Shag

Irish Name: Seaga
Scientific name: Phalacrocorax aristotelis
Bird Family: Cormorants
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Conservation status

Status

Resident along all Irish coasts.

Identification

Medium sized, mainly all dark seabird. Long body and neck, long narrow hooked bill. Dark webbed feet. Rather short rounded wings. Swims low in the water with bill raised. Very rarely inland unlike the similar looking Cormorant. Adult breeding bird is black with a green and purple gloss to its plumage, yellow gape and a crest on its fore crown. While the Cormorant lacks a crest, instead having a sloping forehead and crown peaked at rear, the Shag has peaked fore crown at all seasons and in all plumages. The adult birds lack the crest outside of the breeding season. Juvenile and first year birds are brownish with darker upperpart.

Voice

Grunting calls at colony

Diet

A wide range of small fish taken from just below the surface.

Breeding

Breeds all around the coast of Ireland where ever suitable cliffs exist. Nests on ledges, in crevases, in caves or under boulders. A colonial nester in loose colonies with prolonged breeding season. More plentiful on the west and south coasts but with notable concentrations in Co. Dublin.

Wintering

Whilst young birds will disperse widely, most adults will winter in the vicinity of their breeding colonies.

Monitored by

Breeding seabirds are monitored through surveys carried out every 15-20 years, the last was Seabird 2000, which was undertaken between 1998 & 2002.

Blog posts about this bird

Birds of Prey

King of the Ring - Ireland's record-breaking birds

The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) recently published the ‘2020 Ringing Report’, detailing all of the birds ringed in Ireland and Britain up to the end of last year. Included in this is an update to the ‘longevity list’, i.e. the individuals of each species which have lived the longest. This always makes for fascinating reading, to see what ringed individuals bucked the trend by outliving their counterparts. Some birds can live a lot longer than you might think! See below for more on the Irish record-breakers, including one bird that is the oldest of its species seen by our staff this summer.  

Click here to read the full longevity list up to the end of 2020, on the BTO website.

  Ringing birds, by people who are appropriately trained and licensed, is a valuable way to learn about the lifespan of birds, their annual survival rates, migratory movements and dispersal, and how individuals use a certain area. All of these things vary by species, by location (e.g. Irish birds might do something different to English birds of the same species) and by time, and changes to weather patterns, loss of prey or food supplies, or destruction of habitat might cause these to change, which we can again measure through ringing. Ringing involves fitting a bird with a small lightweight metal and/or plastic ring with a unique code on it, so that specific individual is recognisable in the future and we know exactly where it has been in the past, and when it was in that place. There are around 100 bird ringers on the island of Ireland, and all sorts of species are ringed here, from Robins to Ravens, Blackbirds to Brent Geese, Coal Tits to Cuckoos, Siskins to Swifts, and everything in between. If you’re interested to find out more about ringing see this link on the BTO website, and we’ve also been running a regular feature in our BirdWatch Ireland membership magazine ‘Wings’ to highlight ringing projects currently running in Ireland, so check that out too!  

Irish birds on the Longevity List

Over the years, many birds either ringed in Ireland, or ringed elsewhere and found in Ireland, have taken pride of place on the ringing list. Some have fallen from the top spot over time, including a Manx Shearwater from the Copeland Islands in Northern Ireland, which was the oldest known living wild bird in the world when it was re-trapped by ringers in 2003, 50 years since being ringed as an adult, making it at least 55 years old when it was caught in 2003! You can read more about Manx Shearwater ringing on the Copeland Islands in this recent article from our Wings magazine here. See below for seven Irish birds currently ranked as the oldest of their species in Britain and Ireland, and we’ve got one to add to the list from our conservation work this summer….  

Greenland White-fronted Goose

A white-front ringed on the North Slob in Wexford in 1985, was shot in Iceland in 2004, making it 18 years and 10 months old!  

Shag

A Shag ringed on Great Saltee in Wexford as a chick in 1977 subsequently washed up on the beach at Greystones in Wicklow in 2007, making it a whopping 29 years and 11 months old!   wood-sandpiper-walking-on-rock

Wood Sandpiper

The Wood Sandpiper is a scarce passage migrant in Ireland, meaning they move through on migration in the autumn. A Wood Sandpiper caught on the Shannon Estuary in Limerick in 1974 was subsequently caught by another ringer in Belgium, 922km away and almost 8 years later. Some species that aren’t particularly common in Britain and Ireland might have a larger maximum lifespan recorded through ringing schemes elsewhere, but the examples here are the oldest individuals in Britain and Ireland for each species!  

