Tolka Branch Trip Report

 Monaghan - 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 the route.

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 flew past.

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 us.

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 a Whimbrel

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.




Copyright, Tolka Branch, Birdwatch Ireland 2006