The Greater Skellig Coast Hope Spot is of huge ornithological importance and plays a vital role year-round. This Hope Spot covers the Loop Head to Kenmare Area of Interest outlined in the Fair Seas report, ‘Revitalising Our Seas: Identifying Areas of Interest for Marine Protected Area Designation in Irish Waters’, published last June 2022.
Hope Spots are chosen using a set of criteria, among them the presence of a special abundance or diversity of species, or populations of rare or threatened species, of which the Greater Skellig Coast can certainly boast.
Summer seabirds of the Greater Skellig Coast Hope Spot
By summer, the region hosts some of the most breathtaking seabird breeding colonies in Ireland, many of which are of international importance. Of the 24 breeding seabird species in Ireland, 20 are known to call this Hope Spot home for the summer. In the warm summer months, seabirds draw sustenance from these productive waters. The summer months are a critically important feeding time for seabirds when they consume high amounts to ensure successful breeding and chick-rearing. In terms of ‘Birds of Conservation Concern‘, 4 of Ireland’s 5 Red-list species, and 15 of Ireland’s Amber-list species, are present here .
The region includes the largest of Ireland’s gannetries (the term for a gannet colony) on the Skelligs, which hosts 74% of the national gannet population, and the largest puffin colony, with 26% of the breeding population on Puffin Island. Soon-to-be-published data suggests that the puffin population on Great Skellig may have grown and now hosts over 26% of Ireland’s breeding population. Sceilg Mhichíl, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is also important for Northern fulmar, black-legged kittiwakes, European storm-petrel, Manx shearwater, Atlantic puffins and common guillemots.
Wintering birds of the Greater Skellig Coast Hope Spot
By winter, the region is of huge importance for wintering waterbirds. Tralee Bay, for example, supports 20,000 wintering waterbirds. Of the 22 species for which Tralee Bay is designated a Special Protection Area, 20 are either Amber-listed or Red-listed Birds of Conservation Concern . This includes the national bird of Ireland, the lapwing. Curlew, dunlin and redshank, all Red-listed species, are found here and are waders of European importance that are severely declining in Ireland.
The Bridges of Ross, lying just north of Loop Head, in Co Clare, is one of the major migration bottlenecks in the country, with 60,000 birds being recorded passing through here over a three-year period.
These numbers are staggering and awe-inspiring in their own right, but when you consider the diversity of the seabird species present here and how they thrive in this region, you really get a sense of the extent to which seabirds use the marine environment. The Greater Skellig Coast Hope Spot is a unique part of our planet but with declines being seen in so many of the seabirds that call this place home, it’s time we do more to respect our shared spaces on the island of Ireland.
Important Seabird Colonies of the Greater Skellig Coast Hope Spot
One species which disperses rather than migrating after the breeding season is the fulmar, which is often mistaken for a gull. Fulmars still feed at sea on a variety of marine foods, including scavenging on offal from trawlers.
Gannets, as birds of the open sea, can travel huge distances, hundreds of kilometres in fact, from nesting sites to forage for food during chick-rearing . Gannets were also the worst affected seabirds during the rapid increase of avian flu cases in Ireland in September 2022. They were particularly vulnerable as their breeding season begins relatively late compared to other seabirds, and while most other species had long since left their nesting sites by then, gannets were still at their breeding colonies in large numbers.
Kittiwakes are exceptions for a number of reasons. They are the most oceanic of the gulls, essentially only returning to land for the breeding season. Unlike other gulls, kittiwakes can nest in small colonies or in large dense colonies with tens of thousands of other birds .
Like kittiwakes, European storm-petrels only return to land to breed. The northernmost of the Blasket Islands, Inishtooskert, holds the largest colony of European storm petrels in Ireland. In fact, Ireland is a significant stronghold for this species with an internationally important population located here .
The Blaskets and Puffin Island are also the two major hotspots for Manx shearwater in Ireland, particularly noteworthy given that most of the world’s population of Manx shearwater breeds in Ireland or Britain.  Manx Shearwaters nest in burrows and are only active in their colonies at night. Although rare, the critically endangered Balearic shearwater, has also been observed around the Blasket and Skellig Islands.
Puffins are curious birds, they are burrow nesters and can seem somewhat inefficient in flight. Studies have found that puffins have one of the highest energetic costs of flight in seabirds. However, on underwater pursuits after diving from the surface their wings propel them at great speeds. Another well-versed underwater forager is the common guillemot, which occurs in important numbers within the Greater Skellig Coast Hope Spot. These small birds are so well adapted for hunting underwater that puffins can dive to depths of 75m and guillemots can dive to 250m.
The Greater Skellig Coast is a region that provides a spectacular showcase of seabird diversity and the many and varied ways in which birds live off the sea. Given the diverse and wide-ranging uses of the sea that seabirds rely on, protections need to go further than the existing 500m extension from nesting sites on land, as currently allowed for under the current Special Protection Areas.
Well-managed Marine Protected Areas that incorporate the best science, not only on nesting sites but also essential foraging grounds will be key to ensuring that the populations of Ireland’s majestic seabirds can thrive and fill our seas, cliffs and skies for generations to come.
This blog was written by Sinéad Loughran, Marine Policy & Advocacy Officer at Birdwatch Ireland, a partner of the Fair Seas campaign.
 Mitchell, P.I., Newton, S.F., Ratcliffe, N., & Dunn, T.E. (2004) Seabird Populations of Britain and Ireland: Results of the SEABIRD 2000 Census.
We also welcome you to join us in Cork on 8th June, where we are hosting our inaugural World Ocean Day conference. We are bringing ocean advocates, government, industry and key stakeholders together to map out the next steps for Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in Irish waters.
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