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Birds & Fauna

  1. Birds
  2. Fauna

Birds on Clare Island

The island's bird-lifepar takes in the seasonal movements and character of the west coast avifauna, which can only be understood by study of an extended coastline, such as from Erris Head to Slyne Head.

cliffsThe spectacular cliff-faces along the northwestern and western coasts provide an extensive environment for breeding sea-birds. During an assessment of Irish seabird colonies, based on the breeding seabird inventory recently prepared by the Forest &Wildlife Service, Clare Island was considered to be a key site of major national importance.


• The most numerous of the island's seabirds today are kittiwake, fulmar, (this species first nested in Ireland in 1911 ), (and smaller numbers) guillemot and the greater black-backed gull.

• The island is a site of international importance for the chough. It is not uncommon to see flocks of fifty or more birds at the western end of the island, and smaller numbers on the upland mountain land from the lighthouse moving westward. They breed on the northern and western cliffs. The prevalence of the chough was noted by Ussher in the original Clare Island Survey in1912, remarking that "Clare Island may happily be called a sanctuary of the Chough."

• Clare Island is Ireland's fourth and newest (as well as smallest) gannetry. One pair of gannets began breeding on a low stack northeast of the Tower since 1975. Breeding has continued ever since despite the unusually isolated and exposed position of the site.There are now three pairs breeding (Cussens, summer 1998). Gannets (more than the resident six) can often be seen feeding between the island and Roonagh.

• Ravens and peregrines nest on the northern and western cliffs.

• The cliffs and the western end of the island in Toremore, are also important for barnacle geese which use them as important winter feeding.

• Quite recent breeders are cormorants on Beetle Head, Shags breed from the lighthouse around to the south-east coast.

• Visitors include: great northern diver, common and arctic terns, glaucos gull (rare), as well as a gyr falcon which was a very rare visitor in 1996.

• Since the original Survey, the number of razorbills has declined drastically. (Razorbills were considered the"star" species of the 1912 Survey. "There is no more remarkable colony in Ireland than that on the great cliff of Clare Island, where razorbills breed up to 1,000 ft." wrote Ussher. In 1945 razorbills were more numerous than guillemots. A total of 1713 birds were counted in 1969. Only about 200 were counted in 1982 and in1990, only 28 were seen. Puffins still breed but in very small numbers as well as the black guillemot. Ussher noted of the puffins that"considerable colonies extend along the upper parts of the Clare Island cliffs among and above those of Razorbills. They have no rabbit-holes to occupy so they must dig their own burrows.

• There has also been a serious decline in the number of common gulls: 800 pairs were counted in 1988, only 30 pairs today (summer 1998-Cussens).Herring gulls have also declined, perhaps because of the competition from the lesser black backed gull (20-30 pairs) which are a recent arrival.

• There has been a massive proliferation amongst magpies and hooded crow.The Magpie was said to be only a visitor at the beginning of the century and was not seen in 1945; two pairs of Hooded crow were found nesting in the cliffs by Ussher, and only three or four pairs were seen to be breed in 1945.33 hooded crows were seen in Lassau wood on May 1998.

• The corncrake has been absent from the island for about ten years. Efforts are underway to create suitable conditions favouring their return (i.e late cutting of hay).

• Greywagtail, reed bunting, sedgewarbler, linnets and grass hopper warbler are breeders as well as snipe. The latter can be heard drumming in the northern and eastern parts of the island. Other breeding wading birds include ringedplover, oystercatcher and commonsandpiper. Turn-stones and purple sandpipers are winter visitors.

• Kestrel, sparrow hawk, and peregrine are the island's birds of prey: the peregrine nesting in a traditional eyrie in the cliffs at the western end, near the Tower.

• There are large numbers of lapwings and curlews (especially in winter) though few are breeders.

• The numbers of blackbirds and robins have increased noticeably, perhaps due to the increase of vegetation cover now being planted near houses.

• Swiftsbreed in large numbers, stone chats are very common; skylarks are not uncommon. Of the passerines, the commonest are meadow pipit and wheatear. A colony of treesparrows has established itself since 1982, scattered between the harbour and the Abbey.

• Notably absent from the original Survey are twite, cornbunting, yellow hammer and whitethroat all of which are birds associated with traditional farming practices.

• A final word must be given to a bird that is extinct, the golden eagle.

Ussher writes:

"  Symes, of the geological Survey, who had been stationed in the district in1867-1870, stated that the Eagles, generally a pair, used to be quitefearless,  from the absence of guns, and that they did havoc among the younglambs, and lifted geese from the cottiers' very doors. T. Bourke Gaffney, who was a week on the island in1878, and saw two Eagles, stated that there was an unbroken record of a pair occupying the same eyrie for the past century, which was never disturbed, being unaccessible. This is confirmed by the reports of light-keepers from1882-1885, who speak of these birds having their nest in the highest cliffs; and say that in winter, when they had not sea-birds, they were often observed near the villages, and used to prey upon the grouse, then plentiful on Clare Island. On the 4 April,1887, a Golden Eagle was sent to the National Museum in Dublin, from the island and this seems to mark the time of the disappearance of those birds which have ceased to breed there."

The following is an old poem confirming the existence of this majestic bird.

Come all you true Clare Islanders attention pay to me
And when you'll hear of these few lines, I'm sure you will agree.
Concerning this old woman and the gallant eagle bold,
On the 19th day of January by her he was controlled.
As she was stepping it out for home, she met him on her way;
As he was taking dinner these words to him did say,
"Now my man you're acting wrong and that you know quite well,
That's a darling gander which belongs to my Lavelle."
"And if I'm acting wrong" himself he said, "then what is that to you,
Aren't you like a wounded officer that fought at Waterloo,
Don't you know that I'm the eagle and my meals I do get free,
So go your way you impudent jay, how dare you speak to me."
The battle then it did commence, she made her first attack;
She walked up with her walking stick and hit him on the back.
He thought to make a charge at her, but she knocked him down again
O'hone he cried,"my back is broke, the battle is all in vain."
Now it is few that believe it, but it is indeed well known,
She took him on her shoulder and walked away straight home.
He was purchased by the lighthousekeeper to keep him for a show
And he ne'er will kill a goose again in Myley or Tomroe.
The wit of this old woman should be published far and wide,
In Capnagower, Kille and Glen beside the brimming tide.
Her age is over seventy, she is but poor and lame.
She's a native of Clare Island and Bridget Barrett is her name.

For more information regarding the island's bird-life, please contact us or Bob Cussens, Department of Marine Biology, National University of Ireland, Cork. bob.cussens@ucc.ie to whom we are extremely grateful for helping us with this summary.


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