We love our new ‘Wildlife of the River Ilen’ signs which feature the extraordinary photos of Sharron Franks.
These panels show just some of the species we see from our windows here in the Old Gasworks building on the banks of the River Ilen. Each stunning photograph is accompanied by a short piece of information about the creature shown.
Working so close to the river means that we often have personal encounters with wildlife too. We’ve had many a stray duck come in to check out our exhibitions and Terri has perfected the 2-umbrella method of herding them safely out the door.
We also once had a young otter saunter into the building. It was really wonderful to see this beautiful wild creature in such close proximity. We were all staring in awe at the fearless young animal in the main hall, when an American lady came out of the Famine exhibition and gave out a cry when she saw the otter. At this, the youngster scampered out the door and plopped back into the river in jig time.
Otters regularly feed outside our river-side windows and visitors are always thrilled when they appear. We once had a young couple here who had travelled all over the UK in an effort to see an otter in the wild. Thankfully, our Ilen otter turned up just as they were leaving and they wrote in our visitor book that they would never forget the day that they saw their first otter in Skibbereen.
The swans and signets are huge stars too. Early in the season, we watch our mating pair perform their courtship ballet on the Ilen, before they go downriver to nest. One of the highlights of our year is the first sighting of the pair when they bring their signets back upriver. This is an experience that we will never tire of. The couple generally have 6-10 signets but only a few survive, mostly due to predation by mink. But last year, the swan parents were extremely diligent and all 8 survived.
Mink are beautiful animals but cause great destruction on the Ilen. They are quite vicious when cornered and we were quite alarmed to see one come into our building 2 years ago. Our ever-brave Terri managed to shoo it out the door without being attacked.
High and low tide bring different species to our patch of the Ilen. On the high tide, the seal comes upriver to feed alongside the cormorants. While on the low tide, we have a multitude of species on the mud bank including redshank, snipe, lapwing, sunbathing cormorants and preening swans.
Another star of the show is the kingfisher that regularly feeds from a tree on the other side of the river. We watch it dive into the water to emerge with a small fish which it batters off the tree branch before tossing it in the air to swallow it head first. However, sometimes all we see is a flash of blue skimming the water as it flies up and down the river.
The dipper is another of our favourites and it, too, feeds on the opposite riverbank. It dances or ‘dips’ up and down before plunging into the water after its prey. Its nest is somewhere upriver as we watch it carry its prey off to feed the young during the nesting season.
We also encounter feral cats from time to time and we’ve fed and neutered a few of them over the years. One we managed to tame enough to handle, the lovely GiGi, went to a new home in Drinagh where she is still living happily ever after with her new owners.
We are extremely grateful to Sharron Franks for sharing her talent with us by allowing us to use her beautiful photographs. And we know that our visitors will enjoy looking at them, as we most certainly will.
© Terri Kearney, Skibbereen Heritage Centre