Tag Archives: Wicklow

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.

 

 

High drama in May

It has been a somewhat blustery and cool May, with a many showers, but according to a new version of an old saying: “Wet and windy May, fills the barns with corn and hay”. But the rain and the sunlight combine to support lush vegetation in Wicklow, and there are dramatic scenes everywhere. The Hawthorn, the sacred tree of the ancient druids, bursts into blossom and crowns the spring and announces the summer.

Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) in bloom.

Hiding on the blooms of dense plants like the Russian Comfrey (Symphytum x uplandicum) the small predators aim to catch big prey. The Flower Crab Spiders are especially brazen, and can even be seen attempting to snatch bumblebees.

Flower Crab Spider (Misumena vatia) waits in ambush to snatch a bumblebee collecting nectar from Russian Comfrey. It failed, and some bees even knocked others away from the flowers.

Even on the ground in towns and villages there is drama and action: watch for ants hurrying back to their nests with food and prey. Their incredible strength is fascinating in itself.

A Black Garden Ant (Lasius niger) carrying an unfortunately squashed Bark Louse (Psocidid) back to its nest along a footpath.

However, not all of the action near to the ground is of a predatory fashion. Some creatures have no problem finding food in abundance, and therefore have plenty of time for other activities. On the large fleshy leaves of the Broad-leaved Dock (Rumex obtusifolius) you will often see beautiful sweet-wrapper shiny green beetles calmly munching on the vast leaves. This is the Dock Leaf Beetle (Gastrophysa viridula), a very distinctive species of leaf beetle, due to the enormous abdomen of the pregnant female. She becomes swollen with hundreds of eggs, and is usually garded closely by a mate, or a suitor waiting for her to lay her eggs so he can take his turn fathering offspring.

He likes big butts! A male Dock Leaf Beetle perched on a heavily pregnant female.

All of this excitement between waist and ground level is wonderful to observe, but it can distract you from incredible seens high above. A chance glance at the Wicklow clouds could bring your eye into line with a flock of fleeing pigeons or doves, and just in time to see a Peregrine Falcon slowly wheeling above. If you can see it clearly then your back will almost certainly be to the sun, and the great predator’s prey will be even further from you than the falcon, because this bird likes to fly at it prey from the direction of the sun, where it can be seen least well, if at all.

Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) soaring above Wicklow.

Although a very similar species of falcon, the Hobby (Falco subbuteo), can occasionally be found in Wicklow, this Peregrine is a stouter bird with wings that appear wider from front to back when seen in flight. It has recently been dicovered that Peregrines living in cities and towns will hunt actively at night, usually striking their night-flying prey from beneath, in the ambush-style of their sea-dwelling equivalent, the Great White Shark. It is theorised that the lights from buildings illuminate the undersides of birds flying above them, allowing the Peregrine to see its prey in the dark, although it might also be argued that it is using the lights of the buildings in the same way it uses the sun during daylight hunting, to prevent its prey from seeing it.

A Peregrine Falcon seen from the side, preparing for a stoop, its attacking dive. On this occasion the pigeons spotted the hunter and managed to escape. The black "executioner's mask" markings of the head are easy to see from this angle.

Some notes on wildlife-watching kit

If you are visiting Wicklow with the intention of watching wildlife, and visiting habitats, then here is some advice that will help make things easier. In my opinion the most useful items you can bring with you are as follows:

1. Water-resistant messenger bag with shoulder strap; 2. water resistant pouch for camera; 3. Compact super-zoom camera; 4. mobile phone; 5. small penknife; 6. rugged journal; 7.crushable all-weather hat.

The advantage of a messenger bag is it leaves your hands free and can be dipped into quickly, without having to be first removed (as in the case of a back-pack). The messenger bag only needs to be light and preferably with some degree of water-resistance, allowing you to keep your more precious items dry, and carry a sandwich if you intend going out for a few hours. It also allows you to carry a light jacket and a hat in case of rain or a sudden drop in temperature.

For your camera you will ideally have a seperate pouch. Unless you are specifically on a photographic expedition in the pay of National Geographic, for roaming around the countryside a compact superzoom camera will be more than ideal. Any camera is good, but a small superzoom will let you take good long distance and close-up macros too, while not being heavy to carry, or, in the worst case scenario, expensive to replace in the case of an outdoors accident. Always keep the strap wrapped around your wrist! These cameras are superb pieces of equipment: they allow you to record nature without harming it, and to examine it in minute detail, and so are a terrific replacement for the old magnifying glass or botanical lens.

