Tag Archives: Ireland

The Cliff Walk

At this time of year the Cliff Walk between the towns of Bray and Greystones turns into a spectacular Eden. There is an otherworldliness about it that is difficult to describe with mere words, even when accompanied by photos. Now, in June, there is a wildlife extravaganza on show, not to mention the fantastic scenery. The best way of seeing the Cliff Walk is to start in Bray, in late morning or early afternoon, after a hearty breakfast, and travel south to Greystones, in time for a late lunch or early dinner, and thereby moving with the sun so you are not constantly in the shade. This is essential for photos. In the heat of June you will need to wear a hat, sunglasses optional. The burn factor on the cliffs is equal to the Sahara, and water is as vital here too.

A 180 degrees panorama, featuring my brother Trevor on the path north (from Bray) looking east to the Irish Sea, and then the south-bound path to Greystones.

The seabirds are all breeding now: kittiwakes down near the crashing waves, cormorants on rocky outcrops along embankments; not to mention shags, guillemots, black guillemots, and razorbills.

Cormorants at their nests. The one in the foreground is feeding a very reptilian-looking juvenile, with regurgitated fish.

Soaring above all of these birds are the most spectacular cliff-dwellers of all, the Fulmars. These birds look remarkably like gulls in colouring, but their albatross-like heads and unusually-shaped and patterned beaks betray a very different lineage. Fulmars are actually petrels, true seabirds that spend most of their lives on the wing, soaring above the waves, and diving to snatch fish prey. They hav unusual pipe-like nostrils, like the radiators above the engines of World War II fighter planes, which is why they are also known as “tube-noses”.

A Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis). Photo by Trevor Connolly.

Fulmars are mostly North Atlantic birds, and Ireland is in the southern limit of their range. In June they start to pick out clefts and ledges on cliffsides on which to lay their eggs and raise youngsters. They are extremely vocal at these sites as they have to guard them from other Fulmars, nest-sites being at a premium. They nest just below and even above the Cliff Walk, singing loudly, and sounding just like penguins.

A pair of Fulmars singing at their nesting site just below the Cliff Walk. Photo by Cormac Tighe.

Meanwhile, Kestrels, Herring Gulls and the gigantic and highly predatory Great Black-backed Gull hover along the cliffs looking for an easy meal. For the Great Black-backed Gull this can also include adult birds of any species, although the dagger-like beaks of Gannets mean they are generally avoided. To deal with predators of this nature the Fulmar nestlings have a secret weapon. If anything gets too close (and this includes humans) they projectile vomit a stinking oil smelling of rotting fish. It is said to be so potent that not only can it not be washed out of clothes, but it takes days before it will come off human skin.

Probably the most unusual and beautiful birds to be seen along the cliffs are the fantastically aerially-acrobatic Rock Doves. These birds are believed to be the ancestors of the pigeons (the so-called “winged rats”) that live in cities, and they do look very similar, but are far more beautiful. Look at the iridescence of the the one in this photo, taken by Trevor.

A very beautiful Rock Dove standing on the wall that runs along the Cliff Walk. Photo by Trevor.

With all of the birds around you would think flowers would be far less noticeable, but there are several species that manage to steal some of the limelight even from these. Dog Rose, vetches and Honeysuckle form dense jungles of vegetation along the more sheltered, but sunny area of the path. However, by far the most colourful and impressive of all of the wild flowers is the Red Valerian (Centranthus ruber), which grows in masses all along the walls, cliffs and any available areas by the path, particularly in the less windswept areas.

Red Valerian between the sea and the railway line, far below the Cliff Walk. Notice that it actually produces white, red or pink flowers, all of which grow side-by-side, making for stunning colour effects.
The pink form of Red Valerian on a wall as the path begins to descend towards Greystones.

Some plants are less impressive, but can inspire quite spectacular events. One of those events you will encounter on the Cliff Walk in June is a massive swarm of inch-worm caterpillars of the Magpie Moth (Abraxis grassulariata). These caterpillars thrive on a small tree called Evergreen Spindle (Euonymus japonica), which can be found all across the cliffs of Bray Head. In June the caterpillars set out to find places to pupate, and can be seen across walls and fences on the Cliff Walk in their hundreds.

Magpie Moth inch-worm caterpillars on a fence along the Cliff Walk.

These little beauties are not the only insects of note to be seen along theCliff Walk in June. If you are lucky you may catch sight of what appears to be a sulphur-yellow butterfly. Actually, I’m only joking. It is extremely common on Bray Head. This is, in fact, a day-flying moth, the Speckled Yellow (Pseudopanthera macularia) that in Ireland is very rare outside of the famous Burren in western Ireland.

Speckled Yellow on the Cliff Walk

Closer to Greystones the massive rock cliffs give way to sand cliffs which provide a very important habitat for one of the more interesting bird species that visits Wicklow in Ireland. This species is the Sand Martin (Riparia riparia), which is very closely-related to the House Martin (Delichon urbica), that nests under the eaves of houses. The Sand Martin will only nest in holes in sand banks. The Greystones side of the Cliff Walk is probably the very best place in Wicklow to see these birds.

