Did You Know…?

Southwest Donegal Birdwatchers

There was a Yellow Weather Warning for possible thunderstorms in Donegal on the day of our May outing (Saturday 28th), and although the clouds were threatening, the day passed without any of us getting wet.

A Little Bit of (Natural) Heaven

Sheskinmore Nature Reserve is a magical place for anyone interested in wildlife; there are loughs, swamps, dunes, reed beds, estuaries, saltmarsh, beaches and a particularly interesting lime-rich grassland habitat known as Machaire. Each of these habitats has its own selection of plants, insects, birds and animals, and a visit always throws up something interesting or intriguing.

We parked up at McGlinchey’s Field Study Centre and waited for the troupes to arrive. At this time of year, there are always a few Jackdaws, Skylarks, Starlings and Pied Wagtails around the house: a Pheasant’s loud call rang out, but it never broke cover.

We headed along the track to the reserve and spotted a Grey Heron and Mute Swan on Sandfield Lough, with a few Hooded Crows passing overhead.

An Infrequent Visitor

In a wet pasture beside Sandfield Lough we spotted something a little out of the ordinary. What at first looked like a pair of slightly odd Stonechats, turned out to be a pair of Whinchats. These migratory insect-eating birds overwinter in tropical Africa and occasionally
turn up in South Donegal; they survey the surrounding territory from a bush-top or fencepost, from which they swoop down on some unsuspecting creepy-crawly. They differ from Stonechats in having what looks like large white eyebrows and a drooping white moustache. Such a description might be a wee bit unkind as, both the male and female are very smart and striking birds.

Along the adjacent track, a pair of Reed Buntings foraged; they are seed-eating birds, but at this time of year, they avail of the plentiful supply of insects.


Over at Sheskinmore Lough the air was simply full of bird sounds. The comical cry of the acrobatic Lapwing rang out and the call of the Cuckoo echoed across the Lough. There was wall-to-wall Skylark song, and we could make out the chattering of skimming Swallows. The plaintive meow of Buzzards also filtered through; we counted 6 in all, 4 in the Sandfield direction and 2 out towards Kiltoorish. We had often expressed our surprise that we didn’t often see Buzzards at Sheskinmore, given that there were so many Rabbits to be had, but today the Buzzards were here in abundance. Funny enough, the Rabbits were making themselves scarce, and if they did emerge, they didn’t stray far from their burrows.

A pair of Grey Herons stood motionless at the lakeside. Their lives seem to be 99.9% vacuous boredom followed by brief moments of action, which usually entails a despairing stab at some passing water beetle or fish… success is never guaranteed. The pair of Herring Gulls that bobbed on the surface of the Lough seemed to be having more success.

You Are What You Eat

Across the river, on the sand hills some Red-billed Choughs probed the short turf for various grubs and Leather Jackets (Crane Fly larvae); they were accompanied by several Gulls that seemed to want to cash in on whatever the Choughs were at… I don’t know if they managed to get anything at all.

As we headed for the metal bridge, we noticed that there were Cinnabar Moths everywhere. These day-flying moths have black forewings with red spots and streaks; the hind wings are red too. The shade of red is similar to the brick-red colour of a mercury and sulphur ore, called cinnabar, from which the moth gets its name. Cinnabar is highly toxic because of its mercury content, and interestingly, the Cinnabar Moth is toxic too, but for a different reason.

Plants are in a constant battle with the organisms that infect or feed upon them. They produce chemicals to kill off bacteria, viruses or fungi; they also produce poisonous and foul-tasting chemicals to deter grazers. Ragwort is one such plant that produces bitter, poisonous alkaloids which are an effective deterrent for the vast majority of creature except for a few caterpillars. Cinnabar Moth caterpillars obliviously munch the leaves of Ragwort and accumulate the vile tasting, poisonous alkaloids in their own bodies; this renders them poisonous too, so birds do not eat them. The caterpillars advertise this fact by having striking, black and yellow banded colouration. The poisonous alkaloids accumulated in the bodies of the caterpillars are retained when they metamorphose into adult moths; and, again, the adults advertise the fact by having striking black and red colouration. Unlike other moths, that fly at night to avoid detection by predators, or butterflies that show their camouflaged under-wing when they land (again to avoid predators), the Cinnabar Moth is extremely conspicuous, confident in the fact that its poison will protect it.

Lad or Ladette

When we crossed the river onto the flat plain of the machaire grassland, we spotted a single Golden Plover with a black belly, which is typical of these birds when they are in breeding plumage. In Ireland, Golden Plovers tend to breed in the uplands of north-western counties but this individual was probably a young, non-breeding adult.

