The crossbill is a finch named for the distinctive, crossing tips of its bill. At first glance, it looks like a regular bird with a weird beak, but there’s more to it than meets the eye.
hat bill is used like a scissors to cut open pine cones and eat the seeds inside. It’s a tool perfectly adapted for life in coniferous forests.
I learned this from a new guidebook to Ireland. Crossbill Guides are published by a Dutch non-profit named for the little finch, and they take a different tack to your Lonely Planets and Rough Guides — focusing on nature and a sustainable travel ethos by gently revealing the interplay of different species, the wonders under our noses.
I love reading guides to Ireland. Much of the history and practical info can be skimmed, but fresh takes on home nudge me out of fishbowl perspectives, reveal treasures overlooked or forgotten, and remind me just how precious our island is.
Carsten Krieger, author of Crossbill’s Ireland, is a German photographer and writer living on Co Clare’s Loop Head Peninsula, so he brings both an insider and outsider lens.
Here are just six short examples.
1. Hedgerow secrets
Ireland’s stone walls and hedgerows are amazing ecosystems in themselves. We have 80 subspecies of bramble “which often appear together in the same hedge”, Krieger writes. Gorse spindles were once used as chimney brushes and fuchsia — with its iconic, bell-shaped flowers — was introduced from South America as a garden plant before escaping into the wild.
2. Lounging lizards
Thanks to St Patrick, I thought Ireland had no reptiles. But we do — the viviparous lizard is our only native reptile. I’ve never seen one, but two places you might, the guide suggests, are the boardwalk of Fenor Bog, Co Waterford, and the Burren National Park.
3. Intertidal zones
These coastal areas cradle “a population density comparable to tropical rainforests”, Krieger writes, from sea lettuce to hermit crabs and sea urchins. “It’s a wondrous world, this no-man’s land between the low and high tide marks.” Rock pooling, anyone?
4. One Burren to rule them all
JRR Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, was a linguistics professor who lectured for periods at NUI Galway. He was a regular visitor to the Burren, “which became a major inspiration for the landscapes of Middle Earth”.
5. Lough Neagh
The Shannon is the longest river in Ireland and Britain, but did you know Lough Neagh is their largest freshwater body? At almost 400m2, its wildlife includes a “non-biting midge” eaten by wildfowl and fish.
6. Blanket bogs
Ireland has 8pc of the world’s blanket bogs; Krieger describes their “wild and desolate spirit”. To keep them alive, “1,200mm of rain, drizzle or fog per year, spread out over at least 255 days, are necessary,” he says.
Crossbill’s Ireland also includes a series of touring routes and sites to explore, from “seawatching” in Dingle to Galway’s salmon run, Rathlin Island and Connemara’s Diamond Hill.