Last week I walked the Cliff Walk between Bray and Greystones and discovered that already many seabirds had arrived to begin the breeding season. Kittiwakes were on the cliffs closest to the sea surface and Fulmars had arrived in from the ocean to find nesting sites below and even above the pathway. However, I was most impressed by the Razorbills, which were fishing below the cliffs, moving in formation.
These birds look just like penguins, but are decent fliers too. In fact, they are closely-related to the original penguin, the Great Auk. which went extinct in the middle of the 19th century. As I proceeded along the path a seal moved along the cliffs at almost exactly the same rate, and appeared to be waiting, and would then mischievously dive beneath the waves when I attempted to take a photo. From the distance it appeared to me to be a Harbour Seal but it can be hard to tell.
The pathway was decorated by the white blossoms of Blackthorn trees and it is a great place to get close enough to the spiky Gorse bushes which are covered in bright yellow and beautiful blossoms. These blossoms have a subtle but quite strong scent. There’s something nostaligic about it and it fills the air along the path right now.
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.
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.
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.
Swans are not the only interesting birds sailing close to shore in November. It is an especially good time to see the Red-throated Diver (Gavia stellata), quite a rare species, patrolling the Wicklow coastline. In America these birds are known as “loons” and are famous for the haunting cry of the male on lonely lakes at evening time.
According to Glynn Anderson, author of Birds of Ireland: Facts, Folklore and History, the name “loon” actually derives from the Shetland Island word “loom” meaning “lame”, a work originating in Old Norse. This seems a very apt term as Red-throated Divers, along with their relatives, are extremely ungainly on land. However, in water they have few equals and can diver for over two minutes (making them difficult to photograph). It has to be said that the species of diver (or loon, if you prefer) , can be very difficult to tell apart in Winter when they have plumage that is drab compared with their spring and summer breeding plumage which gives them their specific names. Fortunately, at a recent public meeting, the famous birdwatcher Eric Dempsey verified that the divers patrolling the Wicklow coastline at this moment are Red-throated Divers.