Tag Archives: July

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:

 

Mothy Nights in July

The warm temperatures and drought (which have lasted two months in many parts of Wicklow and caused massive gorse fires) have also encouraged many species of butterflies, but even more species of moths, including some very big ones, such as the Northern Eggar (Lasiocampus quercus f. callunae ), a subspecies of the smaller Oak Eggar (L. quercus). This truly is a huge moth, and before now I last saw one all the way back in the early 1990s. This one is the female, which is the largest and more colourful of the sexes. Here is a video which shows the power and size of this moth, which is one of the largest in Europe:

Here is a still of the female, showing her details best:

The male of this species is smaller and darker than the female, but is otherwise almost identical. And here are other beautiful moths encountered in the last few days:

The Mottled Beauty (Alcis rependata) is a large and somewhat variable species of moth. 

The following is the Common Emerald (Hemithea aestivaria), which is slightly smaller:

 

The Silver-Y (Auographa gamma), below, is a famous species which flies both day and night, migrating from southern Europe and even sub-Saharan Africa into Europe every year, and possibly even some individuals fly all the way back again. They come to flowers in large numbers and seem to fulfill the role of bees at night.The Mother of Pearl moth (Pleuroptera ruralis) gets its name from the nacre-like sheen on its wings. It is the size and shape of a small butterfly.The ultra-white, angel-like White-plumed Moth (Pterophorus pentadactyla) resembles a fairy when seen glowing in the darkness of a summer evening. Occasionally they come to light, but mostly fly about lawns. The Common Footman (Eilema lurideola) is a small moth, but not tiny, and it gets its name from its appearing to wear the neat liveried uniform of a coachman.The Clouded Border (Lomaspilis marginata) is a very handsome species of carpet moth, moths which have beautiful carpet-like patterns on their wings. Buff Arches (Habrosyne pyritoides) with slight damage to left wing probably caused by a predator.

This is one of the variations of the Mottled Beauty (Alcis repandata).

 

 

Heavy humid July

Although we don’t have the hottest of summers we do have very humid ones, and this week even more so due to a stream of clouds coming upon us with the Jet Stream, riding over the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, bringing us cloud from the Sargasso Sea. We had a very dry spring and summer in Wicklow up until a few days ago, and the change in weather is very welcome to the plants and the insect world. It is a great time to see insects. They like it a little damp.

Sweet Pea blloming in a hedgerow. Garden flowers like these do very well when there's rain, and in turn attract insects.
Sweet Pea blloming in a hedgerow. Garden flowers like these do very well when there’s rain, and in turn attract insects.

Wicklow, like many other places around the world is going through a cycle of change due to human activity. The natural world is always in a state of flux,and always has been, but what we human beings do makes things more complicated. For example, here is one of the most common moths found in gardens throughout Wicklow:

The male Light Brown Apple Moth is the most common garden moth in Wicklow throughout June and July, and is easily disturbed in daylight.
The male Light Brown Apple Moth is the most common garden moth in Wicklow throughout June and July, and is easily disturbed in daylight.

The Light Brown Apple Moth (Epiphyas postvittana) above, is a very handsome small moth. However, it is not quite what it seems – this species only a very recent arrival in Ireland. This moth actually originates from Australia. It was first recorded in the British Isles on the island of Great Britain in 1936, and is now found pretty much everywhere on Great Britian and in eastern and southern Ireland. This just goes to show how things can change within an ecosystem very fast. And, while new species are arriving, some resident species are becoming rarer:

A Eurasian Curlew flying over, calling loudly. A sight and sound that is becoming rarer in Ireland and Europe.
A Eurasian Curlew flying over, calling loudly. A sight and sound that is becoming rarer in Ireland and Europe.

I heard this Curlew before I saw it, as it was calling loudly, piping across the sky as it flew. They are large birds and have an incredibly curved bill, as you can just make-out in the photo above. The numbers of curlew staying in Ireland to breed in summer are getting fewer and fewer due to overhunting. However, they can still be heard regularly in Wicklow, but for how long is anybody’s guess. Many come from other parts of Europe to overwinter here, creating the illusion of high numbers on the island of Ireland. They are a very rare sight in spring.