The Kilcoole Breaches in late March, and Beachcombing

My brother convinced me a visit to the Kilcoole Breaches would be a good idea, as it was late March and there could be new arrivals from overseas. The weather was extremely good, so on Wednesday (30th) we made our way along the walkway running between the railway and shingle beach. The Kilcoole Breaches get their name simply because they are technically in the Kilcoole area (see the interactive map) and are a breach in the shoreline where an estuary reaches the sea. It was low tide when we got there, and no sooner had we reached the railway bridge than a vast flock of Brent Geese (Branta bernicla) flew down from the Kilcoole marshes and landed in the shallow low-tide waters of the muddy lagoon. They began cavorting, bathing and drinking the water. A hot day in late March can be a bit much for them, so they need to cool off.

 

Brent Geese in the lagoon

They were not alone. Some beautiful Wigeon ducks (Anas penelope) came to see what all the fuss was about. The males already have their full breeding colours. This is one of the very best places in Wicklow to see these ducks, but it’s a good idea to bring binoculars.

Wigeon - two females and a brightly-coloured male in breeding plumage

The railway bridge is of good solid concrete and steel construction, not like the rickety and dangerous timber and steel one that was replaced by it in the 1990s. The metal rail is perfect for getting a steady shot in the sea breeze, as you can see Trev doing in this photo.

 

Trev photographing the geese

The geese seemed to attract more and more birds to the area, almost as though they are afraid to miss out. It wasn’t long before the flock was joined by the largest resident bird-species, a Mute Swan which came in for a what turned out to be a very long landing.

Mute Swan - Cygnus olor

If you had any doubt about the difference in size between a swan and a goose, just look at this photo taken by Trev.

Mute Swan looking for attention?

It’s true that Brent Geese are not the largest goose species, but even so, look at the size of this Mute Swan in comparison. It takes a lot of muscles for a bird that big to fly!

On the way back along the beach we saw some Swallows. It’s an unusual time of year, with both the winter and summer visitors in Wicklow briefly at the same time. But the seas change seasonally too, and we decided to do some beachcombing. Sometimes very interesting things can be found in the seaweed, especially after a high spring tide. There were plenty of Red Whelk shells (Neptunea antiqua). These large sea snails are very common but not easy to see alive, unless you’re deep-sea scuba diving, as they like deep water.

Shell of the Red Whelk - note the hole, probably made by a scavenging seagull.

 

Whelk shells are extremely strong due to the amount of calcium in them, and they have to be to withstand th pressure of deep water. Some shells are so dense they almost seem like stones. Alongside the whelk shells there were plenty of the more exotic Common Oyster shells (Osria edulis), which conjure up images of pearls and adventure. However, they are certainly the least impressive seashells, resembling lumps of cement or stucco plaster by the time they reach shore.

Common or Flat Oyster Shell

And then there are the downright strange things that are very common everywhere in the seaweed, but don’t seem like any creature ever seen in a wildlife documentary. Here is one example, but it suddenly makes sense when you realise it is a piece of a creature – the dried out arm of a Common Starfish (Asterias rubens), a species that can grow to the size of a seat cushion.

However, probably the most beautiful items you can find at this time of the year are the Mermaid’s Purses. These are the empty egg-cases of rays, skates, dogfish and other small shark species, and get their name from their shape. The one pictured belongs to a dogfish, and the little wiry tendrils at each corner usually cling to seaweed.

Mermaid's Purse of a dogfish.

Look out for all of these interesting little natural artifacts on the coast this spring.

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