Ireland is of great interest to birders because of its position on the migration routes of many passerines and seabirds, which find the isle a convenient stopping point on their Atlantic journeys. Opportunities for birding abound, particularly in the 71 National Nature Reserves. The network of reserves covers woodlands, bog lands, grasslands, sand dune systems, bird sanctuaries, coastal heath lands, and marine areas.
Most of the important nesting colonies for seabirds are on the west coast, the westernmost promontory of Europe; exceptions are Lambey Island, near Dublin, and Great Saltee in County Wexford. Sandy beaches and tidal flats on the east and west coasts are nesting grounds for large populations of winter waders and smaller, isolated tern colonies. In the North, the largest seabird colony is on Rathlin Island, off the North Antrim Coast.
Until recently, rural Ireland was home to large numbers of a small bird known as the corncrake (Crex crex), whose unusual cry during breeding season was a common feature of the early summer night. Sadly, the introduction of heavy machinery for cutting silage has destroyed the protective high-grass environment in which the mother corncrake lays her eggs. (The period for cutting silage coincides with the corncrake breeding period.) Ireland now has only a few areas where the corncrake still breeds. One is the Shannon Callows, where the bird's cry, which now seems quite mournful, can often be heard in the quiet of nightfall.
Ireland's lakes and wetlands also serve as a wintering ground for great numbers of wildfowl from the Arctic and northern Europe. From Greenland, Iceland, and Canada come waders such as knot, golden plover, and black-tailed godwit; flocks of brent, barnacle, and white-fronted geese; and thousands of whooper swans. Every year, as many as 10,000 Greenland white-fronted geese winter on the north shores of Wexford Harbor, making it a mecca for birders. Flooded fields, or "callows," provide habitats for wigeons, whooping swans, and plover; the callows of the Shannon and the Blackwater are especially popular with birders. One of the best winter bird-watching sites is the Wexford Wildfowl Reserve.
From March onward, mild spring weather invites Irish birds to begin nesting early, and their songs fill the woods and hedgerows. The arrival of migrants from Africa can be observed in April and May all along the south coast. Rathlin Island reserve, home to Northern Ireland's largest seabird colony, is best visited in May and June.
Summer is the time to head to the west of Ireland, where seaside cliffs are an ideal place for large seabird colonies such as puffins and gannets. Some of the best summer birding sites are Great Saltee Island, Cape Clear Island, the Skellig Islands, and Loop Head.
Autumn is a particularly attractive time for bird-watchers in Ireland, when many rare American waders -- mainly sandpipers and plovers -- arrive when blown across the Atlantic. A spectacular avian event is the annual fall migration of brent geese. On the shores of Strangford Lough in County Down -- Europe's premier brent-watching site -- you might see as many as 3,000 on a single day.
One of the best sources of information is the Irish Birding website (www.irishbirding.com), which features links on birding events, sites, and news. Another excellent resource is BirdWatch Ireland, Rockingham House, Newcastle, County Wicklow (tel. 01/281-9878; www.birdwatchireland.ie), an organization devoted to bird conservation in the Republic of Ireland. An equivalent organization in Northern Ireland is the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Belvoir Park Forest, Belfast BT8 7QT (tel. 028/9049-1547; www.rspb.org.uk/northernireland).
Wexford Wildfowl Reserve, North Slob, Wexford (tel. 053/912-3406; www.wexfordwildfowlreserve.ie), has a visitor center with information on local bird-watching sites. The reserve's full-time warden, Chris Wilson, can direct you to other places corresponding to your areas of interest.
The Altamont Garden, Tullow, County Wicklow (tel. 059/915-9444; www.altamontgarden.com), offers weekend courses in ornithology.
The bird observatory at the North Harbour, on Cape Clear Island, has a warden in residence from March to November and accommodations for bird-watchers. Ciarán and Mary O'Driscoll (tel. 028/39153; www.capeclearisland.com), who operate a B&B on the island, also run boat trips for bird-watchers around the island and have a keen eye for vagrants and rarities.
Northern Ireland has two first-class nature centers for bird enthusiasts, both ideal for families. Castle Espie, 78 Ballydrain Rd., Comber, County Down BT23 6EA (tel. 028/9187-4146), is home to a large collection of ducks, geese, and swans. The Lough Neagh Discovery Centre, Oxford Island, Craigavon, County Armagh (tel. 028/3832-2205), is in the outstanding Oxford Island National Nature Reserve (www.oxfordisland.com).