Stock Dove

This increasingly-scarce pigeon species has a well-established breeding population on the Copeland Islands in Down. One bird caught in 1953 was found a mere 10km away on the mainland, 9 years and 2 months later!   short-eared-owl-flying-low-over-grassland

Short-eared Owl

A Short-eared Owl, ringed as nestling in the Forest of Balloch in South Ayrshire in Scotland was unfortunately shot in Cork, at 6 years and 8 months of age. It was originally ringed in May 1956 and met it’s untimely death in January 1963.  

Rook

Many people are a bit surprised that species such as Rooks are ringed and studied, but we can learn a lot about bird behaviour and environmental change by looking at our most common species. A Rook chick ringed in May 1982 in Castlewellan in Down was found dead 7km away. That mightn’t surprise you, as they can move around a bit and 7km isn’t too far as the Rook flies. The surprising bit though, is that it was exactly 22 years and 11 months since it was ringed!

Dipper Next time you see a Dipper, happily bobbing away on a rock in a stream near you, this might make you wonder how long it has been using that same rock! A Dipper ringed as a chick in April 2008 under a bridge in Laois was caught by the ringer again 8 years and 9 months later! We have our own distinct subspecies of Dipper in Ireland, so research into this species in Ireland is particularly valuable and important.  

And in 2021, a record-breaking Roseate Tern!

Ireland has the two largest Roseate Tern colonies in Europe, Rockabill in Dublin and Lady’s Island in Wexford, accounting for over 90% of Roseate Terns in north-west Europe. Ringing has been a really important tool for the conservation work by BirdWatch Ireland and the National Parks and Wildlife Service at both colonies, helping to monitor the progress of each bird as they grow as a chick, and when they return as an adult. Because such a large proportion of the Roseate Terns at both colonies are ringed, we have a really good insight into the average age of the population, and in most years we record a few birds in their late teens or early twenties. Not bad for something the size of a Blackbird, that migrates to and from West Africa every year! This summer, one of our Rockabill Wardens Alex Fink, spotted a Roseate Tern that had been ringed in July 1993, making it 28 years old and the oldest Roseate on record in this part of the world! The majority of breeding Roseate Terns are 3-7 years old, so this bird has done extremely well for itself, and depending on how successfully it has been breeding over the years, and how successful its offspring have been, it might even be a great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparent!  
 

For more details on the oldest ringed birds in Britain and Ireland, see the BTO website here.

For more information about ringing projects in Ireland, see our regular ‘Ringing Tales’ feature in our Wings membership magazine. Click here to see about becoming a member.

 

If you find a bird with a ring and need help to report it and find where and when it came from, email us here with as many details as you can provide, particularly the code on the ring.

     
Garden Birds

Too Close for Comfort - BirdWatch Ireland remind everyone not to photograph bird nests this summer

Looking at a bird nest in close quarters risks disturbing the parents, causing chicks to prematurely leave the nest, and increases the risk of a predator finding a nest. 

 

It’s always an exciting moment when you realise you have birds nesting in your garden, or when you’re out for a walk and spot a bird dashing into a hedge with nest material or food for their young. Of course, bird nests are quite mysterious, with their often-hidden locations and intricate designs, and the prospect of watching the progress from nest to eggs to chicks to fledglings is a tantalising one – a rare glimpse into an important part of the lifecycle of your favourite species. Similarly, thousands of people look forward to the Swallows returning to their sheds year after year, and hopefully rearing multiple successful broods before their return trip to Africa. Unfortunately, though, by looking into that nest, or trying to get some photos to share with family, friends and social media, you could be putting the nesting attempt at risk of failure. And nobody wants to do that! So please, resists the temptation to peek into any nests this summer, but rather watch the adults coming and going from a safe distance, and keep your eye out for healthy fledglings a few weeks later!

A lot of people don’t realise that it’s actually illegal to disturb and/or photograph nesting birds, without a specific licence from the National Parks and Wildlife Service. “Under Section 22 (9)(f) of the Wildlife Act, 1976 (as amended) a licence is required for a person to take… video/pictures of a wild bird of a species… on or near a nest containing eggs or unflown young”. This is a good law and is in place with the best interests of the birds in mind.

blackbird-fledgling-in-grass

Please don't go near nesting birds, eggs or chicks - wait for them to fledge and there'll be loads of opportunities to see them!
 

