A Wild Goose Chase

Southwest Donegal Birdwatchers

This is out 12th monthly report so I suppose it’s an anniversary of sorts. Yes, we are one year on the go and we thought we would celebrate with a ‘Wild Goose Chase’.

On the weekend of 25th and 26th of October (2013) , Emer Magee, of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, hosted a ‘Fish and Fowl’ weekend at McGlinchey’s Field Study Centre at Sheskinmore Ardara. We decided to incorporate this into our monthly outing.

Emmett Johnston gave a very interesting talk on the Basking Sharks of Donegal. The mere mention of the word ‘shark’ conjures images of razor teeth, blood and gore, but these gentle giants have tiny teeth and feed only on plankton. After the Whale Shark, they are the second largest fish in the world and have been known to grow to over 12 meters in length – however the ones we are likely to see would be much smaller. They get their name from their habit of swimming and feeding on the surface, where they seem to ‘bask’ in the sun. When they are ‘basking’ you can see their tail, dorsal fin and nose protruding from the surface of the water. There’s not a lot of energy in plankton so these sharks tend to move slowly so they don’t deplete their resources. However on occasions these sharks leap clear of the water and land with a massive splash; this is quite unexpected as it takes quite a lot of energy to do this. Emmett wasn’t sure if they do this to rid themselves of parasites or if it is just boys trying to impress the girls. Basking Sharks are frequently seen around Donegal Bay, especially St John’s Point and Teelin. Paddy Byrne, who skippers the Nuala Star on pleasure trips out of Teelin, has reported dozens of them over the years and has even gone swimming with them. However, according to Emmett, Malin Head is a bit of a Mecca for Basking Sharks. At Malin Head, the cold dilute waters of the Irish Sea meet the warmer, more salty waters of the Atlantic; this intersection is known as the ‘Islay front’. This frontal zone seems to stimulate the growth of plankton and attracts Basking Sharks by the dozen.

On Saturday morning, Andrew Spear gave a talk about Geese in Donegal and about the wildfowl reserve at Inch. The reserve has seen a large increase in all bird species in the last few years. Andrew explained that there is close co-operation with the local gun clubs with quite a few of their members actively involved in conservation measures. He mentioned that a number of the farms on the reserve have gone ‘Organic’ but the geese seemed to prefer the farms where the land had been fertilised. Not only is the area good for wildfowl and waders, it is a haven for farmland species that are becoming rare elsewhere. All said and done this is one place that is well worth a visit.

After Andrews talk we all had our lunch as the wind and rain hammered ominously on the windows and doors. You have to be an ‘All Weather’ person to live in Donegal but this had even the hardiest souls looking nervous. With the teapots empty and the last sandwich eaten, there were no more excuses to put off the evil hour – Emer rallied the troupes and we headed off into the teeth of a gale. The ‘Wild Goose Chase’ had begun.

The wind blew and the rain lashed but we resolutely marched to Sheskinmore Lough. It would seem that fortune favours the brave and before long, the rain had eased and we were treated to a good view of 13 Greenland White-fronted Geese and a Barnacle Goose who seems to have just come along for the ride. Andrew mentioned that the Greenland White-fronted Goose was once known as the ‘Bog Goose’ because that is where you would find them; Lough Nillan between Ardara and Frosses used to be a good place for them. However they seem to have changed their habits and they are now more likely to be found on good pasture. There was also a small flock of Lapwing and a small flock of Jackdaws, about 20 of each. Pied Wagtails seemed to be everywhere, there were a few Mallard on the Lough and a Golden Plover, a Magpie and a Hooded Crow put in an appearance.

Having first braved the elements, the next phase of our journey was going to be in comfort. Back at McGlinchey’s we boarded our bus and headed off to Loughros Point in the hope of seeing one of the massive flocks of Barnacle Geese that frequent the area. On this occasion we didn’t see any geese grazing in the fields so we headed for Trabane. As we disembarked the clouds parted, the sun came out and the landscape was transformed. Trabane is a beautiful place at any time but in this bright autumn light, it was exceptional. In the sunshine, a Kestrel put in an appearance along with a few Choughs. On the rocks, there were the usual Oystercatchers and Herring Gulls. Just off the beach a Cormorant made momentary appearances before popping back down to the depths, in a never ending search for food. Some people wondered if it was a Diver. When on the surface, Divers tend to stick their heads under water to look for prey and, presumably, they only dive when they see something. Cormorants don’t do this, they just take a breath, leap clear of the water, and are gone with a splash. When Divers dive, they just put their heads underwater and their bodies just seem to slip under the surface and they gone; all that is left is a slight ripple. Away off shore, it was possible to see Black-backed Gulls and Gannets circling.
Another local name for Trabane is the ‘Duirlinge’, which is Irish for ‘cobblestones’. When I was a child there was virtually no sand at Tranbane, just a steep ramp of cobblestones that came straight up out of the sea and seemed to form a small dune. However, today due to the ever-shifting sands of this region, the shoreline is sandy but the tall ridge of cobblestones is still visible at the back of the beach. It is clear that landscape is not static but a very dynamic thing – I am sure it provided a very interesting topic of study for Helen

From Loughros Point we took the bus to Dooey and headed down to the shore where we saw Brent Geese. These are small geese about the size of a large duck and there are two races, the Pale Bellied and the Dark Bellied races; the ones at Dooey were Pale Bellied. We saw them out on the muddy sands of the Gweebara estuary; they were feeding to the beautiful and distinctive calls of a flock of Curlews – there is no sound that is more evocative of wild places. Brent Geese have quite an appetite for intertidal species such as Eelgrass and Sea Lettuce, and for salt marsh grasses. The shoreline is the main place where you will find them but Andrew mentioned earlier that there is an increasing tendency for them to be found on agricultural grasslands.
The Rook is the quintessential agricultural bird. Its main distinguishing feature is the bare patch of skin around the base of its bill. They are quite reminiscent of old farmers who resolutely get on with the business at hand with their determined march from one potential food item to another. Dooey has quite a few of them.

From Dooey we headed back to Sheskinmore via Nairn. We stopped on a hill overlooking Clooney Lough, which was a hive of activity. There were Mute and Whooper Swans, Moorhens and ‘Baldy’ Coots with their white foreheads, Wigeon with their creamy foreheads, the frenetically active Tufted Ducks with their incessant diving and of course there were the ubiquitous Mallards.

On behalf of us all I would like to thank Emer for organising the event; to Helen for sharing her love and enthusiasm for this part of Donegal that is so manifest in the new web site; to Emmett for making us more acquainted with the fascinating Basking Shark, and to Andrew for his talk on geese and for whetting our appetite to see Inch Wildfowl Reserve – hope to see you soon Andrew.

In fact, our next outing will be to Inch Wildfowl Reserve on Saturday the 30th of November, meeting at Donegal Town Pier at 9.30am.

Michael Cunningham


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