The wonders of Westfields Wetlands in winter

Albert Nolan

Reporter:

Albert Nolan

The wonders of Westfields Wetlands

Cygnets on Westfields Lake.

The day had flown by and the sun was tracing a dying path across the river as I crossed the road into Westfields nature reserve.
Located just a few wingbeats from the heart of Limerick city, this important wetland hosts an interesting selection of water birds all year round. Dragonflies skim over the water in the summer, and butterflies and bees feed on the abundant wildflowers.
Unlike other urban lakes that are manicured right up to the water’s edge, Westfields has a good balance between public access and space for nature. The mighty Shannon River protects one side of the lake for any development, while the nearby housing estate has kept a large green finger between the houses and the water.
Well located pedestrian crossings make access easy, and I was greeted by an ancient elderberry tree that is growing inside the fence by the edge of the path. Winter’s frosts and hungry birds have stripped away its berries, leaving only bare branches. I followed the path past a huge garden with a massive horse chestnut tree. Its conkers will never be picked by passing boys and girls as a large wall keeps the garden secure. A few climbers like ivy on the outside would take away the bare look of the wall and give a more natural feel.
Down by the water’s edge I got the distinctive musky smell of fox. This would be part of its nightly patrol and despite its increasing urban tastes foxes will not pass up the opportunity for fresh fowl. I met a local man out walking his dog. He has seen foxes here and commented on how common they have become in the city. Some of his neighbours are feeding them, but they are still wild creatures and need to be admired at a distance.
A troop of long tailed tits were passing through the alder tree searching for spiders and their eggs. There green highway was from branch to branch, along the trees of O’Callaghan strand, a short hop to Arthur's Quay Park and out along to the canal. A tiny wren burst into song bringing my attention back to the lake.
At this time of the year lakes are a constant source of sound and movement. The resident birds are joined by winter migrants who stay until the spring and then return to their breeding grounds.
Mallards are the most numerous, and the males have bottle green heads, while the females are mainly brown. This affords them superb camouflage when they are sitting on the eggs in the nest. A small group approached me, but soon disappeared when they realised I had no food for them.
Coots are a menacing all black, except for a white patch on the face. They are very territorial and spend their day steaming at other birds to keep them at bay. But they are tender parents which balances their aggressive nature.
The biggest residents here are the mute swans. They had six cygnets this year and they all survived. There is usually only one pair presence as breeding swans will not tolerate another couple on their lake. The cygnets are a mottled brown at first, but will slowly lose their juvenile plumage and eventually wear a snow white coat.
Grey herons come to Westfields to rest and digest their meal after a day’s fishing along the Shannon. I saw three of them - the most I have counted here. They nest in trees and there was a heronry in a tree in the nearby housing estate.
Tufted duck is mainly a winter visitor and they are nearly as common as the mallards. The males have a bright white flank and even without binoculars they are easy to pick out. The first winter visitor I saw was the shoveler. Like its name suggests it has a large wide bill rather like a coal shovel. It sweeps this from side to side when eating and filters out water plants and insects. Little grebes and teal were not present, and I have not seen a pochard on the lake for a long time.
I reached the viewing platform where a man was with his three kids feeding the ducks. We chatted for a few minutes; he remembered coming here with his dad, and was now introducing his kids to one of his favourite childhood haunts. Most of the ducks were very tame, and I would highly recommend discovering the wonders of nature at Westfields.

But the reeds are encroaching and without human intervention they will eventually fill in the lake. This is nature’s ultimate design, but this would be a massive loss for the city and its wildlife. A lone jackdaw passed overhead sounding quite agitated. These are social birds and don’t like to be on their own for long.
I left Westfields and paused for a quick look to see how the repairs to the river bank walk are proceeding. Hopefully it will reopen shortly. I stopped to listen to a song thrush singing. His song was not great, and it took a while to retune and get back to full flight.
Comments/questions to albert.nolan@rocketmail.com or 089 4230502. Albert is also available to give walks/talks to schools, tidy towns, youth and community groups.