Home Alone!

Southwest Donegal Bird Watchers

Our bird watching outing on the 14th of March was to Sheskinmore Nature Reserve. It is one of those special places, where there is always something new to see; and this trip didn’t disappoint.

At Sandfield Lough, which lies on the eastern side of the reserve, we spotted a family of 6 Whooper Swans and a Little Grebe out on the water, as a Grey Heron stood sentry in the shallows. Our chatting seemed to disturb a snipe that rose up from the wetland beside the Lough and made its zigzag escape off to the north. A few Skylarks were trying out their vocal chords as the breeding season made a faltering start on this cold March morning. As we craned our necks, to get a better view of the Skylarks, a Raven passed over.

It was lovely to see so many Golden Plover at Sheskinmore Lough; some even have the beginnings of the black belly associated with breeding plumage. We counted 112 through the telescope as they stood at the lakeside. Two Rooks seemed to take a malign pleasure in disturbing them by flying low and landing in the middle of where they were standing… needless to say they took off. You can see Golden Plover on nearly any hilltop in Donegal where they bred during the summer.

A number of Curlew, Cormorants, Common Gull and Mallard fished and foraged around the Lough too.

It was also great to see a flock of 68 Lapwing. According to Emer (the NPWS Conservation Ranger for Sheskinmore) that’s the highest number of these birds that have been counted at the Lough in recent years; about 10 years ago numbers would have been as low as 20. Birdwatch Ireland has recently installed a predator proof fence around a large area to the west of the Lough. It would seem that the exclusion of predators such as minks, foxes and domestic cats from the nesting area is already having a significant effect.

Golden Plover at Sheskinmore Lough

Golden Plover at Sheskinmore Lough

One of the first things to strike you, when you come to Sheskinmore, is the hundreds of rabbits that nervously dart to and fro around the place. Rabbit numbers fluctuate, up and down, over the years and we appear to be at a population high point at the moment. This abundant supply of rabbit meat has encouraged a pair of Buzzards to regularly visit the area. It would be nice to know that they have successfully bred. Let’s keep our fingers crossed!

As we walked through the dunes we noticed something curious – the entrances to a lot of the rabbit burrows were blocked off with moss! It appears that doe rabbits will block off the entrances to burrows, in which they have recently given birth their young; the moss keeps the kits in, lets the air in but also excludes certain predators. The babies are left

while mum goes off to feed. She returns only once every night to suckle the kits. They first appear above ground at around 18 days old and are weaned by 24 days. While the main warren was out on the flat ground behind the dunes, these natal burrows were located mostly in the dunes.

Rabbits are legendary breeders. Within 24 hours of giving birth to one litter, momma rabbit is busily conceiving her next litter.

Most mammals have fleas but rabbit fleas are quite ingenious. Fleas feed on blood and, just before the female rabbit gives birth, there are certain hormonal changes in her blood. These hormonal changes trigger reproduction in the fleas. So, just as a new batch of young rabbits is born, there is a whole new batch of baby fleas to infest them.

Another unusual thing we noticed was that the recent storm had caused a massive blow-out, where thousands of tonnes of sand from an eroding dune, had covered a large area of old stabilised dune, commonly referred to as Grey Dune. Grey dune gets its name from grey colour of the rich lichen community that grows on its surface. These communities usually take centuries to establish but hopefully it won’t take as long for the lichen communities to re-establish on the new surface. The great swath of almost white sand, that coated the dunes, could clearly be seen against the grey of the lichen in unaffected areas. The funny thing was that this white coat, stopped abruptly at the river. The reason for this has to do with the way wind-blown sand moves. About 95% of sand movement is by a process of ‘saltation’ (from the Latin, ‘saltus’, meaning ‘leap’ or ‘jump’), this is where the sand grains bounce along in short hops, until they come to some spot where the power of the wind is too low to move them any further. Since the sand moved by as series of short hops, once they reached the river, they simply hopped into the river and got washed away. That is why one side of the river was white and the other side was unaffected.

Mobilized sand covering extensive areas of grey dune

Mobilized sand covering extensive areas of grey dune

Things were a wee bit rushed towards the end of our outing as a few of us were hurrying off to see the Ireland versus Wales 6 Nations Rugby Match – sadly as we lost the battle, but we did win the war!

At Kiltoorish Lough there were a few more Little Grebes, a Common Gull and a Stonechat, and on Tramore Beach we spotted a Kestrel, a few Jackdaws and a Meadow Pipit.

The bird species encountered on this outing were, Common Gull, Cormorant, Curlew, Golden Plover, Grey Herron, Jackdaw, Kestrel, Lapwing, Little Grebe, Mallard, Meadow Pipit, Raven, Rook, Skylark, Snipe, Stone Chat and Whooper Swan.

Michael Cunningham

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