Kilcoole, Newcastle & Blackditch ECNR

Kilcoole, Newcastle & Blackditch ECNR, Co. Wicklow by Niall T. Keogh

In June 1995 my father made the wise decision to take me out of school for the day to go see a 1st-summer Hobby that was frequenting the reed fringed channels down at Kilcoole. Whether this was an attempt to spark an interest in birding or whether he just wanted to go see the Hobby himself anyway and had to bring me along I’ll never know. Either way, it worked!


After that we frequently went birding to Kilcoole and Newcastle together. Whilst we had no car at the time a handy bus service brought us all the way from our home in South Dublin to Newcastle village. A quick stop in the shop for a Mint Cornetto became a mandatory start to the day before walking down Newcastle Sea Road, out onto the beach at Six Mile Point and then North along the coast, scanning the sea and marshes before catching the bus home several hours later from Kilcoole village. A perfect system.

The patch boundaries

With the acquisition of a family car a few years later, birding trips with my father branched out to sites such as Tacumshin Lake, the North Slob and Great Saltee...but always on a Sunday. As such, Saturdays were my own which I spent working the patch route set out in previous years. This solo birding gave me the chance to figure things out for myself (the tricky juv wader roosting on the beach or the funny passerine call coming from the scrub) and also resulted in a few nice finds. I remember getting particularly buzzed over a flock of 14 Pink-footed Geese that pitched in one cold winter’s morning and the fine male Long-tailed Duck diving in the channels during a late autumn storm. Not that these birds are national rarities, but that’s not the point. I was beginning to learn what patch birding was about.

The beach at Kilcoole has hosted one of the largest Little Tern breeding colonies (50-100 pairs) in Ireland for many years now thanks to a joint wardening effort by BirdWatch Ireland and the National Parks & Wildlife Service. Seeing the work the wardens put in to keeping these birds safe was an inspiration, so much so that I started volunteering on the project at the age of 16 and in May 2010, after finishing college, became a Seabird Fieldworker with BirdWatch Ireland. I’ve wardened the Little Tern colony at Kilcoole for three seasons now, living on site for a total of nine months, adding a new dimension to birding on the patch.

Kilcoole Little Tern colony blog:

Little Tern

For more detailed species accounts, see my full patch list on Bubo:

Site Description & Species Breakdown:

Essentially the patch consists of a series of coastal mashes separated from the Irish Sea by a North-South railway line, low sand dune and shingle beach. The whole stretch of coast is fairly linear save for a slight ‘bump’ at the South end at Six Mile Point which does its best to attract in migrants. A right of way exists through the dunes and whilst popular with the local public and dog walkers, it also provides a perfect vantage point onto the marshes and out to sea at the same time.

: An area of reedbed surrounded by willow scrub and gardens. This is the most regular site for singing Reed Warbler. Best of all was a Yellow-browed Warbler which spent a few days with a roving tit flock on the laneway here in Nov 2011. Patch MEGA!

Shingle Beach & Sand Dune: Runs all the way along the Eastern boundary. In addition to the Little Tern colony here in summer it hosts breeding Ringed Plover, Oystercatcher, Skylark and Reed Bunting. This whole stretch is good for Wheatears, pipits, wagtails, occasionally Snow Buntings (winter) and Lapland Bunting (Sept) as well as providing a day roost site for waders from the marsh. Rarities seen here include Short-toed Lark, Tawny Pipit, White-rumped SandpiperBuff-breasted Sandpiper (3), American Golden Plover & Sabine’s Gull. A Shore Lark will turn up here someday!

Lapland Bunting

Offshore: Wintering species consist of Red-throated Diver, Shag and auks. Great Northern Divers and Great Crested Grebes are infrequently encountered and sea duck merely pass by with Common Scoter being the only regular. Spring and Autumn seawatching can be quite productive in NE or SE winds, although finding a suitable sheltered spot can be difficult and you’re generally quite low to the water. Arctic Skua, Great Skua, Storm Petrel, Black Tern and Puffin will all be seen over a couple of good days seawatching a year. I’ve had Sabine's Gull once, Goosander twice, Balearic Shearwater three times, Sooty Shearwater once, Pomarine Skua five times & Long-tailed Skua twice. Needless to say, a Great Shearwater would be awesome! A flyby Gull-billed Tern in April 2004 was one of my first good finds. Gulls migrate North-South along the coast, especially in Spring. Amongst these I have seen 6 Glaucous Gulls between February and November.

