Tag Archives: sun

Birds at the Beach

Today was the fourth warm and spectacularly sunny day provided by a lovely weather system which made for one of the best May long-weekend’s I can remember. Temperatures have been skirting 20 degrees Celsius, and this has also had a remarkably calming affect on the sea. Today I found myself at the beach where Little Terns put on a fantastic display of their hunting agility for the many spectators there. These tiny seabirds were snatching fish, probably Sprat, as close as a metre from shore. Wicklow has officially the third largest breeding colony of Little Terns in the world, located at the Breaches of Kilcoole.

A Little Tern prepares to dive.
A Little Tern prepares to dive.

But terns were just the tip of the iceberg – early this morning there was a Red-throated Diver, and in the afternoon its place had been taken by Guillemots, which came much closer to shore.

A Red-throated Diver, a common sight along the Wicklow coast.
A Red-throated Diver, a common sight along the Wicklow coast.
A very beautiful 'bridled' Guillemot. There is quite a degree of pattern variation in this species.
A very beautiful ‘bridled’ Guillemot. There is quite a degree of pattern variation in this species. Note the water droplets on the head and back, which indicate just how waterproof those feathers must be.

Shortly after taking my photos, in the afternoon, I met another naturalist out taking photos. Paul Smith considers himself a ‘birder’ mainly, and as you can tell from the photo below, he carries the right equipment for ornithology.

Paul Smith keeping his eyes peeled on what proved a remarkable day for birdwatching.
Paul Smith keeping his eyes peeled on what proved a remarkable day for birdwatching. He told me he had been out birdwatching for the previous three days, and had the sunburn to prove it.

Paul was spotting birds I didn’t even notice. “Did you see the skua that just flew by?” he asked at one point, and I had definitely not seen it. He kindly sent me two of the bird photos he got while he was down at the beach today, including the skua I had missed.

An Arctic Skua, dark form, flying south just above the calm sea surface. It takes a sharp pair of eyes to spot a bird like this. (Photo by Paul M. Smith)
An Arctic Skua (dark form) flying south just above the calm sea surface. It takes a sharp pair of eyes to spot a bird like this. Skuas are ferocious predators of other birds, and known to injure people who get too close to their nests. They are remarkable predators, more like birds-of-prey than seabirds. (Photo by Paul M. Smith)

Paul also got an incredible shot of a Manx Shearwater before I arrived on the beach. These birds live at sea for most of the year, only coming ashore to breed. They are extremely clumsy on the ground, largely due to their feet being set very far back beneath their bodies, and therefore more suitable for propulsion in water than for walking on land.

Paul's remarkable shot of a Manx Shearwater skimming the waves. These birds soar mostly, and always just above the waves. A truly magnificent photo by Paul Smith.
Paul’s remarkable shot of a Manx Shearwater skimming the waves. These birds soar mostly, and always just above the waves. A truly magnificent photo by Paul Smith. Wildlife film-maker Colin Stafford-Johnson devoted almost an entire programme of his second Living the Wildlife TV series to these birds, which many people will no doubt remember.

 

 

 

Cliffs of Adventure

Right now is a great time to check out the cliff areas of Wicklow. The cliffs of Bray Head in particular are wildlife paradises of the first order, and in summer are the best places to see lizards and the fascinating Leaf-cutter Bee. But this time of the year they are dominated by seabirds, which come inshore to breed.

Looking north along the Cliff Walk where fragrant yellow blossoms of gorse can be seen at the moment.
Looking north along the Cliff Walk where fragrant yellow blossoms of gorse can be seen at the moment.

 

Looking south along the Cliff Walk towards Greystones. To get the best of the light it's a good idea to set off walking around 11.30 am, south from Bray to Greystones. This way you are moving with the sunlight.
Looking south along the Cliff Walk towards Greystones. To get the best of the light it’s a good idea to set off walking around 11.30 am, south from Bray to Greystones. This way you are moving with the sunlight.

Down near the sea there are Cormorants, Shags, Kittiwakes, Black Guillemots, Razorbills, Herring Gulls, and immense Great Black-backed Gulls.

Cormorants in breeding plumage, high on the cliffs, just below the Cliff Walk.
Cormorants in breeding plumage, high on the cliffs, just below the Cliff Walk.

Especially interesting are the Fulmars, which will ‘buzz’ you as you walk the cliffs, ensuring you don’t get too close to their nests. These seabirds are related to petrels and albatrosses, the so-called “tube-noses”, birds which have tube-like nostrils which look like spectacles perched on their beaks.

 

Fulmars perched on a ledge below the Cliff Walk, where they will rear their chicks. Both the adults and chicks are infamous for their projectile vomiting of foul-smelling oil, which is said to be virtually impossible to get out of clothing, so don't get too close to them.
Fulmars perched on a ledge below the Cliff Walk, where they will rear their chicks. Both the adults and chicks are infamous for their projectile vomiting of foul-smelling oil, which is said to be virtually impossible to get out of clothing, so don’t get too close to them.

The Cliff Walk is also a terrific place to see plant-life too. A particularly interesting plant that grows on the bare faces of the cliffs is a lush succulent called Navelwort, on account of the leaves looking like bellies with navels. The leaves also have a fleshy feel to them. This plant is also known as Sea Pennywort.

