The Lough Ree Tour
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The Lough Ree tour has plenty of splendid scenery and many heritage sites. But what makes this one of my favourite parts of the world is that the waters, shores and islands of the lake have probably the richest concentration of wildlife in Ireland.
The Lough Ree tour has plenty of splendid scenery and many heritage sites. But what makes this one of my favourite parts of the world is that the waters, shores and islands of the lake have probably the richest concentration of wildlife in Ireland. There are fascinating birds, animals, plants and even fish, including some very rare and special species. What you will see on this tour depends on things like the weather, the time of year, the time of day and, of course, a bit of luck.
Starting in Athlone, on a warm evening in early summer you may be lucky enough to hear one of the last few Corncrakes left in the world calling in the meadows around the town. Ballykeeran is on the Inner lakes which are a bird sanctuary. Look out for great crested grebes and listen for water rails. Two rare duck species you might spot are goldeneye (in winter) and common scoter (in summer). The inner lakes also have one of the largest concentrations of bats, of carious species, to be found anywhere in Ireland.
Continuing the tour round the lake, there are various spots where you can search woodlands for the distinctive and beautiful Irish whitebeam, Ireland’s only endemic tree species which means it grows wild in no other country in the world. In summer many of the waterside flowering plants are very spectacular. Common species include purple loosestrife, yellow water lily, marsh forget-me-not and meadowsweet. Rarities include the little water germander.
The northern part of the lake from Barley Harbour up to Lanesborough is much shallower and has a higher density of islands. There are surprising numbers of seabirds in residence here. You will see a lot of cormorants and at least three species of gull. There is also a small breeding colony of arctic terns on the lake.
One place to look for signs of the elusive pine marten is St John’s Wood, just south of Lecarrow. In summer you should also listen to for the rare garden warbler and enjoy the mix of Irish native trees and shrubs that includes some uncommon species like bird cherry, wild cherry, Irish whitebeam, spindle, alder buckthorn and crab apple. In summer also keep your eyes open for the beautiful brimstone butterfly which is dependent on the alder buckthorn. As we continue the tour, a word about swans. There are huge numbers of mute swans on the lake, including several large flocks of un-mated birds. It is also an internationally important site for yellow beaked whooper swans in winter. In recent years a few whoopers have taken to staying for the summer instead of returning to Iceland, indicating that they may be about to start breeding here. So if you have binoculars, check out the beak colour of any swans you see, even in summer.