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The Red Loop

Notice Nature > Albert Nolan Essays

The Path Least Travelled

Slí na Cuaiche: The 'Red Loop' on the Pollagh Trail


The kids have settled back into school but the fine weather has continued. On a sultry Sunday afternoon we arrived at the Pollagh Trail. A Robin was singing in a tree above the car and these are one of the few birds whose song can be heard throughout the autumn and winter months.
The kids find an unusual acorn on the path under the Oak tree. It is all wrinkly and is called a Knopper Gall. It is caused by a parasitic wasp that lays its egg in the developing bud. This causes the bud to swell up and this larva is free to develop inside safe from hungry predators.
The Beech buds have stretched and they are long and orange. There are loads of crushed Beech nuts underneath the tree and I hear a chaffinch calling nearby. These birds feed on the beech mast and an old name for them is Beechfinch.
Two more Robins are singing and as we listen they move closer together. This is the start of the phoney war where they assess each other's strengths by their songs. Fighting uses a lot of valuable energy that is hard to replace during the winter so the birds are generally happy to call to each other across the road.
The flowering season is coming to an end and there are a few faded blossoms on the Bramble, Thistles and the Yarrow. Rose Hips, Blackberries and Sloes hang from the branches and as the autumn deepens they will be eaten by hungry birds. The black seed pods of Tufted Vetch have twisted as they dried out and the seeds are hidden in the grass and waiting for the spring to germinate.
A sleek shape flashes across the path and I see a Kestrel disappearing over a hedgerow. They generally appear over the Pollagh at this time of the year to feed on the large flocks of Finches that come to feed on the various seeds from the grasses and flowers. Two Rooks are also flying and we hear another Robin singing and a Blackbird and Wren giving a warning call.
A few Dandelions are struggling to grow in the grassy margin in the middle of the road. It is also known as " Jack go to bed at noon" because it opens its flowers early in the morning, around half an hour after the sunlight hitting it and closes them again as the sun moves away through the midday sky. Meadow Vetchling and Ragworth are also in flower and the Harts Tongue Fern has conspicuous lines of brown seeds. They grow on the underside of the leaf but when they are ripe the leaf twists so that they can be carried away by the wind.
Birds are plentiful today and we hear a Dunnock's singing in the field hedgerow. Three Jackdaws are also feeding in a meadow and a Grey Hooded Crow is flying overhead. Two Robins are singing very close together and a Meadow Pipit is calling from the field. I hear a Bullfinch calling from a Sally tree. They are more of an autumn visitor to the Pollagh when the juicy buds are on the trees.
Despite the lateness of the season there are still plenty of insects about. We see two species of butterflies a Small Tortoiseshell and a Speckled Wood. As we walk along we disturb Crane Flies or Daddy Long Legs. They have a weak flight and only travel a few feet before dropping to the ground.
We reach the crossing point and scramble over the metal steps. Bales of silage have been stacked near the gate and the kids have great fun jumping from one to the other. I find a fishy smelling pellet on top of the bales and pop it in a jar for later examination. Growing in a small hole in the bales there is a small mushroom. I have not seen it before and it goes in the bag for a later date. Yellow Groundsel flowers dot the path and a Dunnock and Wren are calling. As we near the path I see a Dragonfly sunning itself on the path. It is small and a ruddy colour but the kids have scared him away before I can make a positive identification.
The Broad Leaved Plantain has very tall flowers and Narrow Leaved Willow Herb is also in flower. We decide to take a longer path and follow the Slí Na Cuaiche walk. The kids have been doing the same walk for a few years and are strong enough for a bigger challenge.
As we follow the path to the river I see a Rook trying to mob a Kestrel. The Kestrel is gliding and easily avoids the clumsy attacks of the Rook. Just at the right moment he flicks right or left and suddenly he is above or below the hapless bird. The rook realises he is outclassed and starts calling loudly. After a few moments reinforcements start to arrive and the clever Kestrel knows the game is up and heads for the hills.
Kestrels are mainly autumn visitors to the Pollagh and come to hunt the large flocks of Finches that feed on the abundant seeds along the trail. Shepherd's Purse is growing by the edge of the path and it has distinctive heart shaped seed pods. The field we are walking through has been planted with trees and this will completely change the character of the Pollagh in a few short years.
We follow the path and it turns sharply to follow the high bank of the Shannon. The fields are full of Rushes and some Red Clover that leads onto mature woodland. Alder and Oak have been planted at its edge and if left to mature they will become an important habitat for wildlife. Thistles are starting to encroach on the walk and it feels like a long time since anyone explored this part.
A multi stemmed Alder is growing on its own and it was probably browsed by animals when it was very young. Alder seeds are eaten by Redpolls and hopefully over the winter I will see them on our walks. Sally trees are normally around 10 feet tall but we pass a grove that is at least 30 feet and they are some of the biggest I have ever seen. The woods and the bank act as a sun and heat trap and we find a Red Admiral Butterfly. This is a migrant species and reaches us in large numbers in late summer.
A series of metal steps have been erected for safely crossing over wire and we stand at the top and try to see over the high bank but to no avail. Thistles are in flower and attracting plenty of insects. A Small Tortoiseshell, Common Carder Bumblebee and two Speckled Woods have all come to feed. We hear a Rook calling nearby.
We cross over a jumpy metal bridge and I hang on tightly to the kids as the water looks deep. We turn left and follow the bank of a wide stream. The local cows have been in drinking and have caused a lot of damage to the delicate bank. Water Mint and Water Speedwell are growing in the muddy edge. Gorse is growing on the opposite bank and a Wren gives a loud warning call.
We ducked under a wire and found out the hard way that it was live. We head off along a long muddy path. The meadows are grazed by horses but still have plenty of flowers growing in them. Angelica, Meadow Vetchling and Birds Foot Trefoil are still in flower. There is a small pond with the sign for deep water but thankfully it is well fenced in. This would be a magnet for dragonflies and I will check it out come next summer.
I hear two Robins giving a warning call and the reason soon becomes apparent as a magnificent Raven flies overhead. It gives a deep guttural call and is probably resident in the nearby Clare hills. As he disappears a Robin starts to sing from a tall Ash tree.
The path sweeps around beneath a Beech tree and the adjacent field is been grazed by sheep. They call mournfully as we pass. Soon we are gasping for air and the walk climbs sharply between two high banks. There is an old stone wall on the face of the bank and Hawthorn, Ivy, Dog Rose, Bracken and Brambles full of Blackberries are growing on top. We see a Speckled Wood resting on a warm stone and hear one Robin singing. We reach a quite country road and the fabulous view of the mighty Shannon makes the kids forget how tired they are.
There is a narrow grassy path in the middle of the road and I haven't see a road like this for many years. A Magpie is calling and Starlings are singing from an ESB wire. Herb Robert, Polypody Fern, Yarrow and Blackberries are growing alongside the road.
We reach the main road and I tell the kids that the car is only around the next turn. The promise of a trip to the shop revives them and we push on along the last stretch. Ragworth is in flower and we see three Rooks feeding in a field.
A Great Tit is singing as he passes from tree to tree and they feed on spiders and insects that they find on the branches. Snowberry has bright white fruits called Billy Busters. This is an escapee from gardens and is quite invasive. The birds don't eat the berries and it supresses all the native flowers by its tightly packed stems and leaves.
The last treat is a tall line of Elm trees. They are over 50 feet high and Dutch Elm disease doesn't seem to be a problem here. After another few minutes we reach the car and there are no protests from my weary troops. Another interesting walk has been revealed to us today and we look forward to learning more about the wildlife that lives along this part of the trail.

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