Tag Archives: safari

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:

 

Some notes on wildlife-watching kit

If you are visiting Wicklow with the intention of watching wildlife, and visiting habitats, then here is some advice that will help make things easier. In my opinion the most useful items you can bring with you are as follows:

1. Water-resistant messenger bag with shoulder strap; 2. water resistant pouch for camera; 3. Compact super-zoom camera; 4. mobile phone; 5. small penknife; 6. rugged journal; 7.crushable all-weather hat.

The advantage of a messenger bag is it leaves your hands free and can be dipped into quickly, without having to be first removed (as in the case of a back-pack). The messenger bag only needs to be light and preferably with some degree of water-resistance, allowing you to keep your more precious items dry, and carry a sandwich if you intend going out for a few hours. It also allows you to carry a light jacket and a hat in case of rain or a sudden drop in temperature.

For your camera you will ideally have a seperate pouch. Unless you are specifically on a photographic expedition in the pay of National Geographic, for roaming around the countryside a compact superzoom camera will be more than ideal. Any camera is good, but a small superzoom will let you take good long distance and close-up macros too, while not being heavy to carry, or, in the worst case scenario, expensive to replace in the case of an outdoors accident. Always keep the strap wrapped around your wrist! These cameras are superb pieces of equipment: they allow you to record nature without harming it, and to examine it in minute detail, and so are a terrific replacement for the old magnifying glass or botanical lens.

Mobile phones are virtually vital pieces of equipment to take out in the field: they allow you to stay safely in contact

with the outside world in the event of an accident, or getting lost. This doesn’t happen very often in Wicklow, but anyone can wander off the beaten track and sprain an ankle, or fall on a mountainside, or encounter someone in distress in the sea on a lonely stretch of coatline, so always carry your mobile phone and keep it charged. Many of the newer ones have GPS and compass applications so you can navigate with them, allow people to follow your route as you make it, or allow you to keep track of the night sky, even if it’s hidden behind a veil of cloud. Also, mobile phones almost always have built-in cameras, so yours can be a useful back-up to your main camera.

A small penknife is also an extremely useful tool to carry. In Ireland it is technically illegal to carry any sort of knife of any kind in any public place, but in practice there is a concept of “reasonable use” and the Gardaí (our police force) use their discretion. For a great many people a knife of some sort will be a necessary tool of their trade. Similarly, it is normal to expect back-packers, tourists, birdwatchers, anglers and hunters to carry knives for outdoor purposes. There is no doubt a penknife is a vital tool to have in the countryside, but do not carry one when visiting bars or nightclubs.

A good tough notebook is one of the most useful item of all you should carry in the countryside. For the naturalist and archaeologist they are a must-have, and for the average tourist they are incredibly useful, to say the least. The best kinds are usually found for sale in art-supply shops, and can be a little expensive. However, they can survive submersion in water, and take a beating without losing pages. Those with unlined pages are best, such as the Windsor Newton journal pictured.

A crushable hat can be either rolled up, or have its crown flattened. In my opinion the second type is better (some hats allow you to do both), as a rigid brim will protect the face from sun and much more importantly, driving rain or hail stones, which often accompany thunderstorms in even the hottest weather of summer. Coats with hoods are not as good, as they don’t adequately protect the face, and limits your field of view, often causing the wearer to face into the hood if he/she attempts to look over his/her shoulder. The advantage of a brimmed hat is that the brim protects the face, head and neck, and will even protect your camera, allowing you to take photos in inclement weather. And there’s no need to wear it everywhere, as it can be easily kept in the messenger bag. A draw string to prevent it blowing away might be useful in cliff or hill areas. A water-resistant outdoor hat is ideal.

An all-weather hat doing its job: because of its peculiar geography a hot, sunny day in Wicklow could be interrupted by an unexpected and heavy shower of rain.

One of the commonest plants in Wicklow is Gorse (Ulex europaeus), also known as furze or whin. Gorse is a beautiful and large bush, growing in dense thickets, and producing gently fragrant yellow blossoms. But it is also extremely spiny and easily punctures clothing and skin. The average person will not find any need to wander through gorse thickets, but because of this reason these areas are incredible havens for wildlife, so the wildlife tourist will want to wear clothes that allow him or her to move as painlessly as possible off the beaten track in order to encounter the more remarkable wildlife. Archaeology tourists will also find many ancient walls, buildings and artefacts lie hidden beneath gorse…the bushes take advantage of manmade structures under the soil to anchor themselves. If you see an archaeological structure marked on a map it will almost invariably be surrounded by or covered in gorse, although there will also normally be an unofficial path through the bushes.

Gorse bushes are beautiful evergreens, but they form thickets that are very painful for people to pass through, even on paths or tracks, and for this reason are havns for wildlife. Gorse grows on hillsides, but gives way to heather on mountains.

If you are an archaeologist you might be tempted to take a waterproof plastic-shelled padded jacket: if you are a wildlife enthusiast don’t even think of it. These jackets will mostly keep the spines off, but are extremely noisy and will alert wild animal to your presence long before you get near them. Volunteers on wildlife studies are usually banned from wearing such coats, even in heavy rain, as they make far too much noise. But even so, gorse needles will eventually puncture such coats.

Coats and jackets with nylon plastic shells are extremely light, comfortable, rainproof and wind-resistant, and will protect you from gorse...but they make far too much noise!

Although not nearly as waterproof, and a bit heavier, a cotton military-type tunic will protect you from gorse needles and allow the careful naturalist to move silently along paths through gorse thickets. Most also have good secure button-fasten pockets and epaulettes that reinforce and take some of the strain off the shoulders, and allow a messenger bag strap to be held securely over the shoulder. They can be treated to make them more water-resistant, but even this will be worn off by exposure to gorse over a period of time. But these are the best choice for the naturalist.

A military-style tunic is the best protection from gorse that a naturalist can wear, as it allows you to remain silent.