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Nature's Calendar January (by Liz Sheppard)


 Ballyhiernan Bay

Ballyhiernan Bay


The Winter Seashore

Measured in terms of their length, Donegal’s beaches come top of the national league. As a proportion of the total mileage of sandy shore in the country, we have 26% - well ahead of the runners-up, Kerry and Mayo with 15% each. It’s easy for us to take these wonderful expanses for granted. Curving around wide bays, tucked in under cliffs, squeezed between rocks to form tiny hidden coves – you could spend a lifetime discovering new ones. And on a sunny summer day you can have a two-mile stretch of golden strand all to yourself.
But why confine your seaside visits to the summer? On the greyest and dreariest of winter days there will always be plenty of action and colour on the ocean. Surging seas and crashing breakers after a storm, or maybe a peachy sunset glinting and sparkling across the water. It’s also a great time of year for coastal birdlife, with huge numbers of winter visitors from Northern Europe, Iceland and Greenland, so it’s always wise to have your binoculars at the ready.


Small Waders

Mixed flocks of small waders on the beach are usually made up of Dunlin, Ringed Plover, Turnstone and Sanderling – all of them roughly the size of a Starling. Dunlin come in larger numbers than any other shoreline bird, with a wintering population in Ireland of around 100,000. They’re famous for their brilliant flight formations, hundreds of them tilting and turning as a single individual. The plumage is brown-grey above and white beneath, so the whole flock flashes dark and glittering white as it catches the light, drifting and furling like a plume of smoke.


The Divers

The Diver family are the most ancient and primitive of all European birds, so perfectly adapted to their lifestyle that they never needed to change. The long streamlined body with feet set far back is ideal for speed under water, and they can swim faster than the fish they catch. Three different Diver species visit our shores in winter, all with stylish plumages in subtle variations of black and white. The Great Northerns have nested in Iceland, Greenland and Canada, while the Black-throated and Red-throated Divers nest in Scotland and Scandinavia. Around half-a-dozen Red-throats do breed in Ireland at remote locations on mountain lakes, all of them in Donegal. Great Northerns are common all around the coast in winter, and Red-throats also fairly widespread. One of two of the scarcer Black-throats turn up regularly off Fanad and in Inishfree Bay at the Rosses, and Donegal Bay is actually one of the best spots in Ireland for these, with up to a dozen often seen.


Sea Ducks

Duck flocks bobbing along on the waves are most likely to be Eiders, who winter here in fairly good numbers. It’s the handsome black-and-white plumage of the drakes that will probably catch your eye. Even more striking are the rather smaller drakes of the Long-tailed Duck who have a conspicuous white hood and pointed tail feathers like knitting-needles, but these are very scarce winter visitors and you need to know where to look. Coming from as far away as Greenland, they’re actually the most numerous duck within the Arctic Circle, estimated at around 10 million, but the birds that come as far as Ireland are at the very southern limit of their range. Donegal has some of their most regular haunts, particularly off Fanad and at Inishfree Bay (as with the Black-throated Divers), and you can also turn up small numbers at Portnoo.


Rolling Stones

As well as our magnificent sandy beaches, Donegal’s gravel or boulder beaches are reckoned to be among the best in Europe. Left behind by retreating glaciers after the last Ice Age, the beautifully rounded stones have been shifted around by the sea and washed up on the shore, grinding against one another ever since, churning with every tide. They are a great illustration of the huge variety of rocks within the Earth’s crust – dark granite and white quartz, all the shades of grey and pink and brown, mottled and speckled and striped. A single handful can have stones which have come from locations hundreds of miles apart, and with maybe millions of years’ difference in their ages. Every one of them has a personal story! Sometimes called Storm Beaches, these are very effective natural defences against pounding winter seas, and they are of great interest to geologists, not just for the variety in the stones themselves, but in the way they have been sifted into different sizes and formed into huge ridges and contours. Some of the best examples are at Bloody Foreland and Fanad Head, and at Rockstown Harbour and Tullagh Point on Inishowen.


Four to Find this Month:

Alder Trees: common in damp places and along river banks. These are easy to recognize in winter as their small woody cone-like fruits stand out as knobbly knots against the sky. These are packed with oil-rich seeds which act as a magnet for flocks of Tits and Finches all through the winter.
Goldfinches: the most eye-catching of the Finches, with their bright markings of red, yellow, black and white. They often visit peanut feeders in the garden so you can get great views. Listen out for their distinctive twittering call as they keep in touch with one another.

Snowdrops: the true flowers of winter. These are not native Irish plants, coming originally from the alpine areas of Southern Europe. They may look delicate with their slender stems and graceful nodding heads, but these are tough customers with a type of anti-freeze running in their veins, and sharp growing tips which can pierce through frost and snow.
Sanderlings: probably the easiest of the small Waders to pick out from among the shoreline flocks, as they have such eye-catching feeding habits. Little groups scuttle up ahead of every advancing wave and run down again as it drains away. They look just like little clockwork toys.


An Action of the County Donegal Heritage Plan


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