Mobile phones are virtually vital pieces of equipment to take out in the field: they allow you to stay safely in contact

with the outside world in the event of an accident, or getting lost. This doesn’t happen very often in Wicklow, but anyone can wander off the beaten track and sprain an ankle, or fall on a mountainside, or encounter someone in distress in the sea on a lonely stretch of coatline, so always carry your mobile phone and keep it charged. Many of the newer ones have GPS and compass applications so you can navigate with them, allow people to follow your route as you make it, or allow you to keep track of the night sky, even if it’s hidden behind a veil of cloud. Also, mobile phones almost always have built-in cameras, so yours can be a useful back-up to your main camera.

A small penknife is also an extremely useful tool to carry. In Ireland it is technically illegal to carry any sort of knife of any kind in any public place, but in practice there is a concept of “reasonable use” and the Gardaí (our police force) use their discretion. For a great many people a knife of some sort will be a necessary tool of their trade. Similarly, it is normal to expect back-packers, tourists, birdwatchers, anglers and hunters to carry knives for outdoor purposes. There is no doubt a penknife is a vital tool to have in the countryside, but do not carry one when visiting bars or nightclubs.

A good tough notebook is one of the most useful item of all you should carry in the countryside. For the naturalist and archaeologist they are a must-have, and for the average tourist they are incredibly useful, to say the least. The best kinds are usually found for sale in art-supply shops, and can be a little expensive. However, they can survive submersion in water, and take a beating without losing pages. Those with unlined pages are best, such as the Windsor Newton journal pictured.

A crushable hat can be either rolled up, or have its crown flattened. In my opinion the second type is better (some hats allow you to do both), as a rigid brim will protect the face from sun and much more importantly, driving rain or hail stones, which often accompany thunderstorms in even the hottest weather of summer. Coats with hoods are not as good, as they don’t adequately protect the face, and limits your field of view, often causing the wearer to face into the hood if he/she attempts to look over his/her shoulder. The advantage of a brimmed hat is that the brim protects the face, head and neck, and will even protect your camera, allowing you to take photos in inclement weather. And there’s no need to wear it everywhere, as it can be easily kept in the messenger bag. A draw string to prevent it blowing away might be useful in cliff or hill areas. A water-resistant outdoor hat is ideal.

An all-weather hat doing its job: because of its peculiar geography a hot, sunny day in Wicklow could be interrupted by an unexpected and heavy shower of rain.

One of the commonest plants in Wicklow is Gorse (Ulex europaeus), also known as furze or whin. Gorse is a beautiful and large bush, growing in dense thickets, and producing gently fragrant yellow blossoms. But it is also extremely spiny and easily punctures clothing and skin. The average person will not find any need to wander through gorse thickets, but because of this reason these areas are incredible havens for wildlife, so the wildlife tourist will want to wear clothes that allow him or her to move as painlessly as possible off the beaten track in order to encounter the more remarkable wildlife. Archaeology tourists will also find many ancient walls, buildings and artefacts lie hidden beneath gorse…the bushes take advantage of manmade structures under the soil to anchor themselves. If you see an archaeological structure marked on a map it will almost invariably be surrounded by or covered in gorse, although there will also normally be an unofficial path through the bushes.

Gorse bushes are beautiful evergreens, but they form thickets that are very painful for people to pass through, even on paths or tracks, and for this reason are havns for wildlife. Gorse grows on hillsides, but gives way to heather on mountains.

If you are an archaeologist you might be tempted to take a waterproof plastic-shelled padded jacket: if you are a wildlife enthusiast don’t even think of it. These jackets will mostly keep the spines off, but are extremely noisy and will alert wild animal to your presence long before you get near them. Volunteers on wildlife studies are usually banned from wearing such coats, even in heavy rain, as they make far too much noise. But even so, gorse needles will eventually puncture such coats.

Coats and jackets with nylon plastic shells are extremely light, comfortable, rainproof and wind-resistant, and will protect you from gorse...but they make far too much noise!

Although not nearly as waterproof, and a bit heavier, a cotton military-type tunic will protect you from gorse needles and allow the careful naturalist to move silently along paths through gorse thickets. Most also have good secure button-fasten pockets and epaulettes that reinforce and take some of the strain off the shoulders, and allow a messenger bag strap to be held securely over the shoulder. They can be treated to make them more water-resistant, but even this will be worn off by exposure to gorse over a period of time. But these are the best choice for the naturalist.

A military-style tunic is the best protection from gorse that a naturalist can wear, as it allows you to remain silent.