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6. Common Sandpipers (April - June 2010)
heroic travellers... summer sound of Lough Allen... attractive species... prolific breeder...


Location:  Cormongan area and Islands, and the rest of Lough Allen.






Just as the Merganser might be the image of Lough Allen; the Common Sandpiper is the summer sound of Lough Allen. Their characteristically plaintive ‘piping’ is heard every Summer, especially this year when the good weather and low water levels has made them more ubiquitous than ever. They are to be found on all shores of Lough Allen. As an example, our Map (below) shows every place we have seen them. Pretty much anywhere there is suitable habitat for them.

What sort of habitat do they like? Well, for feeding they tend to pick insects and other invertebrates from along sandy shores or in the organic detritus of broken down branches, leaves, mud and shale, that is very common around Lough Allen. For breeding, they seem to be more associated with rocky and exposed shores found on promontories and islands.

How to recognise these birds? Firstly, you don’t need to worry about plumage details, just observe the way they behave. When perching (on a dead banch) they will bob up and down. When flying they beat their wings fast and stiffly for a while and then cruise for a bit. There is no other small lake bird with this pattern of shimmering wings and glides. To cap that, if there are 2 birds present, they will both be making an almost continuous piping song as they fly about. Both sexes sing and it does seem to be associated with holding on to that pairs linear patch of shoreline... their territory!

Rare? No, not particularly, but they are a species typical of the north west and their numbers may be contracting elsewhere in Ireland. Because of their secretive nesting they seem fairly immune from predation and may be quite secure as a breeder here as long as we have good clean water with a rich source of food.






As part of our work and in line with the idea of establishing a regional Nature Reserve in the area, possibly with EU LIFE+ support, we have undertaken a survey of rare, interesting, and speciality breeding birds in Lough Allen.

Two of these are the Red-breasted Merganser and the Common Sandpiper. (Others would include Lapwing, Common and Lesser Black-backed Gull, Black-headed Gull and Common Terns, Crossbills, possible Garden Warblers, etc.

2010 has been a spectacular year for breeding birds in Lough Allen. It has been dry,sunny, fairly calm and the lake level has receded to expose plenty of suitable nesting habitat. However, one birds success is another birds danger; the Mergansers may be suffering predation from the Black-backed Gulls.

However, the Common Sandpiper is thriving... Everywhere we go we hear their cheerful piping song. This is the wild sound of Lough Allen in Summer...

The Map on the left only suggests breeding distribution and the numbers of birds on Lough Allen. It is almost impossible to find Sandpiper chicks. While the breeding pair may be very noisy and territorial in the area, they keep the nesting location very secret. Also, these birds are ready to rock and roll as soon as they hatch. i.e. they can immediately leave the nest and hide for safety or run for cover at their mother’s behest. This has two strong advantages. One they are not so vulnerable to Gull or Crow predation and, secondly, they will not be killed by changing water levels should the lake rise during the Summer.




Sandpipers love this island. It is not named; in fact doesn’t even show up on the Ordnance Survey Map 26. We call it Jenny’s Island. When we have visited this place, they seem to spend most of their time flying around in circles though, maybe, showing a slight preference for the west shore (shown here on the right of the picture).



SPRING.... and the first Sandpipers have arrived at Lough Allen. These small waders winter in south west Africa and make their way to Lough Allen (and other places!) to breed as the days start to lengthen. After breeding they leave Ireland in July and head back across the Sahara typically in August. Some journey for a bird that loves water? The 3 pictures in this column show birds fresh in from Africa and the sort of shoreline where they can be seen busily feeding.


Just arrived and anxious to stock up on food. The early Sandpipers are quiet and industrious for a few days before the nuptial circuit starts to take place. These photographs were taken at Cormongan in mid-April.


The sort of shore enjoyed by Common Sandpipers. They will feed on shores like this anywhere around the Lake but tend to move to rockier more isolated shores as the breeding season progresses.



As a means of defining breeding success in Lough Allen, being able to identify breeding birds and juvenile birds would be convenient. The prominent white bar on the wing of this individual and the way it joins up with the white flank and tail would seem to indicate it’s an adult.

See a detailed discussion and photographs of differences between mature and young birds, and Summer and Winter plumages HERE. (It is complicated, but it’s the best we could find.)

Anyone who can help us age Sandpipers around Lough Allen, could you please CONTACT US.


What’s he doing sitting around with his mouth open? Well he’s singing or piping in a way typical of the species and evocative of an area where they breed. This sound will be as familar to local people as the call of the Corncrake once was.

This is the same bird shown on the right and is an adult, either male or female. It was part of a pair that continually circled around the little island shown above. They seemed even more excited than normal.


(Many thanks to Fíona Farrell NPWS for these two photographs and the one of the island as well.)


The 3 photographs below show the typical characteristics of this Bird. The way they choose a bare tree branch over water as a watchpoint, their gliding type of flight, and the striking under wing pattern of the breeding birds can just about be seen in the middle photograph.


The framing of this photograph is old gnarled branches of Alder which survive on the shores of these islands, as they have a remarkable ability to withstand being flooded for months on end. This is the sort of location Common Sandpipers like to breed in. Also in the warm sunny weather there is a good supply of invertebrates to be found among the stones on the island, or else the birds will visit other muddier or sandy shores on adjoining islands or the main Lough Allen shore.

To prove breeding at a particular spot is difficult, even to accurately count them is tricky as they move around so much. The best way we can judge their success is by their continued and expanded presence in Lough Allen. This particular environment seems to suit them very well. Lough Allen is an exceptional and clean habitat for many wildlife! Let’s keep it that way?

Other significant waders include the Lapwing and Curlew, both of which used to breed here but are now undergoing a severe decline for reasons discussed elsewhere.


The 3 pictures on the left are of a pair that obviously think they own Jenny’s Island. (They might as well; it has no ‘0fficial’ name that we are aware of and it doesn’t even exist on one Ordnance Survey map!) It is clearly their territory and theirs alone. Maybe they resented our intrusion or maybe they had young nearby?

That possibility seemed to be proven when taking the pictures of the 2 birds flying by. A faint rustling was heard near my feet and a very young looking and not fully feathered Sandpiper flew by about 2 metres away. Unfortunately it was much too quick to obtain a photograph, but was clearly a young bird recently fledged, presumeably following Momma and Poppa?


They say that prominent stripes on the back of the wings are a sign of a juvenile Sandpiper, and also that the black and white underwing pattern indicates a breeding bird. We assumed that these two birds were a breeding pair and not juvenile. The birds are identical so these photographs may be of one or other of the pair.

It would be interesting to try and indentify adult and juvenile birds among the population around Lough Allen in the next month or so before they leave, We do not yet know if this is possible?

The bird in the photograph at the top of this article, has a very prominent white bar. Is that a sign of a mature bird? Mmmm... I feel more research coming on!



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