Sand Martin in flight over Bray Head. Photo by Trevor.

After taking a little safari between two-and-a-half and three hours over the Cliff Walk, you will find you have a very impressive collection of photographs

Trevor checking his collection of shots.





Proceed with caution…

A few years ago I discovered a unique trick. I was able to leap clear over a big metal farm gate, without touching it, while wearing heavy boots. I have only attempted this remarkable feat on one occasion, when a large herd of cattle stampeded down hill towards me at a gallop.

The Irish countryside is probably one of the safest you can visit anywhere on earth, but like all countrysides it does have some small dangers. Try to keep to tracks and paths and be very wary of crossing fields, because there are often bulls and other semi-wild cattle about. I know of one bull which once managed to topple over a tractor. Most cattle in Wicklow are beef cattle, big muscular creatures that have become progressively less used to being handled by people since farming methods changed in the 1990s. It is agreed by almost all naturalists that domestic cattle are the most dangerous aspect of the countryside, and they do kill a small number of people in Ireland each year. Remember, if you see a fence it’s there for a reason, usually to keep a big animal in. Even if a field looks empty, a large territorial bull could be lurking behind a bush, or lying down in long grass.

A Charolais bull...the last thing you want to see when you're crossing a field.

But now we are in June it’s the smaller creatures that can be a bit of a nuisance in the countryside. In June many species of horsefly emerge. The females usually wait along hedgerows, landing on large mammals that pass by to drink their blood. Some of them will target human beings and can give a bite that you won’t feel until it’s too late, as the saliva of the horsefly is designed to quieten nerves. Watch out for any insect that flies quietly, almost like a moth, and seems to want to land on your clothes. If it is slow-moving and with extremely colourful eyes, then you have found one. They are not swarming insects, but one person could attract a number of individuals if passing through dense vegetation in or near a hedgerow.

Here’s one that landed on my brother. As male horseflies are harmless nectar-feeders they might land on a brightly-coloured shirt. But the female will be after only one thing…

A beautiful Chrysops horsefly...after nectar or blood?

Goodbye Spring! Hello Summer!

The following photographs were taken both by me and by my brother Trevor, over the past few days.

When the Swallows and House Martins are joined in the skies by the much larger, crescent-winged Swifts then you know spring is in the process of giving way to summer. Individual Swifts are sometimes reported very early in the year, but these a more or less freak early arrivals. The first wave of migrant Swifts normally arrive in Wicklow in the last weeks of May. Usually the very last week. These beautiful birds are said to be in decline throughout Europe, and their bizarre and beautiful calls certainly don’t fill the summer skies the way they used to. The last summer migrants to arrive, and the first to depart too. Depending on the weather they usually begin to leave in mid-August, but hopefully a good summer will keep them here in Wicklow longer.

Swift - Apus apus

But these high fliers are not the only notable migrants to be found in the Wicklow countryside. On Sunday a bird photographer gave me a tip that there was a Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) to be seen in some Sea-buckthorn (Elaeagnus rhamnoides) by the beach in Kilcoole. He proved to be exactly right, and as Swifts shot past, the Cuckoo suddenly bolted from the thick cover and glided across the dense thicket of thorns. The Cuckoo is heard in Wicklow along the coast, but much less often than it used to be. But seeing one is truly rare, and this was the first time I have ever seen a Cuckoo in Wicklow, although I have heard them on many occasions. In order to get close enough to get a photo I tried to make my way along the narrow gaps in the extremely spiny bushes. If you look at the photo below you will see it was not very easy to do.

Sea-buckthorn thicket near Kilcoole.

At this time of the year Cuckoos usually don’t make their trademark call. This is normally heard earlier in spring, in April and the first weeks of May, when the males arrive before the females and begin carving out breeding territories. Once this has been accomplished the females then arrive and find themselves in one territory or another, where the resident Cuckoo landlords father their offspring. The Cuckoo will remain in Ireland until August, perhaps later, before flying to sub-Saharan Africa for the winter. Throughout our summer they stay well hidden, laying their eggs inthe nests of many bird species. In colouration the Cuckoo most closely resembles a Sparrowhawk, but is slightly smaller and has an even longer tail. In behaviour it is most like a Jay, the crow that forages in woodlands. The Cuckoo usually makes a diving, gliding flight but never goes too far. The trick to seeing it is to follow it with your eye after it breaks cover: where it seems to land is usually where it actually does land. And, for some peculiar reason, the Cuckoo usually picks a branch that is too small, and spends its time wobbling on its perch – but maybe it’s to make it blend in better with its surroundings. Anyhow, I do have a photo to show for my trouble, but it’s certainly not a great one. Just good enough.

