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Are Unexpected Changes in Bird Species Migration to Clare Island a Result of Global Warming?

26th August 2020
Barnacle Geese Barnacle Geese Photo: Richard T. Mills

110 years ago Robert Lloyd Praeger brought a group of eminent European scientists to Clare Island to map the flora, fauna, geology and archaeology of the small, exposed Atlantic island off the coast of Mayo. The Royal Irish Academy’s New Survey of Clare Island, a unique multidisciplinary endeavour that together with Praeger’s first Clare Island Survey provides an invaluable body of research informing future conservation of the natural and built heritage of Ireland and Europe.

In a new book, New Survey of Clare Island. Volume 9: Birds, published on Monday, 17 August to celebrate Heritage Week 2020, the editor Tom Kelly traces the story of the birds from Clare Island.

One of the most dramatic changes has been the arrival on Clare Island of the formidable and spectacular seabird the Great Skua—or Bonxie—which now breeds further south in Ireland than it does in Great Britain. This unexpected change—a species moving south rather than vice versa—at a time of global warming remains to be explained.

Great SkuaA Great Skua Photo: Richard T. Mills

Clare Island became separated from Ireland about 8,000 years ago by rising sea levels brought about by the melting of the massive ice sheets that formed during the last Ice Age. Although this dramatic event would have had a minimal impact on the birds that made the island their home.

The Lapland bunting and the snow bunting probably arrived first, followed by more sedentary species including the rock ptarmigan and gyrfalcon as well as many wildfowl and wading bird species.

In the three millennia that followed the formation of Clare Island, mature woodland developed allowing a woodland bird community to develop.

clare island bird bookThe Clare Island survey

Neolithic man arrived about 4,000yBP (years Before Present). Over the succeeding 3,500 years or so, the woodland element was gradually removed and about 400 years ago the modern agricultural landscape was established. The woodland bird community on Clare Island has become mostly extinct probably because its habitat gradually disappeared over the millennia, In addition, the famines of the early to mid-nineteenth century had an impact on the ecology of the inhabited offshore islands. The abandonment of land as a result of famine, and the peoples who occupied that land, is well known to cause the departure of synanthropic bird species.

Nevertheless, agricultural activity and the expansion of grasslands created opportunities for seed-eating species and ground-nesting forms such as the skylark and meadow pipit and migrants such as the northern wheatear and corncrake, and the extraction of peat created opportunities for wetland species. Well-known species such as the house sparrow, European robin, song thrush and perhaps the barn swallow have colonised the island.

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Marine Wildlife Around Ireland One of the greatest memories of any day spent boating around the Irish coast is an encounter with marine wildlife.  It's a thrill for young and old to witness seabirds, seals, dolphins and whales right there in their own habitat. As boaters fortunate enough to have experienced it will testify even spotting a distant dorsal fin can be the highlight of any day afloat.  Was that a porpoise? Was it a whale? No matter how brief the glimpse it's a privilege to share the seas with Irish marine wildlife.

Thanks to the location of our beautiful little island, perched in the North Atlantic Ocean there appears to be no shortage of marine life to observe.

From whales to dolphins, seals, sharks and other ocean animals this page documents the most interesting accounts of marine wildlife around our shores. We're keen to receive your observations, your photos, links and youtube clips.

Boaters have a unique perspective and all those who go afloat, from inshore kayaking to offshore yacht racing that what they encounter can be of real value to specialist organisations such as the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) who compile a list of sightings and strandings. The IWDG knowledge base has increased over the past 21 years thanks in part at least to the observations of sailors, anglers, kayakers and boaters.

Thanks to the IWDG work we now know we share the seas with dozens of species who also call Ireland home. Here's the current list: Atlantic white-sided dolphin, beluga whale, blue whale, bottlenose dolphin, common dolphin, Cuvier's beaked whale, false killer whale, fin whale, Gervais' beaked whale, harbour porpoise, humpback whale, killer whale, minke whale, northern bottlenose whale, northern right whale, pilot whale, pygmy sperm whale, Risso's dolphin, sei whale, Sowerby's beaked whale, sperm whale, striped dolphin, True's beaked whale and white-beaked dolphin.

But as impressive as the species list is the IWDG believe there are still gaps in our knowledge. Next time you are out on the ocean waves keep a sharp look out!

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