South Dublin Branch - Outing Report

Bluethroat - Ballycotton, Cork (photo: Paul & Andrea Kelly)

Broad Lough, Wicklow - 10th September 2023.

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Some of the South Dublin members that came on our September outing to the Broad Lough. Picture by Ronan Browne.

South Dublin Members, Broad Lough, 10th September 2023 (picture: Ronan Browne)

Despite its unimaginative name, Broad Lough has always been a favourite destination for Irish naturalists. For the unacquainted, it is a brackish tidal estuary situated about a mile north of Wicklow town formed by the Vartry river, which is separated from the open sea by a long grassy spit of land known as the Murrough (Gaelic for sea fighter). It is a place of rich habitat diversity within a relatively small area and so consequently attracts a remarkable range of wildlife. It was last visited by the South Dublin group in 2012 and so a return was merited.

About 25 individuals including welcome new faces congregated on the road alongside the Irish Biofuel plant at 10:00 where on nearby overhead cables the iconic sight of twittering Barn Swallows grouping for migration set an autumnal ambience as the outing began.

The very aptly named Whitethroat, once breeding is concluded it will return to sub-Saharan Africa to winter. Picture by Gustavo Zoladz.

Whitethroat, Broad Lough, 10th September 2023 (picture: Gustavo Zoladz)

The first impression along the path leading to Broad Lough was how lush the vegetation was and the abundance of wildflowers still in bloom so late in the season. The swathes of Red and Pink Valerian interspersed with the whites of Yarrow, Wild Carrot, Mayweed, and Yellow Ragwort with a few blue scatterings of Viper’s Bugloss and wild Chicory together created a colourful tapestry on the gentle embankments for everyone to enjoy on the hazy humid morning.

The surrounding gorse and bramble scrub was keenly scanned for birdlife and quickly a Whitethroat was spotted, a lively warbler which is typically seen jauntily singing from the tops of hedgerows but here unusually was on the ground. Whitethroats over-winter in sub-Saharan Africa and have usually left Ireland by early September. Small flocks of Linnets and Goldfinches then swooped in to inspect seedheads as a handsome male Stonechat perched above gave out its distinctive call often likened to two stones tapping together.

A late Sandwich Tern already in winter plumage still hanging on at Broad Lough. Picture by Gustavo Zoladz.

Sandwich Tern and Oystercatcher, Broad Lough, 10th September 2023 (picture: Gustavo Zoladz)

On arrival at the estuary, it was realised that the tide was high, which is not ideal for bird watching. Predicting tides at Broad Lough is not straightforward if relying on the times stated for close-by Wicklow Harbour. This is because there is often a lag time between the two locations and the situation can be further complicated by slow water drainage from the estuary after heavy rainfall and spring tides.

Fortunately, there were a few sand bars above water where gulls and waders had gathered and so everyone eagerly focused on these. Inconspicuous amongst the plentiful gulls was a solitary Sandwich Tern recognised by the sharp-eyed Robert Busby. Interestingly some of these large terns do overwinter in milder regions of Ireland. Amid the many Herring Gulls, attention was drawn to one individual because curiously it’s left leg was ringed with a red band stamped with the identification code 'OK4:D'.

Although the main arrival of waders was still a few weeks away, small numbers of Oystercatchers, Redshanks and Dunlin were present. Several flocks of Black-tailed Godwits flew past with their striking white upper wing-bars and lanky legs extending past their tails clearly visible. Both these features can be used to differentiate them from the less common Bar-tailed Godwit, which unfortunately was not present for comparison. A distant view of what looked like a Goosander caused brief excitement until identified as merely a juvenile Common Shelduck.

High-tide at Broad Lough, Oystercatchers find an uncovered sandbank to retreat to. Picture by Gustavo Zoladz.

Oystercatchers at Broad Lough, 10th September 2023 (picture: Gustavo Zoladz)

A remarkable total of 41 Little Egrets were picked out among the trees on the opposite side of the estuary. Their gleaming white plumage contrasting against the dark green foliage made them easy to count. It was a sight one observer aptly compared to snow-white baubles hanging from Christmas trees and while we were transfixed on this there was sudden drama when a Buzzard came by that spooked all the Egrets and associating Grey Herons into flight. The exotic appearance of this stirring spectacle was a special memory for all who witnessed it.

The Author was a regular visitor to Broad Lough in the early noughties when observing even a pair of Little Egrets was noteworthy as they were then scarce. Although often referred to as being new arrivals to Ireland, these small herons were in fact prevalent on our shores prior to the late mediaeval period. Little Egrets are phenomenal colonisers occurring in much of the warm temperate and tropical regions of the world except America.

Is that a giant egg? Dunnock with a puzzle to figure out. Picture by Gustavo Zoladz.

Dunnock, Broad Lough, 10th September 2023 (picture: Gustavo Zoladz)

Several newcomers to Broad Lough expressed how captivated they were with the tranquillity and unspoilt beauty of the place. The only break in silence was the occasional loud splash caused by fish rising for flies which were probably Thick-lipped Grey Mullet or Sea Trout.

The estuary contains many fish species including the Gilthead Bream which originates from the Mediterranean and in recent years has become increasingly frequent in Irish waters. The estuarine fish being in shallow water are conspicuous to hungry Ospreys passing over on their spring and autumn migration routes along the Irish east coast. Consequently, Broad Lough has a reputation for Osprey sightings although alas there were none on the outing. However, in the advent of recent Irish natural breeding success and reintroduction schemes for this majestic raptor one could envisage a time when it might be seen regularly at Broad Lough as it once would have been over two centuries ago.

Some More Pictures

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Pale fleshy coloured legs tell us these are Great Black-backed Gulls. Picture by Gustavo Zoladz.

Some more pictures taken on the day by Gustavo Zoladz and Ronan Browne.
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Juvenile Goldfinch feeding on thistles at Broad Lough. Picture by Gustavo Zoladz.
A Robin on look-out duty at Broad Lough. Picture by Ronan Browne.
Scrubby ground between the railway tracks and the Broad Lough, with the Wicklow Mountains in the background. Picture by Ronan Browne.
South Dublin members assemble for our September outing to Broad Lough outside the Irish Biofuel plant. Picture by Ronan Browne.

Towards the end of our excursion a Great-spotted Woodpecker was a fleetingly glimpsed flying between trees harassed by a thrush. Despite the dire weather forecast for torrential rain and the ominous ever-present thunder clouds just a few light showers manifested. The relaxing return walk was completed by 13:00. A big thank you to Des Higgins for leading the adventure and to the many who shared their impressive knowledge.

Shane Kerr

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