Tolka Branch Trip
16th April 2011
by Rosemary Doyle
Buoyed up by an excellent presentation on Hen Harriers given by Barry
O'Donoghue of the National Parks and Wildlife Service to the Tolka Branch
in March, a party of 18 set off from Dublin to Monaghan in search of a
glimpse of these magnificent birds of prey.
To avoid M1 roadworks we set off along the picturesque N2 to Monaghan, and
despite the distraction of gigantic golden eagle garden ornaments en
route, we did spot a Buzzard scouting for breakfast at the start of
We arrived at Slieve Beagh at 10:45 and the morning was still a little
dull and fresh and the bird life a wee bit quiet, save for the Skylarks
twittering busily. We had a few sightings of Meadow Pipits
and Skylarks as we headed towards the plantation.
Skylark (Photo by John Fox)
Up near the penal cross, a Cuckoo
was heard long before he flew overhead, calling all the way until he landed on
a far off post. In the trees, the melodic strains of Willow Warblers
song carried far into the still air.
With nothing much else happening skywards, it gave us the opportunity to look
down and there we came across the caterpillar of the Drinker Moth.
Caterpillar of Drinker Moth (Photo by John Fox)
Over the valley, a Kestrel hovered
undeterred by the Skylarks chastising him. On the far side of the
valley, Hooded Crows loitered about in the peat.
Meanwhile, as the clouds finally revealed a patch of blue sky, we
contented ourselves comparing the rise and fall of Skylark and Meadow
Pipit flight. With the slight rise in temperature, four Red
Grouse rose out of the scrub, not too far from us giving good views of
them flying low for a few minutes before disappearing from view. No
sooner had the Red Grouse taken cover than a male Hen Harrier
cruised by, keeping low over the vegetation. We were able to
following his undulating flight for ages as he searched the valley below
us, disturbing Red Grouse and Skylarks along the way. It was a most
spectacular sighting for us all.
With no sign of him returning, we journeyed on further to a more sheltered
spot to eat our sambos. We arrived to hear Chiffchaff and Blackcap
signing, and had good views of a Reed Bunting pooching about in the
undergrowth. And in a true "KitKat" moment, when we
had relaxed to take a bit of sustenance, from around the corner a female
Hen Harrier appeared, she too looking for lunch. While we
dropped ours to appreciate the colour of form of this incredibly large
bird of prey she finished her flight with a sudden dive on some tasty
morsel and didn't reappear.
A short while later we were visited by a male Red Grouse, who, though
keeping his distance, remained in the area for about 20
minutes. We moved off but the sighting of a male Hen Harrier
sky-dancing soon stopped us in our tracks and we watched until the black
wing tips were just a speck in the distance.
Two minutes later we stopped again as we espied a Cuckoo flying towards
us, followed closely by another. In all, two male and one female
Cuckoo were seen perching on tree tops.
Male Cuckoo (Photo by John Fox)
We decided to take the coast road home and
headed east over to Dundalk and down to Lurgangreen. A Great Tit
greeted us loudly from the hedgerows whilst scattered along the sandbanks
over 50 Shelduck and 30 Redshank were busy feeding.
Flitting around in front of us on the sand over a dozen White Wagtail caught
our eye and 1 Curlew remained stationary whilst 2 Little Egret
Driving further south to Annagassan, we spotted over 20 Brent Geese
and a few Teal, 2 Grey Heron, 2 Little Egret and lots of Black-tailed
Godwits in breeding plumage. On closer inspection, about 100
extremely well-camouflaged Golden Plover in breeding plumage where
hunkered down on a sand bank. Behind them about 50 Turnstone
and Dunlin, some in breeding plumage, skittered about in their
usual hectic way whilst 30 Ringed Plover watched wide-eyed over
proceedings. Meanwhile, a Chaffinch sang in the trees behind
Our last stop along the coast was a Lurganbay, north of Clogherhead.
We first spotted 8 Red-breasted Mergansers leisurely bobbing about
in the evening sunshine, and then we saw 3 Red-throated Divers (one
in breeding plumage). A raft of about 12 Common Scoter was a
little further out to sea, and way beyond them were about 6 Gannets.
Later we saw 2 Northern Divers. On a fly-past south, 6 Brent
Geese chuckled by. Last to fly into view and land in front of us was
At 6.30 p.m. we decided to call it a day and headed back to Dublin
satisfied that nothing new could match all the fabulous sightings we had
seen over the whole day. And for good measure a Buzzard on the M1
brought the trip full circle.