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    Birdwatching in Ireland

    8 min read

    By Dawn Rainbolt, PR Manager
    More by Dawn

    Where are the best places to spot birds in Ireland?

    Ireland offers a welcome respite to many migratory birds throughout the year. Our varied landscapes are home to many types of birds – from coastlines and cliffs to rivers, lakes, mudflats, mountains and bogs, Ireland has an impressive range of avian species, with most locations fairly accessible to anyone interested in bird-watching and ready to don a raincoat and sturdy boats.

    According to Wild Bird World, there are 478 recorded species of birds across Ireland’s 32,595 square miles.

    Skellig Islands

    Located 11 km off the shores of County Kerry, the Skellig Islands are some of the most formidable and stunning rock pinnacles. Skellig Micahel, also known as the Great Skellig, is most famous for its monastic ruins clinging to the steep slopes of this wonder of geology. The Little Skellig, its iconic triangular form, is eerily recognisable from the last two Star Wars films in which it acted as a far-flung hideaway for Luke Skywalker and his protegee Rey.

    But monks and Jedi aren’t the only famous inhabitants. In fact, the only inhabitants of these desolate rocks are the seabirds who call this place home. During the spring and early summer, puffins gather here to live and breed, taking a welcome respite from life at sea. The Little Skellig is home to possibly the largest gannet population in Ireland, with 30-40,000 breeding pairs living on this protected island (no boat landing is allowed).

    The Skelligs remain one of the best and most reliable places to spot Ireland’s adorably iconic puffins. There are plenty of other seabirds here too, and the long boat voyage offers ample time to spot birds as well as other marine wildlife such as whales, dolphins, seals and perhaps even a basking shark. Interested in Ireland’s marine wildlife? Learn more here.

    The Skellig Islands aren’t the easiest places to get to with a limited number of licensed boats and landings per day, as well as a longer voyage susceptible to cancellations due to inclement weather. Learn more about the Skellig Islands here.

    On a related note, the eerily abandoned Great Blasket island off the coast of the Dingle Peninsula is also a good place to spot birds (and seals). Manx Shearwater, Fulmar and Lesser Black Gulls as well as Rock Doves and Choughs can be spotted here, as well as some more rare species.

    Go island-hopping through the southwest where beautiful scenery abounds, coupled with ancient ruins, delicious seafood, and of course, plenty of chances to sight birds.

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    Rathlin Island

    Another great place to spot birds – including puffins – is on Rathlin Island. Rathlin Island is the only inhabited island off the coast of Northern Ireland and forms an addition to the beloved Causeway Coastal Way. With plenty of cliffs to offer sanctuary to birds, there are thousands that flock here.

    In fact, part of Rathlin is an acknowledged RSPB bird sanctuary, protected a number of seabird species. The observation decks allow interested parties to watch the birds as they swoop into the sea. Getting to this island is also a bit easier. The crossing is far shorter than that of the Skellig Islands, and the boats are regular. The island also offers some great hiking and is home to a pair of unique lighthouses.

    As an extension of that, the Causeway Coast in general offers decent bird-watching opportunities. Instead of driving up to the Giant’s Causeway, join us as we walk along the coast on a quiet cliff-top trail. Not only are the views stunning and the final destination – the Giant’s Causeway – a wonderfully bizarre geological oddity, but the bird watching is an added bonus.

    Visit Rathlin Island and the Causeway Coast on our Causeway Coast & Donegal hiking trip. Travelling with kids? Maybe you’d prefer our private family tour of Northern Ireland.

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    The Saltee Islands

    These tiny, uninhabited private islands off the coast of Wexford are another bird-watching hotspot. The Saltee Islands are known to shelter everything from gannets and puffins to fulmars, razorbills, kittiwakes, guillemots and various types of gulls. No longer in service, the island was also once home to a small but well-respected bird observatory. But even without the official observatory, a day trip out to the Saltees is sure to be a magical experience for budding ornithologists and casual visitors alike. Learn more about birds on the Saltee Islands here.

