The Mouth of the Shannon
The Mouth of the Shannon
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Maritime Heath in Winter
Maritime Heath in Winter
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Ringed Plover
Ringed Plover
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Early Marsh Orchid
Early Marsh Orchid
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Early Marsh Orchid and Bird's-Foot Trefoil
Early Marsh Orchid and Bird's-Foot Trefoil
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Loop Head

The western tip of Loop Head is, like the rest of the peninsula, dominated by grassland and pastures. Just east of the lighthouse however a small area of what might have been the original coastal habitat of the peninsula survives. This area of maritime heath is dominated by weather-beaten Common Heather and Ling which are joined by clusters of Common Gorse. Bird’s-Foot Trefoil, Tormentil, Common Milkwort, Lousewort and Glaucous Sedge grow between the heathers and various lichen species are also widespread. The floral highlight of the area is however the Early Marsh Orchid which is represented by at least two subspecies. One is the D.i. incarnata, the most common form of this orchid, the other is D.i. cruenta, the Flecked Marsh Orchid which has obvious specks on its leaves a feature which the other has not.

 

The heathland also supports a rich invertebrate fauna which includes various beetles, bumblebees, snails and slugs. These in turn attract a variety of birds: Herring Gull, Black backed Gull and Thrushes are regular visitors while Snipe and Skylark reside in the area. Another resident is the Irish Hare which blends in perfectly with the landscape.

The best preserved area of maritime heath can be found on the southern side of Loop Head, the north only holds a number of small patches and is otherwise dominated by grassland and as a consequence the grassland flora which includes White and Red Clover, Tufted Vetch and Common Dog Violet, often mingles with the typical heathland plants. Along the cliff edge patches of Thrift as well as Kidney Vetch, Scurvy Grass, Sea Aster, Sea Campion and Sea Plantain are common and widespread.

The cliffs themselves are barren and empty during the autumn and winter months but in summer are home to one of Loop Head’s most spectacular wildlife events. Fulmars, Kittiwakes, Guillemots and Razorbills spend the winter on the open ocean and return to the mainland in spring to mate and raise their offspring. Fulmars are usually the first to arrive, sometime as early as February, followed by Kittiwakes, Guillemots and Razorbills in April and May.

During the summer the cliffs at Loop Head are a busy and noisy place, birds are constantly coming and going and the air is filled with chatter and the smell of guano. Fulmars and Kittiwakes are the main breeding species on the northern tip of Loop Head and Dermot and Grania’s Rock, a sea stack separated from the mainland only by a narrow chasm. A few hundred meters east the cliffs at Bullaunnaleama host colonies of Guillemots, Razorbills, Kittiwakes and a few stray Fulmars.

Counts in 2021 unfortunately have shown that the number of these four visiting breeding species are in decline and have almost halved since 2000, a development in line with other colonies across the northern Atlantic. Razorbills and Kittiwakes have seen the steepest decline and if the current trend continues these birds might disappear from Loop Head within the next decades.

The breeding season comes to an end in August when the chicks have taken flight and can fend for themselves. Sometimes it seems that the birds miraculously disappear overnight, leaving the cliffs quiet and empty.

During September and October Loop Head’s northern coast becomes a front row seat to watch the great bird migration. Every autumn numerous species pass the coast on their way from their breeding grounds in the far north to their wintering grounds on the European continent and Africa. Storm Petrel, Great Skua, Arctic Skua, Black Tern and Green Sandpiper are among the more common species but over the years rare and unusual birds like the Ortolan Bunting and the Firecrest have been spotted as well.

However not all birds disappear from the cliffs of Loop Head. Black Backed Gulls and Herring Gulls that breed on the aptly named Gull Island east of Bullaunaleama stay close to the coast all year round as do Shags and Cormorants which breed on the lower rock shelves of the island and other spots around the peninsula. A group of Rock Pigeons also calls the area their home and birds of prey like Kestrel and Peregrine Falcon can also be seen. The cliffs of Loop Head are also the permanent home to the rare Chough with its distinctive red bill and legs and the all black Raven. On the short winter days the high pitched shriek of the Chough and the hollow croak of the Raven mix with the crashing of the waves into a dark winter symphony.

Ross

The coast at the townland of Ross is best known for its geological features, first and foremost the Bridge of Ross, the last of formerly three rock arches spanning a narrow canal.

The area is however also one of the best places on the peninsula to explore the intertidal zone and its rich flora and fauna. Ross Bay and a small unnamed cove offer unique access to this colourful and fascinating world.

The west facing Ross Bay with its boulder beach and protecting rock platforms to the north and south is best explored at spring tides when the lower shore gets exposed. Some of the highlights to be seen here are Snakelocks Anemonoe, the tiny Blue-Rayed Limpet which feeds on exclusively on Kelp, Cotton Spinner and with some luck even a Lobster hiding in a crevice under the rocks. The lower shore also hosts a wide variety of seaweeds including Kelp, Sea Lettuce and various wrack species. The invasive Sargassum unfortunately has also been taking hold in the area.

While Ross Bay features some patches of coarse sand under the boulders and rocks, the Cove is a classic example for a rocky shore. The bare rock is in some places covered in Acorn Barnacles, Common Limpets and Common Mussels, in others a thick carpet of seaweeds - Thong Weed, wrack species and various encrusting seaweeds - hides the rock surface. Numerous rockpools have been carved out of the rock and host a wonderful flora and fauna including the Velvet Horn, Hermit Crab, Sea Hare, Black Sea Urchin and Beadlet Anemone. Starfish including Spiny Starfish, Seven Armed Starfish and Common Starfish as well as the Edible Sea Urchin also appear in the rockpools and under the seaweeds, especially after rough weather. Edible and Flat Periwinkles and Topshells, including the pretty Painted Topshell, are also common.

Ross Bay is also a good place to see Grey Seals which come into the bay to hunt for flatfish and relax on the rock platforms. In spring Whimbrels take a break in the area on their long journey from their wintering grounds in Spain and Africa to their breeding grounds in the Arctic. Basking Sharks also visit the area during spring and summer and at times can be seen close up in the cove. In October and November Ross is a popular spot to watch for birds on their autumn migration.

The grassy patches above the high tide mark and on the cliff tops feature a variety of wildflowers including Scurvy Grass, Wild Thyme, Common Heather, Sheep’s Bit and English Stonecrop.

Bridge of Ross
Bridge of Ross
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Ross Bay
Ross Bay
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The Cove
The Cove
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Lichen and Seaweeds
Lichen and Seaweeds
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Gutweed
Gutweed
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