Shannon River is teeming with wildlife

THE weekend before last I was in Lanesborough for the annual Lough Ree environmental summer school. I had the pleasant job of guiding boatloads of people on the lake and the river and showing off their beauty.

The Shannon looks well even in a wet July. Its banks are lined with purple and yellow loosestrife and creamy meadowsweet, willows flutter in the breeze and the great reed beds display several shades of green, each type of reed confined to its own zone along the shore.

While the boat was tied up waiting for the passengers I was admiring the precision flying of swallows speeding centimetres above the water surface and occasionally dipping their lower beaks to scoop up a floating insect. Then I noticed some were a little smaller and pale brown. A few sand martins had joined in.

Sand martin numbers have crashed on at least two occasions in the past 50 years. The reason is thought to be severe droughts in the Sahel region of Africa where they spend the winter. But each time the little birds have recovered and it seems to me that numbers here are quite healthy.

The next small excitement was when the reeds parted near the boat and a coot paddled out. Coots are not rare birds — there are estimated to be over 4,000 breeding pairs in the country with influxes of up to 30,000 birds in the winter. But, unlike water-hens, they like large expanses of water such as Lough Ree, and we don’t have any of these where I live, so I don’t get to see them that often.

The passengers arrived and we set off. After about 10 minutes I asked the skipper to bring the boat close to the reeds and to slow down. What had caught my attention were the water lilies floating in the deeper water off the reed bed. There are two species of water lily native to Ireland and both are found along the Shannon. The common one is the yellow water lily that normally holds its globular golden flowers several centimetres above the water on a fleshy green stalk. The white water lily is rare on the river and has large white flowers with a yellow centre that always float on the water.

It’s the ancestor of all the temperate zone cultivated water lilies. What was unusual about this spot was that both species were growing together. This gave the passengers a good idea of the differences between them and the ones with a good zoom on their cameras got pictures.

While we were watching water lilies there were two little eruptions in the water and up popped a pair of great crested grebes. These are the ultimate water birds and one of my favourites. They not only look spectacular in their summer plumage, complete with chestnut ruff and black horns, their behaviour is also fascinating. They have an elaborate mating ritual and are extremely attentive parents, though this pair didn’t seem to have any offspring.

Eventually we put the boat in gear and headed off down the lake to check the cormorant roost, which can have up to a hundred birds in it, even during the day. Then there would be the herring gull breeding colony on Inch McDermuid, where there always seem to be a few lesser black backed gulls hanging around with their smaller cousins. And if we were lucky the feral goats would be on the same side of the island and we’d get a good view of them too.

It’s a wonderful part of the world for anyone interested in wildlife.

* dick.warner@examiner.ie


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