    The islands are also great for flora, with many types of wildflowers carpeting the small area and the deep blue of the ocean spreading out to the horizon.  The south coast of Ireland, including around Wexford, is also the ideal place to spot whales at certain times of the year. Learn more here.

    While none of our scheduled trips currently go to the Saltee Islands, they can easily be added to our Ancient East Self Drive itinerary.  Or as always, these islands and more can comprise a custom trip of your design.

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    The Cliffs of Moher

    The Cliffs of Moher are probably Ireland’s most famous place to visit and one of the most iconic sites across the island. Most visitors hardly go more than a few hundred meters from the car park.

    But the best way to properly experience the cliffs is on a guided walk along the southern or northern cliff edge paths. This is also the best solution for ornithologists. While there isn’t a bird sanctuary here like at Rathlin nor is it a protected human-free island like the Little Skellig, the sheer, jagged cliff faces offer great respites and ideal perches for sea birds trying to take shelter from the rough sea winds. Any walk along the cliffs will offer jaw-dropping views coupled with plenty of swooping sea birds.

    Visit the Cliffs of Moher on our hiking and island hopping trip along Ireland’s west coast. Prefer two wheels? You can also join a bike trip through Connemara and the Aran Islands, which includes a hike along the cliffs.

    Glenveagh National Park

    While most people think of the coasts and cliffs when thinking about bird-watching in Ireland, inland bird-watching shouldn’t be completely overlooked. Glenveagh National Park is located in the northern reaches of County Donegal, Ireland’s most remote county (its nickname is actually “the forgotten county”).

    Sprawling bogland, rugged mountains, tumbling waterfalls and magical glens are paired with the beautifully manicured gardens of Glenveagh Castle, an old Victorian hunting lodge built to conquer the wilderness.

    Today, this remains one of Ireland’s six national parks, and though many visit the castle and surrounds, few venture further out into the wilds of the enchanting region.

    In 2001, golden eagles, the park’s only remaining apex predators, were re-released into the park in an effort to return the park to a naturally cycling ecosystem in which golden eagles play an essential role. Twenty years later, there is a small but growing population of this magnificent type of bird of prey.

    Learn more or record your sighting here.

    While golden eagles are perhaps the most exciting birds to spot in Glenveagh, they are far from the only ones – the park is also home to another top predator, the peregrine falcon.

    Moving away from apex predators, Glenveagh offers shelter to plentiful wood warblers, spotted flycatchers, chiffchaffs, jays, treecreepers, thrush, and robins. The red-throated diver waterfowl numbers are increasing, but so far, its only breeding location in Ireland is Glenveagh. The bogs of Glenveagh offer plenty of nesting sites and indeed bird-watchers might spot birds such as curlews, grouse and golden plovers. Learn more.

    Visit this wild environment on our walking trip, Causeway Coast & Donegal. Or explore the rugged landscapes of Donegal in-depth on our Biking Donegal from Cliffs to Coast bike trip.

    County Kerry

    Killarney National Park is another inland bird-watching spot. The park is home to soaring peaks and great valleys as well as tranquil lake and dense woodland habitats. It is here that Ireland’s highest mountain, Carrauntoohil, rises up as part of the MacGillcuddy’s Reeks mountain range (though Carrauntoohil is the highest, there are several other tall summits in the area).

    These remote regions are ideal homes for wildlife. Ornithologists should look out for ring ouzels who live on the highest summits, and dippers and kingfishers along Killarney’s waterways. There are many species of bird found within the forests willow warblers, cuckoos, spotted flycatchers, and types of owls, and along the lakes pochard, tufted duck and wigeon.

    Visit Killarney National Park with us on our deluxe hiking trip through the Kerry mountains. Prefer to summit Ireland’s great mountains? Why not join our National Parks of Ireland adventure, climbing the highest peaks of Kerry, Connemara, and Wicklow. Cyclists have the opportunity to bike the peninsulas of Kerry.

