Tag Archives: Bray

A Wicklow Coastal Safari

Just for a change I want to tell a story, basically showcasing one afternoon of a photo safari I made from Bray, over the Cliff Walk on the cliffs of Bray Head to Greystones, and then on to Kilcoole on a spectacularly beautiful and sunny day just over a week ago. So please enjoy this story, shown as it happened. So, to start, here’s Bray as seen from the start of the Cliff Walk:

Firstly, this year there are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of Painted Lady butterflies along the coast, and this one posed beautifully for a photo at the start of the Cliff Walk:

These butterflies have flown from southern Europe and were almost certainly greatly assisted by easterly winds during the continental heatwave in June and July.

Here, a short distance from where the butterfly was photographed, facing south and looking up the cross on Bray Head from the Cliff Walk:

It was on the wall which you can see to the left that I found a very handsome species of Wolf Spider, which I have yet to identify. It as quite small, but boldly patterned.

A lot of the Cliff Walk, especially on the Bray side of Bray Head, is navigable by wheelchair, but, sadly,  wheelchairs can only go so far. I hope this will change in the future. Here is another photo, looking back towards Bray. Along the cliffs there are thousands of Kittiwakes, small gulls which want as little as possible to do with human beings. They don’t enter cities and will never try to take food from you. They are the true “sea gulls” and happily spend their lives at sea. Here are adults at their nesting sites along Bray Head:

Here is what they look like closer, and the handsomely patterned ones are the juveniles. Young kittiwakes have black legs and feet:

Another species I saw was the largest known gull, the gigantic eagle-sized Great Black-backed Gull:

These monsters are so large they can kill and eat rabbits, swallowing them whole. One thing about the cliffs is that they are great places to see birds, but mostly seabirds, of course. Among the most interesting are the famous Cormorants, which do not have water-proof feathers like other seabirds, and spread their wings to dry them as they stand on sunny rocks:

Very similar species are the Shags, which are a dark bottle-green colour and have long, serpentine necks. They look almost like they belong to the age of dinosaurs:

I was very lucky to see all of these birds in such good light, but I was particularly very lucky to see a very beautiful seabird, the Black Guillemot:

Unfortunately it was a long distance from me, but you can make out the bright red feet in the photo.

But black guillemots were not the only creatures at the foot of the cliffs. I watched as a paddle-boarder was pursued by a mischievous seal he had got to close to. The seal, a Grey Seal, seemed almost to be laughing at the man as he paddled away, nervously looking over his shoulder:

The seal then went to sleep!

Summer is the breeding season for Grey Seals and they often come ashore on narrow beaches or flat rocks along the cliffs and away from people. The seal cows have their calves here.

About midway along the Cliff Walk you can see the old railway tunnel, closer to the sea, the track now long since worn away and swallowed up by it. In the mid-19th century the famous engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel built a roller-coaster like railway line along the cliffs, a feat considered virtually impossible at the time:

The stone fence posts along the Cliff Walk at this point are great habitat for Leaf-cutter Bees, which make nests in the holes the wires are fed through, and they fill these nests with leaves, usually from wild rose species, which somehow stay fresh long enough for their larvae to hatch out and reach a pupal stage. Here you can see a Leaf-cutter Bee stuffing big leaves into one of the wire holes in a post:

From this point onwards the Cliff Walk begins to become more leafy and here I saw quite a few butterfly and moth species, such as this Red Admiral:

On the ivy I found a few Holly Blue butterflies too, and one posed for a photo:

There are lots of plant species to support these lovely insects, and especially impressive was the Red Valerian, which, ironically, can be red, white or pink. It seems to be mostly pink along the Cliff Walk. Thanks to this flower I managed to photograph the only Hummingbird Hawkmoth I’ve seen this year:

Unfortunately they were not the most in-focus shots, and the big moth promptly flew away, as there was no shortage of paparazzo-free Red Valerian to choose from. However, the shot I got shows how it carries its long, beak-like tongue curled up like a butterfly does:

A hot day on the cliffs in summer really does bring out the wildlife. But the flowers are vital for the insects, such as the beautiful Rosebay, one of the willowherbs:

You can also find wild Sweet Pea:

The vegetation begins to become almost jungle-like and the rocky cliffs then give way to huge sand ones, and this seems to suit dense undergrowth:

This is a good area to find grasshoppers in, especially the Yellow Meadow Grasshopper:

There are two in the photo, and one is a male, hiding behind the female. Look for his antennae.

