Cabragh Wetlands - The River Bank Along
The river bank along
“As I walked along the river bank, it filled my heart with pride
To see the trout and salmon there and wild duck at their side”
A walk along the river bank of the Suir behind Cabragh Wetlands has that timeless quality that we associate with sepia prints and indeed the picturesque of previous centuries and is so well captured in the lines of the Bard of Monamoe above and the whole landscape at this stage is a sepia print.
The voluntary work of generations of fishing enthusiasts is responsible for the stiles and pathways and the generosity of spirit of local farmers means that this riparian haven is still a source of great enjoyment.
My walk is full of flashes of enlightenment. The soft plop of the otter or the smell of its fresh spraints still mining the river bed for freshwater crayfish, the hundreds of thousands of small shells left by the winter floods, the slow flap of herons’ wings on their way back to centuries old roost in Cloughmartin, the flash of iridescent blue as a speedy kingfisher splits the middle arch at Cabra.
Man has left his mark on the river bank. The lost placenames of Killestregan, Powerjaleen(Phonetic) The Foyle and Mickey Leahy’s tell of the imprint of Irish monks, French Cistercians on their dawn walk or a local favoured swimming spot before the dawn of swimming pools and leisure centres.
Man too, has harnessed the river for power and food. The mill weirs and the eel weirs speak of hard work at harvest time or long moonlit August nights dragging nets for eels. A lovely community project in Holycross has revealed, once again, the glory of the monks’ eel weir below the bridge while one can still make out the rusting winches of the weir at Cabragh now made redundant by the cutting of an alternative channel nearby.
The low level of the river prevents the operation of electricity generator, spearheaded by the enterprising Dwan family many years ago.
However, the bird I have come to search for on the fast flowing sections is the underwater songbird, the dipper, often seen on the opposite bank to Holycross Abbey. What an unlikely looking waterbird, no webbed feet, no obvious eye adaptation for water. Yet, this small bird thrives in fast flowing, well oxygenated rivers where powerful currents give even big strong birds plenty to think about.
Perching on damp streamside rocks, it spends its life dipping in and out of the turbulent water. Their adaptations to the habitat are important but subtle. They have extremely dense plumage which helps to insulate them against both the water and the cold. The feathers are highly waterproofed with a high volume of water resistant oil that the bird administers during constant preening.
It has an unusually large preening gland and so it has an effective barrier to prevent any water reaching its skin. It is also almost immune to the cold. They frequently dive under ice and on the continent they have been observed foraging in up to -45C.
Other adaptations not immediately visible to the naked eye are a helpful flap of skin that covers its nose underwater and its eyes have strong muscles which, it is thought, helps to modify the lense to cope with the differences between air and water.
A membrane sweeps horizontally across the eye between the eyelids and the eyeball and is used to clean, moisten and protect the eye. They also have a high concentration of haemoglobin in their blood which enables them to store more oxygen and fuels their long dives. Their heartbeat also drops rapidly when they enter the water.
The dipper needs special foraging methods to cope with the turbulent current. Its main food, underwater insects, mayfly nymphs and caddis larvae, tend to be found on or underneath small pebbles so the dipper must get to the river bed to feed itself. It defies its natural buoyancy by using its wings to fly down and up underwater. It has impressive wing muscles with which to power itself.
For up to thirty seconds a dive, it fights the fast flowing water. It also has a powerful grip but in deeper water it depends on its flying through the water technique.
So, you can’t really tell the book by the cover in nature. This water bird, a little bigger than a robin, with unmistakable dark plumage and brilliant white throat and breast can live for ten years with an average life span of about three. It rarely moves far from where it is born and there are an estimated 5,000 pairs in Ireland. It is a barometer of the water quality of a river system.
Just another source of quiet reflection as you “stroll the river bank along”.
Parents may wish to reflect on Detective in the Wild, the annual primary school summer camp July 16-20 and of course the cyclists are gearing up for their annual charity cycle in aid of Cabragh Wetlands which takes place this year on July 15th.
Slán go fóill