Although it’s cold and dark and not particularly pleasant, there are some advantages to Winter. For one thing the cold and general shortage of food supplies often brings larger animals closer to human proximity, and you can see creatures which normally don’t like to get too close. My dog recently had her ham bone stolen by a fox which came to visit my garden. I put a camera down in a good position and managed to get a nice shot of the fox paying a very early morning visit to the dog’s bowl, and glimpsing a person through the back window it hastily made its escape. Here is a photo of the fox looking up through the window, shortly after 5 a.m.:
The fox never seemed to notice the camera. This is the Red Fox – Vulpes vulpes, which can be found pretty much worldwide these days. Foxes are particularly beneficial for one reason – they eat more rats, and are far better at catching them than cats are.
Anyhow, although we are in the coldest part of the winter, there are already some definite signs spring is not far away. Here is a video I made this weekend which shows some of these signs:
Sadly a few weeks ago, shortly before Christmas, Professor David Bellamy died. Although few people born after 1990 can have much (if any) idea who he was, in the 1980s he was probably more famous than David Attenborough, and even Gerald Durrell, as a naturalist, scientist and conservationist. He was an important botanist and a major conservationist in the United Kingdom and in the Republic of Ireland, and probably the very first to highlight the importance of, and danger to, Irish bogs. He even boasted of having spent his honeymoon on an Irish bog! He had a considerable output in terms of his writing and TV presenting. Here is the cover of one of this excellent books in my own collection, dating from 1986:
David Bellamy was always passionate and extremely eloquent and he was also very easily lampooned and became a favourite of impressionists, especially because he had a slight lisp and an almost operatic method of presentation, with lots of Italian style gesturing. Fortunately he was possessed of a great sense of humour and wit. He was a joy to watch, and never boring.
However, despite all of these qualities he fell into disfavour with the greater environmental movement as it became more and more homogenised, and eventually, as it is today, dominated less by scientists and more by those involved in politics and social movements – and even by many who deliberately give the appearance of being environmentalists but are actually doing so as an attempt to control and divert public opinion.
Bellamy’s cardinal sin was that he disagreed that carbon emissions could be causing global warming to the degree of severity we seem to be experiencing, as the production of carbon dioxide (which plants feed on) should technically lead to an even greater production of oxygen, as carbon dioxide leads to greater plant growth. For every part carbon dioxide a plant takes in, it produces even more oxygen.
Whether you agree with this opinion or not (he goes to great lengths to explain it in his autobiography – A Natural Life (Arrow Books, 2002) it was a carefully considered opinion. He felt global warming as we are currently seeing it was due to solar cycles, and we are currently in one of great solar activity. Bellamy felt the greatest threat to the environment was the incredible rate of human population growth which has accelerated decade by decade. This causes direct destruction to the environment. The more people there are the more people will suffer at the mercy of weather and environment, especially with fewer resources.
Whatever the truth is, there is no doubt he suffered a degree of character assassination and his ability to communicate his ideas and opinions was severely curtailed for his viewpoint. It could be said he was practically silenced because of this dissenting opinion, which does not reflect well on the greater environmental movement as it exists today, which has become less like science and more like a dogmatic religion often driven by so-called ‘political activists’, some of whom are highly suspicious characters with equally suspicious motivations.
It is well worth reading what Prof. David Bellamy wrote, even if you don’t agree with his opinions. It is a shame his death, and more importantly, his life, has lately been so ignored when he had once been a deserving superstar of both academia and nature documentaries.
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: