Stephen Colton's Take on Nature: Shore birds in the shadow of Slieve Donard's

Murlough Beach looking towards Newcastle, Co Down, with Slieve Donard and the Mourne Mountains towering over the town
Stephen Colton

ALTHOUGH the Mournes display different colours, shapes and moods, one constant feature of the granite peaks is their towering presence and dominance of the seaside resort of Newcastle below, along with neighbouring villages Dundrum and Maghera.

The mountain range includes Sliabh Dónairt – Dónairt's mountain – named in early Christian times after the saint, who was said to have used the summit as a place of seclusion.

At 850m (2,790 ft), it is the highest mountain in all of Ulster and the seventh highest on the island.

In more ancient times, two names given to the mountain, according to Sam Moore, The Archaeology of Slieve Donard; A Cultural Biography of Ulster's Highest Mountain (2012), were Sliabh Slángha and Beann Boirche. The former, meaning Slángha's mountain, refers to Slángha, son of Partholón, who according to Tipperary-born Geoffrey Keating, in his 17th-century narrative history of Ireland, Foras Feasa ar Érinn, led his followers from Greece to settle in Ireland around 2061 BC.

They were known as 'Muintir Partholóin', People of Partholón and in the Annals of the Four Masters, we are told that “Slainge, son of Partholón, was interred in the cairn of Sliabh Slángha” (O'Donovan 1856).

The latter name means Boirche's peak, after a shepherd who reputedly herded cattle belonging to the King of Ulster on the mountain in the third century.

While the mountains cast their spell throughout the county, their banks of upland purple heather and forested lower slopes are most stunning from Newcastle's promenade as, in the famous words of Percy French, they, "sweep down to the sea".

During a recent stay in the area, I enjoyed their daily company and especially when they provided an imposing backdrop to the hundreds of waders I watched at low tide on inner Dundrum Bay.

From the bridge at Keel point on the edge of Dundrum village, the brilliant clean white plumage of the little egret was visible foraging in shallow pools. This medium-sized white heron, with its long black legs, yellow feet, and attractive plumes, bred in Co Cork in 1997, after a long absence in Ireland and now breeds in most of our coastal counties.

Feeding in nutrient-rich mudflats, other species included lapwing, oystercatcher, redshank and the curlew, an increasingly rare breeding species here. Present also, still sporting some of their summer colours, were a few bar-tailed godwits, probing the soft mud for aquatic worms and molluscs, with their long slightly upturned bills.

Although a winter visitor, small numbers of non-breeders do over summer here, so these birds may have been early winter migrants from their breeding grounds in northern Europe, or non-breeders. Their summer plumage shows a brick red head and underparts with dark brownish upper parts.

In flight the bird reveals its distinctive white rump and the barred tail which give the bird its name and distinguish it from the similar black-tailed godwit. The slightly upturned bill is also a notable difference. Its Irish name is Guilbneach (sharp-beaked) stríocearrach (bar-tailed) while the Latin name Limosa translates as ‘favouring mud' and lapponica, ‘from Lapland' its breeding place.

As one of the many waders to inhabit our coastal inlets and bays, the bar-tailed godwit is heavily linked with the ghostly ‘Legend of the Seven Whistlers' which tells of seven waders thought to also include lapwing and curlew, calling out in haunting tones overhead at night.

With many variations worldwide, the story tells of how six birds continually search for the seventh, which when found, signals the end of the world. These birds, in the shadow of Donard, add much to this magical and mythical place.

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