The Cuckoo in the Sea-buckthorn

But the Cuckoo is not quite so spectacularly watchable as other migrants seen around the coast. The Breaches in Kilcoole (check out Garden of Ireland.com‘s  interactive map) is one of the most important breeding sites for Little Terns (Sterna albifrons) in the whole world, so it is a must see from May to July. They are often accompanied by larger Sandwich Terns (Sterna sandvicensis) and Common Terns (Sterna hirundo). All of these birds used to be known as “Sea Swallows” because of their migratory habits, forked tails, incredible flying abilities and maritime lifestyle.

A Little Tern returning to its nest with food.

Their nests are on shingle beaches, and when the Little Terns land you quickly discover how excellent their colouring is as camouflage, as they are almost invisible among the stones.

Little Tern on its nest.

The Little Terns can be seen diving for fish close to the shore, and are fantastic to watch. At the other end of the seabird size spectrum there are often Gannets (Morus bassanus) to be seen close to shore, as there are this week. They are like gigantic terns, and when their black-tipped wings are spread out they are as wide as a man is tall.

Although normally associated with cliffs Gannets can often be found cruising all along the coast of Wicklow and diving near beaches.
A Gannet plummeting towards the water to snatch unsuspecting fish. You are looking at the underside in this photo.

Gannets are magnificent hunters, but an even more common sight is the Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo), which uses a completely different method of hunting, and seems to have a very different natural history. Whereas Gannets (and Terns) fly overhead, and then dive into the water, often flying through it to quickly snatch fish, the Cormorant spends much more time submerged, propelling itself beneath the waves with its legs and stiff ruder-like tail. And this has caused the feathers of these two different types of hunters to evolve completely differently: Gannets have buoyant, waterproof feathers that allow them regain the air again, but Cormorant feathers become waterlogged, allowing them to swim move better through the water like submarines. This creates a slight problem for the Cormorants – their feathers become to wet to let them fly, so they have to dry out after they go swimming. You can often see them on inland waterways and along the shore on rocky perches, with their wings raised to the sun, making them look like prehistoric creatures.

Cormorants drying off by an estuary.
A dried-off Cormorant in flight.

Of course, there is another, completely different style of hunting, used by a very different waterbird. The Grey Heron is probably the most voracious predatory bird found in Ireland, which is really saying something, as it’s not a raptor or an owl. Grey Herons are stalking killers: they move through long grass or wade through water in a very cautious and methodical way, and snatch frogs, newts, fish, rodents, shrews, nestlings, small birds, and one has even been photographed (in the UK) drowning and swallowing a young rabbit. It is probably no great surprise that these large hunting birds also have an unfortunately common tendency to choke on their food. Probably more than any other birds, because unlike many other hunters, they don’t tear their prey into pieces before eating them.

A handsome Grey Heron stalking frogs in a bog pond.
Grey Heron moving to another hunting area.

Despite their wide diet they are not monsters, and effect the numbers of other species of wildlife less than more specialised hunters because they hunt no prey exclusively. We have these beautiful birds all year. Of course, you will find other beauties of the bird world around the Wicklow coastline all year round that can match them for colour: the Oystercatcher is just one extremely common and lovely example. It is probably one of the few birds whose call matches its appearance for beauty. It is a deep and resonant piping that can be heard as the bird calls from rocky outcrops at certain times of the day, particularly morning and evening, at twilight.

An Oystercatcher gliding slowly to a landing.

The Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus) actually feeds on many types of molluscs but not Oysters, which are normally found in deep water and not on the edge of the seashore. Recently it was thought that two species were developing out of one, based on hunting strategy: some were observed to crack the shells with harsh blows from their blunt-tipped beaks, and others were observed delicately prizing shells apart with long thin tweezer-like bills and pulling out the soft innards to eat. Then, recently, it was discovered that this was actually a sexual dimorphism, and the males tend to have the shell-cracking beaks and the females do the fine tweezer-type work.

Technically true or astronomical summer does not begin until the Summer Solstice (21 June), the longest day of the year. But, to all intents and purposes we are already entering the summer weather pattern. It is a great time of year for birds, but watch out for other interesting creatures too, particularly in the marram dunes near the shore. The Cinnabar Moth (Tyria jacobaea) is an amazing-looking day-flying species that relies on bright warning colours to advertise its toxic body, so that birds and other predators know not to eat it. They are not very frightened of anything.

A poisonous Cinnabar Moth: no touble for a human, just so long as you don't eat it.

And don’t forget to look at the earth and rocks too: there are fossils to be found. Here are some you might easily miss, from boulders excavated elsewhere in Ireland and deposited as part of coastal defence works near Kilcoole in the mid-20th century.

Crinoidal Limestone: containing the fossil remains of very ancient sea animals similar to todays Sea Lillies and usually dated to the Palaeozoic Era, some time between 542 and 251 million years ago. These bits would have been like long stems.

So, now that the weather is getting nice, warm and sunny, get out and look for these things. They’re all out there, waiting to be seen.