Birdwatching (or birding) is an activity enjoyed by outdoor enthusiasts around the world. In fact, the industry is estimated to generate $41 billion dollars per year—a figure that often comes as a surprise to those unfamiliar with the vocation.
Those who spend significant amounts of time birding are motivated by the seemingly endless challenge of spotting as many species as possible. This, of course, is a substantial undertaking, as it is estimated that there are between 9,000 and 10,000 different variations of birds in existence today. Ireland, specifically, is home to 450 species of birds—making it an idyllic destination for avifauna aficionados. To download the most recent complete list of the birds of Ireland, check out the Irish Rare Birds Committee page.
A Brief History of Birding in Ireland
Birds are a common feature in Irish mythology, showing that Irish people were watching birds for millennia. One of the most famous stories is called The Children of Lir, a story about the children of a king being turned into wild swans. Birdwatching didn’t emerge as a formal pastime until the 18th century, when a group of British scholars began studying birds and natural history, including George Montagu and John Clare.
In Ireland, however, birding can be traced back to a handful of notable researchers. One such individual is Nicholas Aylward Vigors, an Irish zoologist and politician, who is credited for promoting the quinarian system—a method of categorizing bird species. Vigors studied at Trinity College in Oxford, England, and went on to produce more than 40 scientific papers related to ornithology during the 19th century.
Another distinguished figure in the field of Irish ornithology was Rev P. G. Kennedy. In 1954, Kennedy published The Birds of Ireland—the most comprehensive and detailed record of Irish bird species at the time. The book was viewed as the premiere handbook for birders and sparked an interest amongst local environmentalists.
Formal bird-watching groups began to emerge in Ireland around this time, including the Northern Ireland Ornithologists Club in 1960, and the Irish Wildbird Conservancy in 1968. Today, the Irish Wildbird Conservancy is known as BirdWatch Ireland and the organization has more than 15,000 active members and supporters.
The Irish National Bird
There is no official national bird for Ireland. Some sources state it is the Northern Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus), a wader that breeds in wet grasslands and in winter can typically be found along shorelines where it forages for small insects and crustaceans in the sand or mud. It is primarily identified by the long, black, wispy crest that adorns the top of the head, and the chromatic sheen of its wings, which gives them a green and purple hue.
Birdwatching in the Summer: Seabirds
Those interested in Irish birding are encouraged to visit at any time of year but during the summer months it is the breeding season for most seabird species, so off-shore islands and cliffs along the West coast of the country are brimming with bird activity at this time.
Some of the best locations for summer birding in Ireland include:
- The Skellig Islands
- Saltee Islands
- Loop Head
- The Cliffs of Moher
- Rathlin Island
- Lambay and Rockabill Island
Birdwatching in the Winter: Shorebirds and Waterfowl
Even in the colder months, there are an ample number of bird species to observe in Ireland. Visitors just need to be prepared to brave the unpredictable winter weather. Many migrating birds land in Ireland to refuel during their journey south for the winter, and others, like Whooper Swans, arrive from colder countries like Iceland to spend the entire season, taking advantage of the milder Irish climate where it rarely snows or freezes.
Some of the best winter Irish birding locations include:
- Wexford Slobs
- Dublin Bay
- Strangford Lough
- Rahasane Turlough
- Shannon & Fergus Estuaries
- Cork Harbour
- Castlemain Harbour
Bird Watching in Spring & Autumn: Rare Migrant Species
Because of Ireland’s geographical position at the edge of the North Atlantic, it is a great place to look for rare species that have been blown off course, mainly during migration in spring or autumn or have overshot flying north from their wintering grounds in Africa on the way to their breeding grounds in southern Europe. Of the 450 or so species on the Irish bird list, about 90 are from North America. They are blown across the Atlantic ahead of strong winds, mainly during their southerly autumn migration.
Spring is an exciting time for those hoping to catch sight of Ireland’s many feathered creatures. It is when birds begin to nest and guard their eggs, and when more northern breeding species begin their migration back north after having taken refuge in the Emerald Isle (e.g. brent geese, barnacle geese, black-tailed godwits, etc.). It is a good time to watch the many common species singing and hold territories such as the blackbird, song thrush, skylark, and wren. Rare and scarce spring visitors include the hoopoe and the Hobby.
Autumn yields equally exceptional discoveries, thanks to the influx of birds arriving for winter. Ireland’s wetlands fill with wetland birds returning south from their breeding grounds. Eurasian wigeon, greylag geese, and common snipe are just a few of Ireland’s welcomed fall guests. Autumn is definitely the best time to see Irish rarities including many North American species such as pectoral, buff-breasted and semi-palmated sandpipers, and ring-necked ducks.
Scarce and rare Irish birds can turn up almost anywhere and some of the best locations to observe migratory birds during their annual expeditions (spring and fall) include:
- Cape Clear Island
- The Bridges of Ross
- Rathlin Island
- Loop Head
Solitude and Discovering Unique Species
A peaceful pastime that allows you to get away from the goings-on of everyday life is a valuable thing— especially in today’s world. This is precisely why those who regularly engage in Irish birding delight in it so much. Ireland is a carefree and casual country by anyone’s standards. It’s a country where time seems to lapse leisurely and where citizens regularly stop by the local pub to unwind after a day’s work. And in the countryside, this laid-back lifestyle is even more apparent.
With acres of unhindered wetlands, meadows, and marshes, birdwatchers have no trouble escaping civilization in Ireland. Plus, many dedicated birders have stumbled upon an elusive mega in Ireland, including Brent Stephenson, who spotted an ultra-rare collared flycatcher, and Peter Phillips, who observed a white-throated sparrow in 2008.
One of Zegrahm’s core expedition field leaders, Jim Wilson, is a highly respected ornithologist who hails from Ireland with more than 40 years of experience birding in Ireland, Europe, the US, Africa, and the Arctic and Antarctic. He was the national chairman of BirdWatch Ireland (the equivalent of the National Audubon Society in the US) and established the longest-running citizen-science survey in Ireland, the Irish Garden Bird Survey, back in 1987. For more information on Irish birds, check out some of Jim’s best-selling books including, The Birds of Ireland – A Field Guide (2013), Freshwater Birds of Ireland (2011), Shorebirds of Ireland (2009), and Irish Garden Birds (2008).