Birds of Ireland’s Freshwater

If you ever stroll along a riverbank or canal, take a boat trip on the Shannon, sail on one of our many lakes or just sit with a fishing rod at the water’s edge on a sunny afternoon you will inevitably come in contact with one of the many birds that have made freshwater the centre of their life. 

From a stream flowing gently through a wooded landscape or a man-made canal or to the largest of lakes, birds have evolved to take advantage of the rich food supply and relative safety that these places provide. One of our earliest memories of a close encounter with a bird will probably be a trip to feed the swans or ducks at a nearby park, lake or river.

Our ancestors hunted freshwater birds and later domesticated ducks and geese, becoming an important part of the diet of many Irish people. References to freshwater birds in Irish mythology as well as the wide range of local names given to them in Ireland are evidence of the attention that was paid to them in the past.

Despite the fact that we share this emerald isle with so many freshwater birds most of us are unaware of the amazing ways they have evolved to take full advantage of these wet places.

The freshwater birds we are most familiar with are probably the mute swan and the mallard. We actually have three species of swan that are regularly seen in Ireland. The most familiar one is the mute swan which comes readily to bread and shows off its train of cute fluffy cygnets in early summer. The old story says that they mate for life and when one dies the other will die of a broken heart. Unfortunately, there seems to be no place for romance in nature and while swans are relatively loyal and monogamous, there is a ‘divorce rate’ of up to 6% amongst Mute Swans and those loosing a mate have been known to find another within three weeks!

Its cousin, the Bewick’s Swan, which migrates all the way from Russia to spend the winter here, is considered the most fateful with no know records of divorce. The other swan species found in Ireland is the Whooper Swan. It breeds in Iceland and spends the winter in Ireland on lakes and flood plains. It is thought that this is the swan that inspired the ancient myth of the Children of Lir.   The noted ability of the Children of Lir to sing may be drawn from the fact that, unlike the Mute Swan, Whooper Swans are very vocal, its whooping calls giving it its name, and their banishment may be tied in with the Whooper Swan’s disappearance from Ireland during the summer months .

In winter, up to 3,000 Whooper Swans can be seen gathered at Inch Lake in Co. Donegal and their whooping cries in such a stunning setting provide a truly wild spectacle.

We are learning about the ecology of our freshwater birds more and more each year, particularly on the impact that pollution has on freshwater birds such as the Dipper.  Professor John O’Halloran of UCC is the foremost expert in the field of the ecology of the Irish Dipper.  Professor O’Halloran has contributed a chapter on freshwater bird ecology in Jim Wilson’s and Mark Carmody’s new book entitled “Freshwater Birds of Ireland”.  Professor O’Halloran once lectured to Mark during his undergraduate degree before Mark went off and studied biochemistry, ultimately gaining a PhD in the area in UCC.

When it comes to courtship displays the great crested grebe, which breeds mainly in the midlands and north, is one of the best. With its spectacular headdress, it performs a beautifully choreographed water dance culminating in the presentation of a piece of weed to its partner. Grebes are freshwater birds that dive to hunt for food and usually build floating nests. They have an unusual habit of feeding feathers to their young to aid digestion. Also, because the young are unable to keep themselves warm for the first few days after hatching the adults use the feathers of their back and wings to cover them up and keep them warm. So don’t be surprised if you see a little head peeping out from the back of a grebe during the summer. The young will continue to try and hitch a ride from the parent even when they are big enough to keep themselves warm.

One of the most amazing bird spectacles in Ireland involves not a true freshwater bird but a land bird, the Starling, which will often seek shelter at night in reed beds at the edges of our lakes and bogs.

Starlings, which will sometimes nest in the roof of a house, gather in huge numbers in late autumn and winter to roost for the night, called a murmuration of starlings. It is thought that they do this for safety but also to communicate because individual starlings look at the condition of their neighbours in the roosting flock in the evening and in the morning will follow those that look well fed assuming they know where there is a good food supply!

They sometimes gather in flocks of 200,000 or more birds and the aerial show they put on before falling as one into the reeds is one of the most amazing spectacles of the natural world.

If you want to learn more about our freshwater birds look out for Jim and Mark’s book entitled ‘Freshwater Birds of Ireland’ published by The Collins Press.

Text: Jim Wilson –
Images: Mark Carmody –
Images from ‘Freshwater Birds of Ireland’ by Jim Wilson and Mark Carmody (The Collins Press)

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