Did you know there are 178 species of birds to be spotted in Ireland? Who better to ask for tips on which islands to visit for some prime birdwatching this summer than the esteemed Irish author and ornithologist David Cabot? He shares his recommendations for day or overnight trips while I give suggestions on where to stay in the vicinity …
Great Saltee, Co Wexford
Take a 15-minute boat trip from Kilmore Quay (there is a daily service provided during summer: text Declan Bates: 087 2529736 for a booking). On landing, keep to the path and walk up to imposing Throne of Prince Michael Neale the First. Carry on along the cliff tops to the south end of island where there is an ever expanding gannet colony. Stay well back, so as not to disturb the (10,000) birds. Visitors will have magnificent views of puffins (much reduced numbers in recent years) on grassy slopes above the cliffs on the walk south. Below, breeding razorbills, guillemots, kittiwakes and fulmars, that glide effortlessly along cliffs, are to be seen in good numbers. Herring, lesser black-backed and greater black-backed gulls can also be encountered on the island. Ravens, a Peregrine falcon and possibly chough may be seen, if you are lucky. There is also a wonderful profusion of bluebells, sea pinks, sea campions and many other maritime flowers. You may spot some grey seals in the water below the eastern cliffs. Take all litter, especially food, back with you. This island is for day visiting only, no camping is allowed without permission from the owners.
Where to Stay: Pond Suites, Marlfield House, Gorey, Co Wexford
There are five new Pond suites, comprising four one-bed and one two- bed, all have very large patio terraces facing onto the pond, which is surrounded by lush planting and foliage. Ornithologists and botanists will enjoy the views and bon viveurs the cuisine and service a la russe at the main house. A totally pampering break is guaranteed and prices are from €400. Other packages include dinner in The Duck restaurant and The Conservatory restaurant from €498; www.marlfield.ie
Skellig Michael, Co Kerry
When weather permits, there are several boat operators that will take you to this impressive seabird island but you need to book beforehand. On approaching the island, there is one of the largest gannet colonies in the Atlantic on nearby Little Skellig – there are more than 70,000 breeding birds, looking like snow on the island! On the sea journey watch out for storm petrels and Manx shearwaters, skimming low over the water as they search for food. On the island, as you walk up to the monastic settlement, there are many puffins on the grassy slopes. Also, fulmars, razorbills, guillemots and kittiwakes nesting on the cliffs. Listen close up to the stone walls in the settlement for the churring calls of storm petrels nesting within the stone cervices.
Where to Stay: Royal Hotel Valentia
The Royal Hotel in the pretty village of Knightstown is a good base for exploring the island, which boasts a set of tracks made by amphibians known as tetrapods over 350 million years ago when Ireland was south of the equator. Valentia was also the location of the first transatlantic telegraph cable. Trips to the Skelligs are best booked in advance and boats leave from a number of nearby harbours; the nearest to Royal Hotel is Portmagee. Valentia island is also within the Kerry International Gold Tier Dark Sky Reserve meaning on clear moonless nights the sky is simply stunning. The Royal Hotel offers a three-night Dark Skies experience, €300 for two people, including an astronomy presentation, lunch and tour of the island; www.royalvalentia.ie
Inishboffin, Co Galway: Thirty minutes by boat from Cleggan Pier, this is a wonderful low-lying island with a great diversity of habitats, easy to walk or cycle around. Specialities include breeding Arctic and common terns and a few pairs of rock doves, ancestors of our city pigeons. Also to be found (and heard) are many oyster catchers, ringed plover, some lapwings, snipe, a few common sandpipers, skylarks, meadow pipits, rock pipits, pied wagtails and wheatears. Linnets, stonechats and reed buntings can also be spotted. As for seabirds, there are small numbers of cormorants, shags and fulmars, which breed on the cliffs, while black guillemots also occur in small numbers. The usual herring, great black-backed and lesser black-backed gulls are also present on the island. You might get lucky to hear a corncrake or see a chough.
