Castlegregory is right at the centre of one of the best birdwatching areas in Kerry. The north side of the Dingle Peninsula is famous for seabirds and wildfowl in particular, along with a strong supporting cast of waders, gulls, terns and many others. Lough Gill is a shallow , reed-fringed lake just to the west of Castlegregory, and by far the most obvious birds here are the large numbers of Mute Swans, but mixed in with these between October and late April, are Whooper Swans, winter visitors from Iceland and Greenland. Winter is generally the best time for bird-watching in this area, with Tufted duck, Teal, Wigeon and Scaup all present in good numbers.
The reed bed hosts more secretive species such as Snipe and Water Rail. Nearby Brandon Bay has a very different mix of wildfowl. No swans here, but several hundred, sometimes a thousand or more, Common Scoter. These all-black sea duck can be seen bobbing offshore beyond the surf line and are occasionally joined by the rare Velvet Scoter, and a transatlantic visitor, the Surf Scoter, is recorded here most winters. Further out in the bay, there can be huge gatherings, or “rafts”, of more oceanic species, such as Manx Shearwater, Gannet, Fulmar, Razorbill and Guillemots.
Brandon point protrudes far out into the sea, and in certain conditions, particularly in autumn, when a strong west or north-west wind blows, thousands of seabirds can be seen passing the headland. On occasion, 10,000 or more Gannets and Kittiwakes might pass, with 25,000 Manx Shearwaters, several hundred Fulmars, Sooty Shearwaters and auks, and the possibility of some truly rare seabirds – A Fea’s Petrel from Madeira, a Little Shearwater from the Canaries, or a Lond-tailed Skua from the high Arctic – all have been recorded from Brandon Point during autumn gales.
The peninsula and beaches to the north of Castlegregory and the estuary at Cloghane are all good areas for a wide variety of waders, with perhaps the commonest being Sanderling, small whitish birds that run along the waters edge on the more open beaches like small clockwork toys. Redshank, Greenshank and Turnstones are all common, as is Curlew, Ringed Plover and Bar-tailed Godwit, and the stone and rock beaches around Scraggane and Rough Point are well known as the winter haunt of Purple Sandpipers, the only regular wintering site for this species in Kerry.
Summer sees a change of species, and birdwatcher’s attention switches to the large breeding colonies of birds on the Maharee islands. This area is the summer home of no less than 13 seabird species, nine of which are in numbers catergorized as of National Importance. These are Storm Petrel (about 1200 nests), Cormorant, Shag, Common Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull and Herring Gull. The remaining three are species of tern for which the islands are well known. Common Terns, Arctic Terns and Little Terns all breed on several of the islands. The Little Tern colony is one of only five colonies remaining in Ireland, and about 15 to 20 pairs nest in most summers. A further two speices of tern, Roseate Tern and Sandwich tern, have nested in the past, and could do so again, so the seabird diversity of these islands is one of the highest in Ireland.
Whatever the time of year, there is plenty to see around Castlegregory. Bring a pair of binoculars, and have a good look yourself.