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Messages from Samuel Connolly

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.

Sighting the first Swallow of the year

On Monday 28 March my brother Trevor and I paid a visit to the East Coast Nature Reserve. No sooner had we arrived than he spotted an unfortunate moth attempting to tread water in a slow moving area of river by the entrance. I climbed over the fence, and found a stick to fish the moth out with. This was a serious feat of derring-do, because if I’d fallen in I would have been wet to the knees. It was a Hebrew Character moth – Orthosia gothica – and I left it on some warm stones to dry off.

Hebrew Character

We spoke to the warden and project manager, Jerry Wray. Jerry was very busy, but took time out to tell me of some Garganey ducks that had arrived, and to lament the absence of the Stonechats, which seem to have been forced into a migration, or killed, by the severe winter. Only time will tell.

Jerry Wray on his East Coast Nature Reserve

As we sat in the main hide looking out for the Garganeys, on the ponds and lake of the reserve, Jerry suddenly shouted “There’s a Swallow!” and a single bird zoomed past the windows and began dipping in the lake for water. “That’s the first one I’ve seen this year! Have you seen many?” I asked. “No, That’s my first one aswell.”
That made the event even more special.

First Swallow of the year

Unfortunately I wasn’t quick enough to get a shot with my camera, but my brother Trevor managed to snap the bird. Not perfect, but pretty good for an unexpected appearance that didn’t last very long. And then the Swallow was gone. Later Jerry saw an entire flock of Swallows, which then followed the shore and astounded onlookers birdwatching at the Kilcoole Reserve to the north.

As Jerry headed back to work, Trevor and I decided to examine the reedbeds and see if there were any new developments. On the boardwalk we found two very interesting insects. The first was a brightly-coloured species of Rove Beetle, known only by its scientific name of Paederus riparius. Bright colours warn of noxious chemical spray from the rear-end. This lovely beetle normally patrols sandy areas, hunting fro smaller insects. It is only about 1cm long, at most, and very narrow.

Rove Beetle (Paederus riparius)

But our most exciting discovery was yet to come: in the form of a big, finger-length and brightly-coloured furry caterpillar. The combination of fu and bright colours usually denotes hairs that are toxic, so you must always handle caterpillars with great care. Some people are more allergic than others. Trevor recognised the caterpillar for what it was before I did – that of the Drinker moth, Euthrix potatoria. The caterpillar feeds on reeds and many other kinds of grasses, and contributes to the common name of this species because it is said to very actively drink from dewdrops. As you can see from the photograph, it was a very handsme caterpillar. The fire-red plume is over the head. It is very hard to tell one end from the other, except when its moving.


Drinker Moth caterpillar

Soon this big caterpillar will pupate, and then emerge as a magnificently camouflaged dead leaf-mimicking moth in July.

It was a good day’s hunting!


The Naturalists

Today I had the great honour of meeting Ireland’s most famous naturalist, Éamonn De Buitléar, and he kindly agreed to pose for a photograph. He is a famous wildlife documentary film-maker (and author) but always preferred to be behind the camera instead of in front of it, although he is a charismatic presenter. De Buitléar has contributed to many documentaries besides his own, including images of migrating eels to David Attenborough’s The Trials of Life TV series. His most recent TV series, A Life in the Wild, is one of the most beautifully filmed and interesting documentaries I have ever seen, and is also a quirky biography filled with his globe-trotting adventures.

Éamonn De Buitléar when I met him today.
Cover of DVD series A Life in the Wild


I also met Angus Tyner, one of Ireland’s foremost moth experts, and the “go-to guy” most government scientists ask for advice on moths. He is a devoted specialist when it comes to moths, but also has a general interest in wildlife and a terrific knowledge. Today he was championing moths and other wildlife as part of the Newcastle Expo. The moths in the photo were caught with a light trap last night. Early Thorn and Hebrew Character moths, among others, can be seen here. Angus runs a number of websites and a major moth-recording website at