Where to Stay: Cashel House Hotel, Co Galway
Perfect for exploring the Aran and Inisboffin islands, Cashel House Hotel is on the coastline of Cashel Bay. Beach trips, guided hill walks, lake fishing, golf, horse riding are close to hand. After working up an appetite, the hotel restaurant, situated in the conservatory, serves country house cooking at its best with locally caught seafood a speciality. There is also a garden school, stud farm and equestrian shop on the grounds of the hotel, run by hosts, the McEvilly family. From €80 per person bed and breakfast; www.cashelhouse.ie
Inishturk, Co Mayo
Suitable for a day trip or overnight stay in one of the guest houses on the island, take a boat from Roonagh Pier, near Louisburgh. http://www.omalleyferries.com/. Walk around the island, up the road from the harbour to the northern and western cliffs, to view fulmar colonies, where there are the second largest numbers in Ireland. Nesting on the cliffs are razorbills, guillemots and kittiwakes with a scattering of puffins (less than 300) and some shags. Inishturk is one of the best places to see good numbers of breeding black guillemots. Herring, lesser black-backed and greater black-backed gulls also breed. The island was recently colonised by one pair of menacing great skua. If you are lucky, you might spot a Peregrine falcon. Listen for the rasping call “crex crex, crex crex” of breeding corncrakes in grass fields near the harbour. By the way, if you are thirsty or hungry from a walk around the island, the local community centre has excellent facilities.
Where to Stay: The Lodge At Ashford Castle
A short-ish drive from Louisburgh is The Lodge at Ashford Castle which is currently offering a family “Sky High Escape”, starting from €1,060. This offer includes three nights in a Quay Suite, with breakfast for a family of four and the choice of one activity from archery, a zipline adventure course or tree-climbing. Dinner in the Quay Bar and Brasserie is included on one night and complimentary bike hire is available for exploring the estate grounds; www.thelodgeac.com
Rathlin Island, Co Antrim
The crossing from Ballycastle takes 25 minutes and ferry booking is essential (www.rathlinballycastleferry.com). When you arrive walk or hire a bicycle to travel west to the RSPB West Light Seabird Centre, about four miles from the harbour. As a guide for prices: entry fee is £5, while a bus from the harbour is £5 and return boat fee £10. Rathlin is home to Northern Ireland’s largest seabird breeding colony with marvellous close-up views from the Seabird Centre of breeding guillemots, puffins, razorbills and kittiwakes on the cliffs. The scarce corncrake has been recently been recorded breeding (one pair) as well as one pair of choughs.
Where to Stay: The Salthouse Hotel, Co Antrim
Manor House is the main accommodation on Rathlin Island (open until end of October), but Ballycastle options include The Marine Hotel and the The Salthouse Hotel. This luxury eco hotel has 24 stylish bedrooms and suites, a spa and laid-back bar and restaurant. Surrounded by the natural beauty of the Antrim countryside overlooking Ballycastle, Salthouse enjoys jaw-dropping views of the coastline to Fairhead and beyond. This is a place to rejuvenate and discover coastal calm. On offer is bed and breakfast with complimentary use of the thermal spa (for 90 minutes), dining experience (with an allocation of £25 per person) and a bottle of prosecco with The Salthouse Luxury Chocolates; www.thesalthousehotel.com
Copeland Islands, Co Down
The Copelands comprise a group of three islands – Light House Island, Copeland Island and Mew Island, which are accessed by boat from Donaghadee Harbour. Most trips depart 6pm Friday and return at 4pm on Sunday to facilitate visitors to the Bird Observatory. The islands host a remarkable range of birds with about 4,000 pairs of breeding Manx shearwaters (1.7 per cent of the world population), the largest colony (about 500 pairs) of Arctic terns in Ireland as well as numerous common terns. There are colonies of Eider duck and common gulls while a recent arrival/colonist from southern Europe, the Mediterranean gull, has bred. Water rail and stock dove also breed. Grey and common seals can be seen around the islands as well as otters. Visitors to the Bird Observatory on Light House Island may book a place for the weekend or for a week. There are also four- or five-days trips in summer usually on a Saturday. Visitors must bring a sleeping bag, a torch, suitable clothes and food. Because of limited accommodation at the Bird Observatory and on the boat, visitors must book in advance by contacting the bookings secretary David Galbraith (+ 44 (0)28 9338 2539). There is an overnight charge per person staying at the Observatory and a charge for day visitors.
Where to Stay: The Cuan, Strangford, Co Down
There are plenty of hotels in the vicinity of the Copelands including the five-star One Shore Street and Portaferry hotels. Further away, but equally good, is The Cuan which has been in the heart of Strangford village since the early 1800s. Strangford itself is a picturesque and historic village – the immediate area is a delight to explore and is home to beautiful sandy beaches, fascinating National Trust properties and much more. The Cuan is under new ownership after extensive renovations and offers a relaxed dining experience and a cosy bar with overnight accommodation. Being on the coast it has a regular supply of excellent fresh seafood from the award-winning East Coast Seafoods and also serves Neapolitan pizzas prepared in a wood-fired oven – perfect for hungry ornithologists; https://thecuan.com/dining/
Don’t set off on any birdwatching trip without an illustrated copy of David Cabot’s recently published guide Irish Birds (New edition, March 2021, HarperCollins).