So, what are the risks? Well first of all, the adults will likely leave the nest as you approach. This means that eggs that need to be incubated, or chicks that need to be kept warm, are exposed and will rapidly lose heat, putting them at risk. If the chicks are more than half-grown, you might find the adult isn’t on the nest as you approach, but your presence will prevent them from feeding their chicks – and those chicks need a lot of food every day if they’re going to fledge successfully! As chicks in the nest get older, there’s a risk that you will cause them to ‘explode’ from the nest. The chicks see you as a predator, so when you approach the nest they think their time is up – so they take a risk and jump from the nest, in the hopes of escaping. By causing them to fledge too early, you’re greatly decreasing their odds of survival. It’s important to remember that birds see humans as predators, so they act accordingly by trying to escape from the predator. In the natural world, there’s nothing good about a large animal trying to seek out your nest – it can only be a bad thing!

In some cases, you might approach a nest and the parent bird stays sitting on it. A lot of people take this as a good sign that no disturbance has been caused and that the bird is content with your presence, but that’s not the case! There are studies that show that birds who remain on the nest like this have greatly elevated heart rates for several hours afterwards. So, they were very stressed as you approached, but they were hoping that by not moving they wouldn’t give away the location of their nest.

swallow-on-ground-with-twig-in-mouth

A Swallow gathering nest material.
 

Lastly, even if you’re in and out quickly – no chicks jump the nest, and the adults return quickly, there can still be disastrous consequences. By approaching a nest, you can give away it’s location to potential predators – cats, Magpies, foxes, dogs, etc. – will either have seen you check the nest and think, “I wonder what they were looking at?” and remember to do their own investigation later, or by approaching the nest you might leave a trail of flattened grass or move branches or briars out of the way, all tipping off potential nest predators too.

So, without wanting to fearmonger, you can potentially put birds and their eggs/chicks in jeopardy by poking your head in to have a look or try and get a photo. But you’ll put them at no risk by observing them come and go from several metres away, and you’ll hopefully have some fledgling chicks to look forward to seeing in a few weeks’ time. So why risk it?!

Nestbox cameras provide the best of both worlds and are perfectly safe and legal if they’re installed early in the year before the birds starting nesting in them. Nests should only be ‘inspected’ by people with the right training and licensing, who are gathering scientific data to advance our understanding of the species in question, with a view to improving conservation efforts.

 

A nestbox camera, that you've installed before the breeding season starts, is a great way to monitor your nesting birds without causing them any disturbance.
 

If you happen accidentally to disturb a nest, the best thing to do is to leave the site immediately. If the chicks jump, and you can safely return them to the nest, then try to do so, but if that’s not possible, putting them somewhere close by in a tree or hedge is the best thing to do. They stand a much better chance of survival if their parents look after them than if they have to be taken into human care. In extreme cases, contact the Irish Wildlife Hospital (http://wildlifehospital.ie/) for advice, but try the above steps first. It’s better to leave them be and watch from a distance to see if the adults return to them than to put them in a box first and ask questions later.

If you see a fledgling on the ground, don't pick it up - watch for an hour or more to see if the adults are tending to it. If they are, leave it be.
 

So, regardless of the law, and no matter how careful you are, it’s really down to ethics and the birds’ welfare being paramount. For this reason, we don’t ‘like’ or share any photos sent to us of birds’ nests or chicks. Even if your photo was taken from 20 metres away with the longest lens money can buy and no disturbance was caused, we feel it’s best not to share these as it may encourage others (who haven’t read this article!) to go get their own photos of their nesting Robins or Swallows, and so the knock-on effects simply aren’t worth it.

 

Play it safe at Seabird Colonies

Arguably the greatest example of this sort of issue is in seabird colonies, such as Great Saltee in Wexford, Ireland’s Eye in Dublin, and others. These islands are easily accessible and provide a fantastic opportunity to see large numbers of amazing seabirds coming and going during the breeding season. Indeed, those of us lucky enough to have done so can probably still remember the first time we saw a Puffin or the sights and smells as we approached a large Gannet colony. Allowing visitors to access these islands is undoubtedly a good thing as it engages people with seabirds, birds and conservation. It makes them care about wildlife, and we need more of that!

Unfortunately, most people don’t realise when they’re causing disturbance in these colonies, and what can look like a fantastic photo of a Gannet, Puffin, Shag or Guillemot might actually be illustrating a bird that is very stressed and in fear for its egg or chick. As above, there’s research on seabirds that show that they have elevated heart rates and stress levels for hours after a human has approached their nest, even though they didn’t fly off and, on the surface, might appear to have been happy to tolerate the human. So, just because a bird is sat on its nest as you approach doesn’t mean that it’s happy for you to do so. Really what they’re thinking is that they’ve put months of work into getting to this stage of nesting, and they don’t want to give that up unless they absolutely have to. Remember, as far as that bird knows you’re a predator!