Eventually Greystones comes into view, and what a view it was for me, contaminated by sky-stealing cranes and half-built apartment complexes where there had once been a beautiful, rustic harbour – long ago, it now seems, but not that long ago. The pink flowers of the rosebay dominated the scene:

Eventually the Cliff Walk comes down to lower ground and meanders through some beautiful fields, which were fields of wheat when I passed through them, and they look beautiful next to the sea:

The sad thing about the Cliff Walk in Greystones is that it currently draws to an end in what is, to all intents and purposes, an  unprepossessing housing estate, still under construction but already partially populated. However, I suppose it has its own kind of beauty, but it’s not really my kind of beauty. Judge for yourself:

However, I couldn’t end a safari like this, so after a lot of cold drink and some food it was time to continue the journey a few miles further along the coast, while taking a look back over my shoulder, for a photo, of the Cliff Walk from the bathing spot that is the South Beach:

As you can see, there were lots of people out in the sunshine and a few in the water. Irish seawater doesn’t get properly warm until the end of August, usually. The path from the South Beach runs parallel to the railway track and has its own unique beauty, but especially so on a hot summer’s day:

It was very dusty, but, as usual, it was an excellent place to get close to nature. Here is a juvenile Starling on the same fence you can see above:

Behind the little bird is Sugarloaf Mountain, which resembles a volcano but is nothing of the sort… however it does look great. In fact, here is some more of the landscape as seen from the coast between Greystones and Kilcoole:

This area of Wicklow is one of the very best to get near Grey Seals and get good photos, as the water is deep close to shore, and I saw a mournful-looking seal only a few yards away:

Seals do find people fascinating.

However, the creature I most wanted to see was an insect, but one which can only usually be seen in late summer along the Wicklow coast, and only in some places. I managed to get a decent shot, after a very long chase – this is the Clouded Yellow butterfly:

I think you’ll agree it’s very beautiful, and almost surreal in its colouring. It likes very rough sandy and gravelly terrain, as you can see here:

At this point, if you pay attention to the landward side, on your right as you face south (the above photo is facing north, by the way) you will see the ruined outbuildings of what was once a massive country estate, Ballygannon House, belonging originally to the powerful Byrne clan. One of the Byrne daughters married a certain sea captain named Scott who ran his ship aground near the shore during the war between James II of England and the invading Dutch Prince William of Orange, who later became King William of England. Captain Scott was kept as a guest in the great house and then married one of the daughters and eventually inherited the entire estate, which comprised Kilcoole village. Ballygannon complex was essentially a village in its own right, and is today known locally as ‘the Lost Village’ to the inhabitants of Kilcoole and its environs.

If that’s an outhouse, just imagine what the actual house was like – it must have been immense. It was inhabited into the 1930 and, sadly,  was leveled in the 1950s .

Not long after this Kilcoole neared, and behind it Wicklow Head was visible. There were quite a few bathers at Kilcoole beach too:

Kilcoole seemed a good place to end the safari. It had been one of the best day’s strolling with my camera that I’ve ever had. However, as enjoyable as the photography was, I also made a video, which you can see here:

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Archaeology 101 continued…

Just outside the town of Bray, in north Wicklow,  there is an extremely interesting area of seashore where ancient tree trunks from the time of the Ice Age can be still be seen today sticking out of the seabed at low tide. These trees see to be the edge of a vast prehistoric forest extending beneath the Irish Sea. Such pertrified forests are visible along the Welsh and English coasts too. In recent years the BBC made a documentary about the nature of the islands of the British Isles and the first episode featured Alan Titchmarsh visiting the north beach of Bray at low tide to view a forest of these bizarre undersea tree stumps. It is believed that when the ice sheets of the last Ice Age melted, around 5500 BC, that the rising seas drowned the forests.

Ancient tree stump on Bray's north beach. The "moss" is actually a species of algae, Cladophora rupestris, that appreciates any good perch on the shore.

Because Bray is located at the mouth of a river, namely the Dargle, it is a good site to look for ancient archaeological remains. So I went along with my brother Owen, the archaeologist, and local historian Tom Loftus to glean the beaches below the cliffs to the north of Bray, on the border with Dublin county. The beaches are a mixture of shingle and sand, with tall sandy cliffs above them. These cliffs are collapsing by degrees, and as such there is always the possibility of finding ancient artefacts.

Tom and Owen discussing the archaeology while looking for artefacts on the beach below high tide level.

We were accompanied by a flock of Turnstones, which busily foraged for food among the pebbles before the tide rose too high. Cormorants were perched on the various rocks of the bay, and Common Terns attended juveniles learning the trade of sea fishing.

Turnstones - Arenaria interpres. Beautiful beach-combing birds that are almost impossible to see even when standing quite close to them, due to their fantastic camouflage. There are two in this photo, standing side-by-side.

On the return journey Owen found what he believed was very likely a Stone Age axe-head. Stone axe-heads have a very distinctive shape, and this particular stone, of red quartz, had many of the hallmarks of deliberate shaping by the hand of man. However, Owen is always cautious when it comes to lithics (stone objects), so he wanted to have a specialist archaeologist check out the find before pronouncing judgement.

Owen holding the possible Stone Age axe-head while standing where he found it. This photo also explains why Owen often wears a hat when pitted against sunny skies and rainy days.

Tom also made a very interesting find, which has still to be checked out: it seems to be a single fossilised vertebra. The bone, which still has to be identified as belonging to a particular species, was completely impregnated with limestone.
More on the possible hand-axe will follow shortly, including the specialist expert’s opinion.

I'm calling this the "Loftus Vertebra" in honour of Tom, its finder. This is a fossilised bone, seemingly a vertebra. The original bone is now heavily impregnated with limestone, possibly due to prolonged exposure to sea air. This very interesting item requires further study. It is 46mm across the middle from outer surface to outer surface.

More on Owen’s potential axe-head to follow soon…