passed a feeder station and more gatherings of tits and finches, and continued on to a wooden hide that looked out over extensive reed beds and a scattering of open pools, populated by dragonflies and blue and brown damselflies.

 

When the Ice Age glaciers retreated, some eleven thousand years ago, they left behind lakes of melt water. The plants that grew around the waterlogged edges sank, on dying, to form sediments that slowly transformed into peat. This, in turn, became the base upon which the later reeds and sedges that now colonise the area could grow. This fen vegetation spreads relentlessly and over time would cause the wetlands to dry out. Wind-blown tree seeds would root and the area would evolve into woodland. This has occurred in many places, so that 80% of Ireland’s fens have now disappeared, leaving tiny patches, like the Murrough wetlands, as a rare habitat.

To prevent this happening, and encourage birds to remain and continue visiting, Birdwatch Ireland has raised the water levels, cleared trees and brought in hardy Kerry ponies to control the invasive vegetation. As a result of this work, the wetlands have become part of Natura 2000, a Europe-wide network of Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protection Areas for birds. Of more than 27000 such sites throughout the European Union, 580 are in Ireland, covering a total of 14% of the land area.

Paddling over the pools were a variety of waterfowl: mallard, coot, teal, shoveller and gadwall. Occasionally, a heron or little egret may be seen stalking the shallows, or a kingfisher plunging from a high point. Well-camouflaged snipe congregate at the edges of the reeds, while a lucky visitor might see a secretive water rail make a brief appearance. Reed bunting and sedge warblers often perch on a tall stalk before vanishing into the reeds. The abundance of small prey brings raptors such as a buzzard, marsh harrier, or at evening, a barn owl. With winter come a whole new group of migrants from Scandinavia, Iceland or Greenland: large flocks of wigeon as well as Brent, pink-footed and white-fronted geese.

Continuing on from the reedbeds, the footpath turned south and ran between wet grasslands and the Dublin-Rosslare railway line. The occasional noises of passing trains, or a light aircraft flying to the small airport just to the north had little effect on the bird life. Here I spotted small denizens of the more open hedgerow, including a whitethroat and stonechat.

Swinging back west, the path now entered the southern end of Blackditch Wood, that is perhaps as near as one gets, in Ireland, to a temperate rain forest. The wooden boardwalk, leading through a dense jungle of trees, swamp and more birdsong, ended at the southernmost hide, that again looked out over the pools and reedbeds, and a fresh gathering of birds.

A day at the Murrough wetlands does not need to be confined to the East Coast Nature Reserve. The northern limit lies close to Kilcoole, four kilometres north of Newcastle. I drove to a car park at Kilcoole railway station, and crossed the rail track to join a footpath, lined with valerian, dyers greenweed, sea campion and the occasional clump of sea holly, that led south along the top of the shingle beach. Flocks of linnets and goldfinches flashed back and forth along the parallel wire fence.

After two kilometres, I arrived at a section of beach that was cordoned off and patrolled by a warden from Birdwatch Ireland. Here was a colony of little terns, one of the most endangered species in these islands. Through spring and summer, these small birds nest among the pebbles and are very vulnerable to predators and encroaching people, hence the cordon. The terns could easily be seen from the footpath, either resting quietly on the shingle or diving for sand eels offshore. When a hungry herring gull approached the colony, a small group of terns attacked it with a ferocity out of all proportion to their small size. Ringed plovers also wandered among the pebbles. They showed little fear and approached to within a few metres of me as I sat down at the side of the path.

Across the railway track from the tern colony lay the Kilcoole Marshes, a wetland, lagoon and mudflats that were populated by curlews, godwits, lapwings, golden plovers, herons and egrets. Again, in winter come whooper swans and flocks of geese from northern latitudes.

By the time I returned to the car, the tide had crept fully onto the shingle, which was now populated by a long progression of fishermen relaxing in the late afternoon sun.

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