People frequently get much too close to nesting birds at seabird colonies around the Irish coast.
 

A recent study by Debs Allbrook of UCC found that Gannets nesting on the edge of the main colony on Great Saltee were disturbed the most and had the lowest nest success rate. She also found that it was photographers who ventured the closest (2.6m on average). Many photographers go out to the Saltees armed with huge lenses with eye-watering zoom capabilities, and yet the evidence still shows that this doesn’t result in them sitting further back to get these photos – many still go much closer than they should. The resulting disturbance lead to nest predation by gulls and a waste of months of effort on the part of the Gannets. That wasn’t the gulls’ fault, it was the humans’! Thankfully, Debs’ research also involved the installation of a sign near the Gannet colony, informing visitors to maintain a distance of at least 6m from the nesting birds, and this seems to have improved the behaviour of photographers and other visitors, and resulted in less disturbance as a result. (Note: this distance is suitable for this species and this location but is not a universal constant for all seabirds and all colonies, so learn to read the signs of disturbance and behavioural disruption.)

   

Debs recently summarised her important research in our Wings membership magazine (Summer 2021 issue) and we've that article free to view for non-members too, by clicking this link. 

The full peer-reviewed study in the Journal for Nature Conservation can be read by clicking here.  

 

 

A sign has been erected on Great Saltee, based on Debs Allbrook's research, to encourage best behaviour near the nesting Gannets.
 

Puffins nest in burrows, and after a couple of hours at sea gathering sandeels and sprat they want to fly straight back to their burrow and feed their chicks immediately. If you’re finding that a Puffin is walking around near you, sandeels in bill, seemingly not bothered as it poses for photo after photo, then it’s likely that you’re the reason it’s not returning to its burrow. Basically, if you’re finding it relatively easy to get photos of seabirds, then consider that it might be a bit too easy and you might be unintentionally disturbing the bird in a way that isn’t immediately obvious to you.

All of the above goes for the other seabirds too – Guillemots and Razorbills on the cliffs, Shags nesting between or under boulders, and even gulls nesting on flat and grassy areas of these islands. Gull chicks will run away at the sight of people, and this often results in them running off the side of a cliff, or running towards the nest of another gull, who will attack the intruder.

razorbill-in-flight-descending

Learn to spot the signs of disturbance, which can vary between adults flying away from the nest, to a parent bird sitting tight but becoming agitated.
 

It’s true that seabirds on islands that regularly get visitors can become more habituated to human presence than islands where people never visit, but this still requires a certain minimum distance to be maintained. And many photographers go out to these islands every summer, maintain a healthy distance from birds and their nests, and still come away with stunning photographs! So, don’t be discouraged – just be aware! Learn to spot the signs that your presence is stopping a nesting bird from going about its business as it normally would. It’s inevitable to accidentally ‘flush’ (cause to fly away) a bird when you’re walking around a seabird island or to cause a bird with a food delivery to circle the nest site rather than land, but the important thing is to take these as signs to retreat and ensure the bird can get back to its nest site as soon as possible. Don’t kick yourself when this does happen but use it as an educational moment and vow to avoid making the same mistake twice.

 

So, here are the key points:

  • Don’t seek out nests or photograph them. Just because no harm is intended, doesn’t mean harm isn’t caused.
  • You can get a license to photograph a nesting bird from the NPWS, but this doesn’t confer on you the right to disturb the birds in the process.
  • Nest visits should only be carried out by people who are trained and licensed to minimise the risk, and in order to gather scientific data that is important to the monitoring and study of the species in question. 
  • Take the chance to enjoy the birds around you, visit a seabird colony this summer, and take lots of photos, but be sure to keep your distance from the birds and their nests!
 

Some below for some interesting articles on this topic from other websites and organisations:

Do’s and Don’ts of Nest Photograph (Audobon Society)

Unwitting Tourists Cause Gannet Nests to Fail on Saltee (UCC)

Birding Ethics & Practical Guidelines (incl. Photography) (WorldBirds)

 

 

   

Similar Species

Cormorant

Irish Name:
Broigheall
Scientific name:
Phalacrocorax carbo
Bird Family:
Cormorants