Wildlife in May

Sheskinmore was blustery and wet on the morning of 16th May but became warm and sunny later. Forty-three bird species were recorded throughout the reserve.

In the morning at least six snipe Gallinago gallinago were displaying simultaneously over the machair. The strange bleating noise snipe make during display-flights is known as drumming and is produced by the male birds diving through the air so their extended outer tail feathers vibrate.

An old Ulster name for snipe is heather-bleat, which seems influenced by their boggy habitat and their display flight, but which is ultimately derived from the Old-English hæfer-blæte which means goat-bleater (Macafee, 1996). The sound of snipe drumming, and photos of birds in display can be found here: Snipe Drumming

There were also several pairs of lapwings Vanellus vanellus present, both within and without their fenced enclosure. I did not do a proper survey but counted approximately half a dozen territorial pairs.

Cuckoos Cuculus canorus were present on the western slope of Mullyvea, at their usual haunt of scrubby hazel, birch and oak woodland. Two birds were seen in flight together, probably a breeding pair, and as well as the usual “cuck -koo”, their otherworldly, maniacal, laughing call was also heard.

I was pleased to record three singing male blackcaps Sylvia atricapilla in the woods further east. Although now a very common species in Ireland this was a first for me at the reserve (mainly through not visiting enough in spring!). I have updated the bird species list (Bird Life at Sheskinmore) accordingly. Blackcaps have a beautiful and complex warbling song. There is much variation between individual birds and they often include mimicry of other bird species. They nest near the ground, primarily in bramble around woodland margins.

The slopes were also alive with whitethroats Sylvia communis and willow warblers Phylloscopus trochilus and the reed-bed and wetter areas with sedge warblers Acrocephalus schoenobaenus and reed buntings Emberiza schoeniclus. Blackbirds Turdus merula and song thrushes Turdus philomelos were singing from the more mature woodland. Was it my imagination or do Donegal blackbirds sound even more relaxed than their counterparts elsewhere?

Back on the cuckoos’ hillside I found two willow warbler nests; both by watching female birds back to eggs. Female willow warblers take breaks from incubation every 25-40 minutes and are usually then noticeable due to their constant “hoo-eet” calls; these are identical to the male and female alarm calls (Ferguson-Lees et al. 2011). Unusually, the first female I watched back did not call when off the nest. I only suspected she was off eggs due to the presence of a singing male nearby and her nervous behaviour, which included constant wing-flicking and flitting back and forward between two low perches. After about five minutes of observation she dropped down to a nest site on the ground beneath a juniper bush. Previous to this I had never known a willow warbler female to be silent when off eggs. It goes to show that birds are individuals and they don’t all read the field guides!

A second willow warbler nest was found a few minutes later and that female gave the standard off-nest calls. I will submit both nest records to the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) Nest Record Scheme (NRS) which accepts records from across Ireland.

More information about the NRS can be found here: Nest Record Scheme. When visiting nests to monitor them it is always necessary to adhere to the NRS Code of Conduct.

As previously discussed (Mid May, Sheskinmore), most habitats at Sheskinmore are resplendent with wildflowers at this time of year. Photos of some I saw are below.

A fox Vulpes vulpes with a white tail-tip was watched prowling around the rabbit Oryctolagus cuniculus warren on the dune grassland near Sheskinmore Lough and there were also scores of very healthy-looking rabbits about.


Ferguson-Lees, J., Castell, R. and Leech, D. (2011) A Field Guide to Monitoring Nests BTO, Norfolk.

Macafee, C.I. (ed.) (1996) Concise Ulster Dictionary Oxford University Press, Oxford.


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