Just a stone’s throw away from the world-acclaimed Wexford Opera House, it’s easy to get a front-row seat at arguably the best and most diverse show in town. This is a show where nature takes to the stage.
On this summer afternoon, now unfamiliar clouds serve as a slow-moving backdrop while swallows dip and dive over the gently lapping water.
Ducks of various varieties bob along before a heron swoops in from the wings, causing an eruption of squabbles and commotion. Unaware of the fuss, a pair of goldfinches dance and whistle around one another before settling on a nearby swaying branch.
The smell of salty sea air wafts in through the open door. Wind whispers through the reeds. As far as shows go, it’s certainly a feast for the senses.
All of this unravels before the Pump House Hide overlooking Wexford Wildfowl Reserve’s main water channel. It is one of the reserve’s three bird hides – a simple shelter used to observe wildlife at close range without disturbance.
Birdwatching from the hides or the reserve’s elevated observation tower gives people the chance to remain sheltered from the elements while still getting to witness nature’s spectacles. In fact, nature often brings itself even closer.
Next to the wooden bench I’m perched upon is a sign requesting that hide windows are left open, to allow for the resident swallows to return to their nests. Sure enough, a mud-bound dwelling is nestled into the wooden ceiling above my head. In the upper floor of the hide, which overlooks Wexford Harbour, there are several more.
Despite the myriad of activities, Education Officer at the reserve John Kinsella tells me that summer is quiet season. A ‘ballpark figure of 260 species’ have been recorded on the 200-hectare reserve, which is managed by the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) and jointly owned with BirdWatch Ireland. Many birds will arrive later this year.
Perhaps the most famous winter residents are the Greenland White-fronted geese, whose expected time of arrival is October.
The reserve welcomes up to 8,000 of the visitors – approximately 45 per cent of the world population – each winter and many birders swoop in to greet them after their long journey.
“The geese have a 15 to 18-hour flight from Greenland to Iceland, their halfway point,” explains John, adding that they stop for four weeks in Iceland before taking the second 18-hour flight to our shores.
This is no issue for Europe’s rarest geese, who replenish their energy stores by feeding up on rye grasses and sugar beet in the following months. The geese remain in Ireland, as well as their other wintering spot in Scotland, before making the journey back to Western Greenland in April.
However, John points out that one individual has decided to stick around a bit longer. From the reserve’s eight-metre high observation tower, a lone goose with a distinctive orange bill can be spied sitting comfortably in a field.
While unsure as to why he remains, John says that the goose is healthy and will likely return to Greenland next year. The influx of Greenland White-fronted geese is an indication that winter is coming, says John. “Cue Game of Thrones music,” he laughs. Until then, there’s still always something to be seen.
From the tower, a group of godwits can be seen prodding in the grass for food with their strikingly-long beaks. Several curlews walk among them, likely migrant birds rather than members of our breeding population, which has declined by 96 per cent since the 1980s.
Little terns, sedge warblers and great-crested grebes are just some of the other birds that can be spotted in summer, while pale-bellied brent geese, Slavonian grebes and great northern divers may be ticked off the list in winter.
The North Slob is also an Irish Hare sanctuary and we spot two on the grass as evening sets in, while at least five species of bat have been recorded here.
In the summertime, the reserve plays host to several events, including the popular weekly pond-dipping and bug discovery activities. This year, a special photography exhibition telling the reserve’s story will be held in the Visitor Centre during Heritage Week in advance of the 50th anniversary in 2019.
While the reserve was officially established in 1969, its history began long before that. The North Slob, where the reserve is located, is a 1,000-hectare mudflat that was reclaimed from the sea for farmland in the 1840’s.
Nowadays, along with being a Nature Reserve, Wexford Wildfowl Reserve forms part of the larger Wexford Slobs and Harbour Special Protected Area (SPA) – a habitat designated under the EU Birds Directive for the protection of endangered species of birds.
The remainder of the North Slob still consists of farmland and the reserve team liaise with local farmers to ensure birds are not disturbed. When the geese arrive, local landowners are subsidised for halting any potentially disruptive agricultural activity on nearby land.
“Goodwill is very high,” says John when asked about cooperation.
Bar the occasional incident with poachers and this year’s heavy snow – more problematic for reserve staff and visitors than birds – John says the reserve has been confronted with few challenges since its foundation. However, they are faced with an issue universal to most environmental efforts: climate change.
Last year, the reserve welcomed less Greenland White-fronted geese than usual. Although ongoing long-term research must be completed to be certain, it’s believed this is a result of climate change.
However, scientists are not yet sure exactly how this affects them or whether the decline will change.
Butterfly walks on the reserve have also yielded less sightings than usual.
Only time will tell what the consequences of our rapidly changing planet will be for birdlife worldwide. In the meantime, staff here will continue to do what they can to protect the many species that call Wexford Wildfowl Reserve home.
(First published in the Irish Examiner on August 13 2018. Available online at: https://www.irishexaminer.com/breakingnews/lifestyle/features/watching-from-the-wings-where-nature-takes-centre-stage-861738.html)