Tag Archives: Grey Seal

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 Shark That Wasn’t

I arrived down at the beach in the late morning and spotted something really unusual in the distance, close to shore to the south. At first I thought it was some flotsam but as I moved closer it looked like a large triangular fin. I began to march south along the beach hoping that what I was seeing was the dorsal fin of a huge Basking Shark – Cetorhinus maximus. They are often seen in the vicinity of Wicklow Head in the summer months, and you can clearly see Wicklow head to the south in this photo:

A big dark triangle close to shore... shark?
A big dark triangle close to shore… shark?

I zoomed in on the image, and for a moment I was delighted that what I was looking at was indeed the huge fin of a shark. Here’s a close-up from the above photo:

This looks good - almost certainly a shark, except...
This looks good – almost certainly a shark, except…

If you look closely on the left (front) of the ‘fin’ you will notice a slight indentation with a dark line running verticle through it, and below that a circular notch. It wasn’t a fin at all, the verticle line was a closed eye, and the notch and ear-hole – the side profile of an enormous bull Grey Seal (Halichoeris grypus) asleep in the sea with his huge nose in the air. This is the largest carnivore that comes onto land in Ireland, although even bigger Walruses have been known to swim past, including one that swam south along the Wicklow coast in the summer of 2011.  A bull Grey Seal like this commonly reaches about three metres long (about 9 ft), but can be as much as four metres (c. 12 ft) long. They also have enormous claws on their flippers that rival those of any bear. But thankfully they are not aggressive mammals, although they should certainly be shown respect befitting any large carnivore. Anyhow, I moved south along the beach and got the sun behind me, and got a decent shot of the unperturbed bull seal:

A huge head above the waves. A Grey Seal's head is almost as large as that of a horse, but filled with very different teeth. And although very bulky these huge carnivores can catch the fastest of fish.
A huge head above the waves. A Grey Seal’s head is almost as large as that of a horse, but filled with very different teeth. And although very bulky these huge carnivores can catch the fastest of fish.

As I write this Wicklow is half-an-hour from sunset on Midsummer’s Eve. Sunset on Midsummer’s Eve is traditionally Midsummer’s Night, a time when magical beings of all kinds are said to emerge in the wild places until sunrise the following morning, and when bonfires were (and still are in some places) lit on hilltops and mountains to keep evil spirits at bay. And it is a short night in Wicklow, as the sun sets at just before 10 pm and rises at 5 am. So keep your eyes open tonight because you never know what you might see, and I might even have something interesting to show you in a few hours time.

 

The Coastal Frontier

Loads of people will have been down at the beach over this warm sunny long-weekend. The shore is a strange place, a part of civilisation,of course, but only a few feet from a world completely beyond human control, a true wilderness. A few days ago I found a Lesser Spotted Dogfish just beyond the receding tide. It was unusual primarily because it had two massive holes punched through it, one exiting on the other side of its body. By the distance between both puncture marks I realised this was almost certainly the work of a large seal.

The Lesser Spotted Dogfish with two holes punched through its flanks like bullet-wounds.
The Lesser Spotted Dogfish with two holes punched through its flanks like bullet-wounds.

In olden times, centuries ago, almost all sharks were referred to as ‘dogfish’. Ironically, the only sharks to retain this name belong to a family known as ‘cat sharks’. The Lesser Spotted Dogfish is now sometimes referred to as the Lesser Spotted Cat Shark. The following day I spotted the enormous head of a Grey seal bull near the shore, and immediately realised it must have been the killer of the dogfish, the huge puncture wounds having been caused by the seal’s awesome canine teeth. Dogfish have skin like sandpaper, and are virtually indigestible if eaten whole by any animal, except another shark, so this explains why it was left relatively unharmed and intact, despite its violent death.

As I walked along the shingle beach, shortly afterwards, I was astounded to find a Common Starfish, still alive, trying to crawl back to the sea, which was ebbing down the beach. I have found starfish often, but never alive on the shingle in Wicklow.

The starfish as I found it, trying to make its way back to sea on the hundreds of little feet on its underside.
The starfish as I found it, trying to make its way back to sea on the hundreds of little feet on its underside.

I lifted the little creature up on the palm of my hand and found it was clinging to small pebbles. However, I soon returned it to the sea, where it hopefully managed to settle on the sea floor safely once again.

The starfish on my hand, during the rescue.
The starfish on my hand, during the rescue.