The Irish uplands are home to many species of bird, some of which are described below. There are few trees in the uplands, and so many of the birds you’ll see are ground-nesting or build nests on the rocky cliff faces. They often have dull plumage that acts as camouflage, helping them to blend into the landscape of heathers and grasses.
While a lot of the birds we come across in the uplands are resident in Ireland all year round, some only visit the uplands for certain seasons, moving to the lowland areas in the colder months. A number of birds of prey summer in the uplands, building nests and taking advantage of the open landscape for hunting. Other birds such as the common snipe and northern wheatear, may not be resident all year round, but migrate from other countries to breed or to escape harsher climates elsewhere.
Species Distribution Maps courtesy of the National Biodiversity Data Centre.
Irish Name: Clamhán
The buzzard (Buteo buteo) is a medium-sized bird of prey with broad wings spanning about 1m from tip to tip, and a short tail. They have a distinctive “ee-eerrr” call that you may hear as they circle overhead.
Most commonly seen in flight or perched on a tree stump or fence post, they are mottled white and brown underneath, with a black band along the tips of their wing and tail feathers. They feed mostly on small birds and mammals, carrion, and occasionally large insects.
The population had died out here in Ireland until the 1930s, although it has recovered well after becoming reestablished in Northern Ireland. Now they are widespread across most of Ireland, although rarely seen in the South-East.
Irish Name: Pocaire gaoithe
Slightly smaller than a buzzard with an average wingspan of between 70 and 80cm, the common kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) has a long, wedge-shaped tail and narrow, pointed wings.
Males have orange back plumage with grey heads and tails, and a black terminal bar on their tails, while females are more brownish in colour. It uses these to hover in the air, as it hunts for small birds and rodents. It will also feed on insects and worms.
The kestrel is a familiar bird of prey which you can see hunting above farmland, woodlands, parks and roadside verges. In the uplands, it’s often found hovering above moorland and mountainous cliffs.
Recently it has been moved to the Irish Conservation Red List due to the loss of many breeding adults through poison, reduced availability of prey, and intensive farming techniques.
Irish Name: Naoscach
The Common Snipe (Gallinago gallinago) is a frequent visitor to our upland areas, resident in Ireland with populations also migrating to Ireland from western Europe, west Africa, the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Scotland. This wading bird has a long bill, a white underbelly and mottled creamy-brown chest.
Its upper body is darker, helping it to blend into its surroundings easily, and its buff-coloured head has brown stripes passing over the eyes. Feeding on worms, seeds, larvae and other insects, it nests on the ground in upland bogs and other wetland habitats, and can be seen along river and lake shorelines throughout the year. When disturbed they fly rapidly in a distinctive zigzagging pattern.
Irish Name: Crosghob
The Crossbill (Loxia curvirostra) is a stocky, large-headed species of finch with a distinctive thick bill that crosses at the tip, giving it its unusual name. They have long wings, a short, deeply-forked tail.
Adult males are a faded red colour, while females are greenish and have more streaking in their plumage. In the uplands, they can be found among the canopies of conifer forest plantations, and feed mainly on conifer seeds, berries and insects.
European Golden Plover
European Golden Plover
Irish Name: Feadóg bhuí
A migratory bird from Europe and Iceland, the golden plover (Pluvialis apricaria) is most frequently seen in Ireland over winter, and in the uplands, it can be spotted in areas of blanket bog, heath, or grasslands.
The golden plover may stay year-round and breed in the blanket bogs. These birds have flecked brown, white and yellow upper plumage, with lighter underbellies. Males may have black underbellies, throat and lower face in summer. The European golden plover feeds on beetles, earthworms and other soil-dwelling insects, as well as berries and seeds.
Irish Name: Cromán na gCearc
The Hen Harrier (Circus cyaneus) is a bird of prey with an average wingspan of about 1m, a slim body and narrow wings. The wings and tail are banded with cream and dark brown, less so in adult males who are paler underneath and have black wingtips and a greyer upper body. Their diet consists of small mammals and ground-nesting birds, and they can be seen flying quite low to the ground, scanning for prey. In upland areas, hen harriers can be seen in summer months above heathland, moors and conifer plantations, where they may occasionally ground-nest, moving to more lowland areas over winter.
Irish Name: Riabhóg Mhóna
The meadow pipit (Anthus pratensis) is about the size of a house sparrow and is commonly found in the Irish uplands. With a brown upper body, and lighter underbelly streaked with black, it is quite similar in appearance to the skylark. Its diet consists mostly of insects, seeds and larvae, and in the uplands, it is a common, year-round resident in grasslands, bogs and scrub areas.