    There are many other places in Kerry to spot birds, some of which are highlighted here.

    Travel the wilds of Kerry in style on our Deluxe Hiking the Kerry Mountains trip where you’ll get the chance to hike the uplands of Kerry as well as the region’s glittering lakes, keeping an eye out for birds along the way.

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    Cape Clear Island

    Another small island – Ireland seems full of them – offering perfect homes for birds is Cape Clear. This small island is Ireland’s southwestern-most bit of land. Back in the age of steamships and mass immigration to the Americas from Europe, Cape Clear was often the last stretches of Europe many immigrants ever saw.

    Today, it is home to a small but strong Gaeltacht community where the Irish language and traditions are clung to tightly. It is also known for its bird-watching observatory, founded in 1959, to study bird migrations. There are possibilities to see a few species that are rarely spotted in Ireland, as well as the more numerous species such as sooty shearwaters, Wilson’s petrels and cories. Sometimes the island even have aviary visitors from as far away as Siberia and the Americas!

    There is also some great low-level hiking on Cape Clear, as well as stunningly scenic island views. Join us for an island-hopping adventure in the southwest to meet a few of the bird species of Ireland along some of Ireland’s most scenic hiking trails.

    The River Shannon

    The mighty Shannon winds through Ireland from close to the Northern Irish border all the way down to Limerick, effectively cutting Ireland in half.

    The river offers a number of bird watching chances. Many birds live on the river and the lakes it encompasses of course, and there are plenty of boating and paddling opportunities along the river for those who are interested. Bird aren’t the only things of interest – the Shanno crosses many picturesque lakes along the way, many of which contain miniature islands housing castles and monasteries or simply unspoilt landscapes.

    Between Lough Rea and Athalone and Portumna and Lough Derg, find the Shannon Callows, an expanse of often flooded flat land along the river shores. These are perfect conditions for birds such as sandpipers, godwits, curlews, lapwings, plovers, corncrakes, swans and redshanks.

    Further south near Limerick city, find the mouth of the Shannon. This opens up into the Shannon Estuary, great mudflats home to curlews, sandpipers and more.

    Though not on any of our trips, our Hiking the Dingle Way trip starts and finishes in Limerick, where it’s a short skip over to the Shannon Estuary.

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    Wexford Wildfowl Reserve

    Lastly, we have the Wexford Wildfowl Reserve, which encompasses 200 hectares of protected land and sees many migratory bird species passing through this corner of Ireland. Some 250 species have been recorded here, including nearly three dozen ‘rare’ species.

    Birdwatchers might spot species such as wigeons, Bewick swans, Brent geese, Greenland white-fronted geese, plovers, curlews, lapwings, cormorants, coots, pectoral sandpipers, several types of gulls, and Wilson’s phalarope among many others. Many species that make the reserve their temporary home are winter migrants from faraway places like Greenland, Canada, Scandinavia and Siberia, as well as closer locations in Europe.

    The most numerous species on the reserve are the geese, with some 10,000 or more white-fronted geese in Ireland. Some 2,000 Pale-bellied Brent Geese (who breed in arctic Canada) also use the Wexford reserve in winter.

    Learn more about the Wexford Wildfowl Reserve here.

    Though not on any of our trips currently, a visit to the reserve could be added to a private tour of Ireland, or perhaps onto a Self Guided trip through Ireland’s Ancient East.

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    Related Trips

    Meet the Author: Dawn Rainbolt

    American by birth but European in spirit, Dawn has called the US, Costa Rica, Spain, England, Poland, France and now Ireland home over the years. While she has travelled to more than 30 countries, she has fallen in love with the rich Irish culture and sweeping landscapes of Ireland. Armed with a Masters Degree in Tourism Marketing and a love of writing and photography, she is Wilderness Ireland's Marketing Executive since 2017.

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