Wildlife on the dunes

Wicklow has an incredibly special and impressive coastal area. Ironically one of the best wild areas in Wicklow is the expanse of heath-covered dunes at Brittas Bay (see map). This area is flooded with tourists and holiday-makers on sunny weekends in summer. It is maintained by Wicklow County Council, which allows public access to gorgeous beaches and a fantastically scenic and wildlife-filled area.

The dunes at Brittas Bay

I visited in late June to get photos of butterflies, moths and wild flowers. Here are just some of what I saw:

Dark Green Fritillary - Argynnis aglaja

One of the few completely reliable places on the island of Ireland where you are guaranteed a viewing of this large and handsome species of butterfly is Brittas Bay. They are absolutely everywhere, and unlike their name Dark Green Fritillaries are powerfully built orange-coloured butterflies. The “Dark Green” of the name refers to the colouration at the base beneath the hind wings, something you won’t notice unless you get close to one while it’s feeding. The butterfly is large and can be bigger than in this life-sized photograph.

On the other hand…

Littl Blue Butterfly - Cupido minimus

…the Little Blue butterfly is probably the tiniest in Ireland, and most of Europe. It is rarely seen, not so much because it is rare, but because it is so small most passers-by assume it is a tiny day-flying moth. It looks like quite a large species in this photo, but what you are looking at is actually no larger than your thumbnail.

However, the butterflies are not the only scene-stealers on the dunes. My primary aim was to find orchids, and just now the magnificent Pyramidal Orchids are bursting into bloom all along the dunes of Wicklow.

Pyramidal Orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis) with a beautiful metallic green pollen-eating beetle feeding on it.

Scrambling wildly across every bush and tall plant or tree in the sunniest places of the dunes are the unmissable and fragrant candleabra-like flowers of the Honeysuckle. The plant is a beautiful creeper even when out of bloom, but when it comes into flower there are few that can match it.

Honeysuckle (Lonicer periclymenum in full bloom and sporting a potent yet subtly-sensuous perfume. A flower much-loved by insects.

But the flower that will really capture your heart is the tiny, beautiful and easy to miss Dune Pansy (Viola tricolor) which is often yellow in colour. This subspecies of the Wild Pansy can be identified simply by its presence on sand. The flowers, like the Small Blue butterfly, are little more than thumbnail-sized, and grow very close to the ground. This is one of those little stunners that requires patience and careful observation to find, but grows pretty much anywhere there is open ground and a degree of shelter amid the dunes.

A tiny Dune Pansy (Viola tricolor curtisii) at Brittas Bay

 

 

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?

An Adventure in the Garden of Ireland