BirdWatch Ireland Kilcoole Reserve: Incorporates two scrapes amongst thick rush and sedge. The reserve has drawn in Green-winged Teal, Little Ringed Plover, White-rumped Sandpiper, White-winged Black Tern, Water Pipit and Blue-headed Wagtail. Dipping a Squacco Heron here in August 1999 will remain painful for years to come.

“Webb’s Field”: A brackish lagoon runs through a well grazed field which floods from time to time during the winter. Owned by the National Parks & Wildlife Service. This is the hub of wildfowl and wader activity (Light-bellied Brent Goose, Wigeon, Teal, Shoveler, Golden Plover, Lapwing, Black-tailed Godwit, Little Grebe, Little Egret etc). Flocks of Dunlin and Ringed Plover feed along the muddy channel edges and wet flashes on passage. These areas should be checked carefully for scarce and rare everything! In this field alone I have seen: Tundra Bean Goose (2), Blue-winged Teal, Smew, Spoonbill, Osprey (2), Gyrfalcon, Little Ringed Plover (1), American Golden Plover (3), White-rumped Sandpiper (2), Pectoral Sandpiper (2), Buff-breasted Sandpiper (4), Wilson's Phalarope (3) and Red-necked Phalarope. Scarce species such as Dark-bellied Brent Goose, Green Sandpiper and Ruff are annual but Curlew Sandpiper, Little Stint, Spotted Redshank, Wood Sandpiper and Garganey are a little bit more hit and miss. Yellow Wagtails used to breed around here once upon a time, but they have gone by the wayside now.

Webb's Field in Spring

“The Breaches”A small estuary with some relict salt marsh along its boundary. Flows out to sea splitting the beach and essentially the site into Kilcoole (to the North) and Newcastle (to the South). The outflow can block during strong Easterly winds causing a back up of water onto the marsh. When the outflow is open the estuary runs at a normal rhythm, attracting in day roosting gulls and good patch waders like Bar-tailed Godwit, Grey Plover and Knot as well as regularly hosting Kingfisher and Otter. During stormy weather, terns & Little Gulls can be found sheltering on the mudflats. Rarities seen here include Ring-billed Gull, Water Pipit & Black Redstart.

The Breaches at low tide

“Stringer’s Channels”Reed-fringed, freshwater channels on private farmland, owned by the Stringer family...hence the name! A good place to see diving duck which are scarce on the patch. Found a Ring-necked Duck here in Oct 2008, a few days after The Punks had the flock of 15 on Inishmore. Other rarities seen here include Ruddy Duck & most recently, Bittern. A good spot for hirundines and Swifts also. The fields inland from Stringer’s Channels and The Breaches hold Whooper Swans and Greylag Geese in winter which pull in Bewick’s, Pink-feet, Greenland White-front and Barnacle from time to time. A Cattle Egret was found here in Nov 2007, the vanguard of the influx which was to follow and the ‘last good one’ according to the finder!

Newcastle Airfield: Another area of rough grazing and reedbeds, good for raptors (Hen Harrier, Short-eared Owl and Merlin). A good spot to see Marsh Harrier & Hobby when they are around, usually between May & June. Lacks the open water found at other sections of the site. The airstrip is quite active, especially at the weekends and whilst looking good for a rare plover holds little more than flocks of Curlew.

Blackditch East Coast Nature Reserve: In 2003, BirdWatch Ireland purchased this 93ha area of land South of Newcastle Sea Road. Rarely visited during the early years of patch birding, the site became open to me when I volunteered on the reserve. Now decked out with a series of walkways through wet grassland, alkaline fen and wet birch woodland leading to hides viewing out over scrapes and ditches where wintering wildfowl, waders & breeding warblers can be seen. A feeding station has attracted Brambling whilst the birch woodland has added Jay, Long-eared Owl, Treecreeper, Crossbill and the recently arrived Great Spotted Woodpecker to the mix. Without a doubt my most important site for passerines on the patch. Rarities seen here include Spotted Sandpiper, Red-rumped Swallow, Water PipitAlpine Swift and Siberian Chiffchaff.

A map of Blackditch ECNR can be found here: 

Boardwalk through reedbed & scrub

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