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Purple Sandpipers at Kilcummin Head

The Purple Sandpipers, perched on the cliff-top at Kilcummin Head, seemed completely unbothered by my presence, even when I edged closer to take a photograph.

I was surprised at this relaxed behaviour as I have always found that birds take flight once you start to get close to them.

It’s like birds set an exclusion zone around themselves and once you cross this invisible line, they fly off. Purple Sandpipers seem to be an exception to this keep your distance rule.

Apparently, this indifference to possible danger is a characteristic of Purple Sandpipers that winter here from their summer breeding grounds in Arctic Canada.

A small, plump shorebird with an orange bill and yellow-orange legs, Purple Sandpipers forage along rocky shores such as Kilcummin from September to April. I photographed the birds on January 24th, 2018.

Recent research started in 2010 has thrown new light on the remarkable migratory journey made by Ireland’s Purple Sandpipers.

Geolocators were fitted to Purple Sandpipers in Co Clare as part of a joint project of Scotland’s Highland Ringing Group, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, and BirdWatch Ireland, supported by the Heritage Council.

The geolocators revealed that Ireland’s Purple Sandpipers breed in the eastern Canadian Arctic on Devon and Baffin Islands and return to the same location along Ireland’s west coast each winter.

The Purple Sandpipers, perched on the cliff-top at Kilcummin Head, Co Mayo, breed on Devon and Baffin Islands in the Eastern Canadian Arctic. Photo: Anthony Hickey
The Purple Sandpipers, perched on the cliff-top at Kilcummin Head, Co Mayo, breed on Devon and Baffin Islands in the Eastern Canadian Arctic. Photo: Anthony Hickey

According to a Birdwatch Ireland report on Purple Sandpipers:

“The data recorded on the geolocators also told us that our Purple Sandpipers tended to refuel in Iceland and/or Greenland during their spring migration before they reached their breeding grounds in Arctic Canada.

“Not only that, but we also learned that the return journey from Canada to Ireland, the following autumn, was often made without staging, but instead in one phenomenal nonstop flight at an average speed of about 1,400km per day.

“Not bad for a bird that weighs only 50-100g! Bear that in mind next time you see this often overlooked wader.”

So the next time you spot a Purple Sandpiper somewhere along the Mayo coast remember that the little bird will be spending its summer 3,500km away in Arctic Canada, a journey it makes in just 2½ days – nonstop.

By Anthony Hickey

Follow writer and photographer, Anthony Hickey, as he travels around his native Co. Mayo, Ireland.

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