Navelwort growing on the hard shale of a cliff.
Navelwort growing on the hard shale of a cliff.

Also, as you move southwards along the cliff you will have terrific views of the town of Greystones and the coastline beyond.

Looking down on Greystones from the Cliff Walk. A beautiful scene.
Looking down on Greystones from the Cliff Walk. A beautiful scene.

As you gradually descend towards the town the landscape widens, there are high sand cliffs which are home to Sand Martins, and many other birds. This part of the walk is also a good place to see other African migrants that live along the Wicklow coastline in summer, including the Wheatear. Large numbers of Wheatears have just arrived this month.

A Wheatear waiting for me to approach and scare insects into the air, which will be deftly snatched by the bird.
A Wheatear waiting for me to approach and scare insects into the air, which will be deftly snatched by the bird.

Finally, while Ireland is not the warmest of countries, it is very important to remember to bring a hat, and/or sunglasses, and some sunblock would not be a bad idea either. One person got very severe third-degree burns on these cliffs while out taking photos with me a few years ago, and it was days before he recovered. A leisurely stroll, stopping to take photos, usually takes two-and-a-half hours to complete.

Yours truly on the Cliff Walk towards Greystones - note the hat, and the bag containing a bottle of water, among other things. It was not a particularly hot day, but still sunny enough to get burned, and the weather will only improve from now on.
Yours truly on the Cliff Walk towards Greystones – note the hat, and the bag containing a bottle of water, among other things. It was not a particularly hot day, but still sunny enough to get burned, and the weather will only improve from now on.

 

 

 

 

 

Return to Spring

Anyone following this blog will realise it has been on hiatus since early March. Why so? Because although it looked like spring was breaking through, the winter became very long and drawn out. We had the coldest March since records began in 1882, and it was only two weeks ago that the temperatures suddenly became normal. Only the Monday before last ( a week and a day ago) did the temperatures rise above 15 degrees Celsius. All of this was caused by an easterly wind from Siberia, and then from the Arctic. This easterly lasted almost two months without stopping, which is extremely bizarre. Anyhow, things are now returning to normal and today was a balmy 18 degrees Celsius.

I have only seen three butterflies so far this year, two were Small Tortoiseshells and one was a Peacock (Inachis io) and both are species which hibernate. The Peacock is below.

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Most importantly, many of the spring flowers are now blooming and the hardiest, the daffodils and crocuses, have already lost their blooms – the first phase of spring is over, despite the cold. However, now it is the turn of the trees to get their blossoms, and the first I saw since temperatures warmed up was the Red Currant (Ribes rubrum), a plant of the hedgerows, beloved by bees.

The Red Currant has a very distinctive scent which to many people is the scent of spring.
The Red Currant has a very distinctive scent which to many people is the scent of spring.

You know it is getting warmer when you see the Nursery-web Spider sunbathing. This spider loves sunlight, and has a very distinctive pose, which I have mentioned many times before as resembling Leonardo Da Vinci’s Universal Man, which also has eight legs…

A Nursery-web Spider sunbathing on the rim of a tub containing flowers. It's not so big in real life as it appears in this photo.
A Nursery-web Spider sunbathing on the rim of a tub containing flowers. It’s not so big in real life as it appears in this photo.

However, for me the most exciting of all has been the appearance of the Tawny Mining Bee (Andrena fulva) and other species of solitary bee. You might remember reading, earlier in the blog, of how my garden became the first known established colony of this bee species in Ireland. That doesn’t mean they were not already here, just not known to be for certain. This week another colony was discovered in Co. Kilkenny and there are bound to be more of this handsome bee. I use the term “colony” lightly, because although the bees have appeared in large numbers, there is no single nest and each female bee takes care of her own nest and young. The males appeared first, and then the larger females, which they had to wait for to emerge from their underground chambers. The males are much smaller, and look almost like a totally different species. I will be doing a lot more about these bees in the next instalment… but you will not have to wait months for it. Tomorrow, if possible.

The male Tawny Mining Bee... actually quite small, and fast-moving when not at rest.
The male Tawny Mining Bee… actually quite small, and fast-moving when not at rest.

 

The female Tawny Mining Bee, which looks like a cuddly toy, and has the appearance of a flying ruby. She looks like a small bumblebee but has a very red bosy and a black head.
The female Tawny Mining Bee, which looks like a cuddly toy, and has the appearance of a flying ruby. She looks like a small bumblebee but has a very red body and a black head.

Finally, there are also plenty of bumblebees around. Usually the last to show up in gardens is the Carder Bee (Bombus pascuorum) and this for me puts the seal on spring. To the uninitiated the Carder Bee could be confused with the Tawny Mining Bee, except for one very clear difference – she is much larger. Here is the first Carder Bee I have seen this year, and have not seen too many since, but it takes a while for a hive to get going.

My first Carder Bee of the year, and a handsome one at that. Almost certainly a queen bee, as they overwinter and establish the new colonies each spring.
My first Carder Bee of the year, and a handsome one at that. Almost certainly a queen bee, as they are the ones that overwinter and establish each new colony in the spring.