It breeds in the uplands, nesting in shallow holes or indents in the ground. Meadow pipits are an important food source for upland birds of prey such as merlin and hen harrier.
Irish Name: Clochrán
The northern wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe) is a summer visitor, arriving during the spring and leaving Ireland in late autumn to overwinter in southern Africa. It is slightly larger than a robin in size, and is quite a distinctive looking bird. It has a white underbelly, rump and tail, with a grey hood and back, brown wings, and black bars across the eyes. Its throat has a slight orange tinge. In autumn, the colours can become more muted, and the black eye bar may fade.
The wheatear feeds on a wide range of insects. It nests in areas of exposed rock and upland blanket bog.
Irish Name: Fabhcún coille
Peregrine falcons (Falco peregrinus) are unmistakable birds of prey, with their broad, stocky build and pointed wings which can reach a wingspan of 120cm. A protected species, adults are bluey-grey with a black hood and a long, blocky tail, but you can recognise them in flight by their white and finely barred underparts.
They typically hunt other birds and smaller mammals such as rabbits, and can found in all counties, especially coastal and mountainous regions where they nest on cliff edges.
Irish Name: Meirliún
The merlin (Falco columbarius) is Ireland’s smallest bird of prey, with a wingspan of 55-65cm. They have short, pointed wings and dark, barred wings and tails. They summer in the uplands, nesting on the ground in blanket bog and heathland. They move back to lowland areas in the winter, so during warmer months keep an eye out for them in upland heath habitats, bogs, and conifer plantations.
They feed on small birds such as meadow pipit and mammals as well as insects, and tend to hunt by gliding close to the ground or from a dive from above.
Irish Name: Fiach dubh
The raven (Corvus corax) is a large, glossy-black crow with a wingspan between 1 and 1.5m, a black beak and a wedge-shaped tail. They feed mostly on insects, larvae and other soil-dwelling insects, as well as grain, small mammals, and anything else they come across.
They are a common resident along mountain glens and cliffs, breeding early in the year. Their distinctive rasping throaty call ‘Kraa” contrasts with the “Caw” of crows and is a characteristic sound of upland areas.
Irish Name: Cearc fhraoigh
The Irish red grouse (Lagopus lagopus hibernicus) is an endemic subspecies of the willow grouse, found only on bogs and upland heath areas. While unfortunately declining in numbers due to habitat loss and degradation of heather-rich habitats several gun clubs have become involved in projects to reverse this trend. It is a dark, plumply rounded bird with a short beak and tail, and short rounded wings. The red grouse has mottled brown plumage with grey areas on the wings, males are darker in colour and have a red eyebrow during breeding season.
A ground nesting bird, they feed mostly on heather shoots, supplementing their diet with seeds, flowers, berries and insects. Their distinctive droppings are often the only signs of their presence.
Irish Name: Lon creige
A quintessential upland bird, the ring ouzel (Turdus torquatus) is now a rare but distinctive visitor to Irish upland areas, and sightings of this bird should be reported to the National Biodiversity Data Centre. A member of the thrush family, it is the same size and appearance as the familiar blackbird, but with the notable addition of a white crescent-shaped patch around the front of its throat.
They feed mostly on insects and earthworms, but will also eat slugs, seeds and berries. They may be spotted on mountainous scree slopes, or nesting in the grass near steep rocky outcrops.
Irish Name: Fuiseog
The skylark (Alauda arvensis) is slightly smaller than a starling, and is widespread throughout Ireland. In the uplands, it is found in heath habitats, where it feeds on a variety of seeds, worms, insects and larvae.
It is a creamy brown colour, with a streaked crest that may be flattened or raised. Instantly recognisable by its lengthy warbling call from March to June, it can last for 20-30 minutes as the bird soars overhead at a height of 50 to 100m.
Irish Name: Caislín cloch
The stonechat (Saxicola rubicola) is roughly robin-sized and has similar colouring though males have a white collar and black head. They typically eat insects, worms, larvae and seeds and can commonly be seen in the uplands during breeding season. They prefer rough pasture, young forestry and mountain valleys, usually in areas with gorse, heather or bracken.
The National Parks and Wildlife Service funded the development of the Irish Uplands Forum Upland Biodiversity webpages through the Peatlands Community Engagement Scheme 2023.