Tag Archives: stones

Little Tern Season

It’s that wonderful time of the year again, when the Little Terns have returned to the beaches of The Breaches along the coast between Kilcoole and Newcastle. The main nesting areas have been fenced off by Birdwatch Ireland to protect them from predators and human beings and their pet dogs, who would otherwise walk unwittingly all over the nest sites and do terrible destruction:

And with them are many other wonderful birds. Here is one of my favourites, the Ringed Plover, which will feign injury to lure a predator, or suspected predator away from its nest site:

White is a very popular colour with shorebirds, largely because it affords them a degree of camouflage while hunting and/or nesting. Here is another beautiful species, the Oystercatcher, which has arguably the nicest call of any shorebird or seabird:

Although this bird looks bright and bold against the sea, when it lies down on the pebbles of the beach it becomes almost invisible, especially at a distance.

The terns themselves are bold and beautiful birds, and will attack you if you get too close to any nests:

However, as they come in to land on the beach the terns seem to vanish, and even at close range are very difficult to see, which is why the Birdwatch Ireland wardens mark the nests by numbering large stones:

You have to look hard to see this tern, but you can do it.

If you really want to see this spectacular sight then now is the time: taking Kilcoole Station as your starting point walk along the sandy path towards the thickets of Sea Buckthorn which is located just to the north of the nest site, which is permanently guarded at this time of year.

Also keep an eye out for more common birds, which you can get very close to, especially along the railway fences. Here is a beautiful swallow which I saw, which most people outside of the British Isles will know as the Barn Swallow:

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.