The Question that Launched a Thousand More!

On the topic of Golden Plovers: in 1951, Sir Hugh Beaver, the chairman of the Guinness brewery, and a few of his mates were out for a day’s shooting. When he missed a shot at a Golden Plover, a question about which was the fastest game bird, the Golden Plover or Red Grouse, was raised. One of the benefits of being a member of the obscenely rich, inbred, aristocracy is that you can hire people to research these, and other such questions. A few years later, the answer to this, and a myriad of other pointless questions were answered in the first edition of the ‘Guinness Book of Records’!

Another Question

The flat machaire plain is a botanical wonderland at this time of year; the wet spots are full of Bog Cotton, Marsh Marigold and Lady’s Smock. We put up a Snipe from one such wet spot and it made a rapid beeline for the safety of the nearby reed beds. There was a number of peculiar sounds coming from the reed beds; one could best be describes as something akin to a rusty hinge being moved back and forth; the other sounded like prolonged kissing through puckered lips! I listened to a few recording of wetland birds and I think it may have been a Water Rail. Something like a Rail briefly flew up from the reeds; I cannot be sure but it is an interesting possibility.

Parental Guidance?

Just then, the Cuckoo that flew by was being mobbed by Meadow Pipits. Cuckoos are referred to as ‘Brood Parasites’, as they lay their eggs in other birds’ nests (especially Meadow Pipits, Dunnocks and Sedge Warblers) and let them raise the young. By the time the young Cuckoo is grown, its biological parents will have gone back to Africa. It will then set off on the long journey to Africa, all on its own, and without any guidance; the fact that they return each year shows that they successfully make the journey. It is incredible to think that they have an in-built map in their brains to enable them to make this solo journey.


The orchids have just started on the machaire at Sheskinmore and they seem to grab people’s attention like no others.

19 different species have been recorded on the reserve, including the Dense-Flowered Orchid, the Butterfly Orchid, the Frog Orchid and the Bee Orchid: they have a fascinating lifecycle.

The seeds of orchids are tiny and, unlike the seeds of other plants, they contain almost no food reserves. The seeds do not germinate until they become infected with mycorhrizal fungi. Most of the fungi in this group are saprophytic, that is they live on the organic remains of plant material that is present in the soil (humus). More rarely the mychorizal fungus can be parasitic, as in the case of Early Purple Orchid and the Lady’s Slipper; their mychoriza belong to the group of fungi known as the Honey Fungi.

Once the seeds have been infected with the appropriate mychoriza, germination and development are very slow. Leaves may not appear until the second, third or even subsequent years. During all of this period, the developing orchid is sustained by the mychoriza. Even after the appearance of leaves, it may be several years before flowers are formed. The period from germination to flowering varies considerably; species such as the Marsh Orchid can flower after only five years while it may take sixteen or more years before the Lady’s Slipper blooms. This prolonged period from germination to flower formation would account for the mysterious disappearance and reappearance of particular species of orchids in various places.

We lay down to try and get a few photographs to see if we could identify any of the orchids. They are notoriously difficult to identify as the different species tend to hybridise and produce fertile offspring, which can then cross with another species. It might be better to consider them on some genetic continuum, e.g. 20% species A and 80% species B but without the aid of sophisticated laboratory equipment, you could never tell.

Meanwhile a small flock of Herring Gulls and one or two Common Gulls passed over; a Raven passed over too. They are impressive birds; this one may have been a fledgling from the nest at Carrickalahagh, which hatched out earlier this year.

Vanished Woodland?
Out at Kiltoorish the ground seemed to be carpeted in places with sheets of Bluebells and Primroses. These are typical woodland plants and it seems to raise the question, ‘were there small patches of woodland here in the past’?

This Outing

On this outing (Saturday 28th May), we encountered only 21 species of birds but they were interesting nonetheless; they included Buzzard, Common Gull, Cuckoo, Golden Plover, Grey Heron, Herring Gull, Hooded Crow, Jackdaw, Lapwing, Meadow Pipit, Mute Swan, Pheasant, Pied Wagtail, Raven, Red-billed Chough, Reed Bunting, Skylark, Snipe, Starling, Swallow and Whinchat.

Our Next Outing

Our next outing will be on Saturday the 25th June, heading to Horn Head. We will leave the statue of Aodh Ruadh, on Donegal Town Pier at 9:00am; we will car pool from there. For those coming from the north of the county, we will meet at the Town Square in Dunfanaghy between 10:20 and 10:30am.



Michael Cunningham


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