Tag Archives: Cormorant

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:

 

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.