As many people undoubtedly know, Ireland has very strange weather even at the best of times. Winter snows rarely last more than a week or two if they come at all, and summers can be incredibly variable. The Irish climate can best be described as mercurial, but for the most part it is consistently mild. Last week and the week before it we had some bouts of very warm weather with temperatures reaching 17 degrees Celsius on Halloween itself, largely due to a warm tropical wind from the south.
This wind had control of the temperatures earlier in the week too, and prevented many migrants from flying south. Most notably Scandinavian Swallows and House Martins were forced east to forage in our warmer climes and I was amazed to be photoographing them in large numbers swooping overhead, although my shots were not great in the autumn light, nevertheless you can see them here.
And equally astounding have been the sightings of Red Admiral butterflies feeding on late-flowering buddleia bushes. But I have seen these butterflies in November in other years, prior to cold snaps.
They are now known to hibernate in Europe if the occasion demands it. There is even some evidence these migrants have successfully bred here in milder winters. However, temperatures have already dropped within the last few days and the skies already belong to the talkative Starlings who are amassing in huge numbers and flying in great ‘murmurations’ in a display of incredible aerial agility. They are lovely birds, and they enjoy the sun when they can get it in Wicklow winters.
Traditionally yesterday, November 1st – All Saints Day, marked the beginning of the Celtic Winter, which ends on St. Brigid’s Day – February 1st. However, from a practical point of view this time of year is deep Autumn.
Autumn is at its peak at the moment, but amazingly, after three freezing nights and with temperatures of -1 C predicted for tonight, there are still Swallows to be seen in the sky. The photo below is not particularly good, but I took it shortly before sunset this afternoon when a flock of about seven swallows flew overhead and made their way south. I’m fairly certain this is the latest I have ever seen these summer migrants in Irish skies. Keep your eyes on the skies – you never know what you might see.
The following photographs were taken both by me and by my brother Trevor, over the past few days.
When the Swallows and House Martins are joined in the skies by the much larger, crescent-winged Swifts then you know spring is in the process of giving way to summer. Individual Swifts are sometimes reported very early in the year, but these a more or less freak early arrivals. The first wave of migrant Swifts normally arrive in Wicklow in the last weeks of May. Usually the very last week. These beautiful birds are said to be in decline throughout Europe, and their bizarre and beautiful calls certainly don’t fill the summer skies the way they used to. The last summer migrants to arrive, and the first to depart too. Depending on the weather they usually begin to leave in mid-August, but hopefully a good summer will keep them here in Wicklow longer.
But these high fliers are not the only notable migrants to be found in the Wicklow countryside. On Sunday a bird photographer gave me a tip that there was a Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) to be seen in some Sea-buckthorn (Elaeagnus rhamnoides) by the beach in Kilcoole. He proved to be exactly right, and as Swifts shot past, the Cuckoo suddenly bolted from the thick cover and glided across the dense thicket of thorns. The Cuckoo is heard in Wicklow along the coast, but much less often than it used to be. But seeing one is truly rare, and this was the first time I have ever seen a Cuckoo in Wicklow, although I have heard them on many occasions. In order to get close enough to get a photo I tried to make my way along the narrow gaps in the extremely spiny bushes. If you look at the photo below you will see it was not very easy to do.
At this time of the year Cuckoos usually don’t make their trademark call. This is normally heard earlier in spring, in April and the first weeks of May, when the males arrive before the females and begin carving out breeding territories. Once this has been accomplished the females then arrive and find themselves in one territory or another, where the resident Cuckoo landlords father their offspring. The Cuckoo will remain in Ireland until August, perhaps later, before flying to sub-Saharan Africa for the winter. Throughout our summer they stay well hidden, laying their eggs inthe nests of many bird species. In colouration the Cuckoo most closely resembles a Sparrowhawk, but is slightly smaller and has an even longer tail. In behaviour it is most like a Jay, the crow that forages in woodlands. The Cuckoo usually makes a diving, gliding flight but never goes too far. The trick to seeing it is to follow it with your eye after it breaks cover: where it seems to land is usually where it actually does land. And, for some peculiar reason, the Cuckoo usually picks a branch that is too small, and spends its time wobbling on its perch – but maybe it’s to make it blend in better with its surroundings. Anyhow, I do have a photo to show for my trouble, but it’s certainly not a great one. Just good enough.
But the Cuckoo is not quite so spectacularly watchable as other migrants seen around the coast. The Breaches in Kilcoole (check out Garden of Ireland.com‘s interactive map) is one of the most important breeding sites for Little Terns (Sterna albifrons) in the whole world, so it is a must see from May to July. They are often accompanied by larger Sandwich Terns (Sterna sandvicensis) and Common Terns (Sterna hirundo). All of these birds used to be known as “Sea Swallows” because of their migratory habits, forked tails, incredible flying abilities and maritime lifestyle.
Their nests are on shingle beaches, and when the Little Terns land you quickly discover how excellent their colouring is as camouflage, as they are almost invisible among the stones.
The Little Terns can be seen diving for fish close to the shore, and are fantastic to watch. At the other end of the seabird size spectrum there are often Gannets (Morus bassanus) to be seen close to shore, as there are this week. They are like gigantic terns, and when their black-tipped wings are spread out they are as wide as a man is tall.
Gannets are magnificent hunters, but an even more common sight is the Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo), which uses a completely different method of hunting, and seems to have a very different natural history. Whereas Gannets (and Terns) fly overhead, and then dive into the water, often flying through it to quickly snatch fish, the Cormorant spends much more time submerged, propelling itself beneath the waves with its legs and stiff ruder-like tail. And this has caused the feathers of these two different types of hunters to evolve completely differently: Gannets have buoyant, waterproof feathers that allow them regain the air again, but Cormorant feathers become waterlogged, allowing them to swim move better through the water like submarines. This creates a slight problem for the Cormorants – their feathers become to wet to let them fly, so they have to dry out after they go swimming. You can often see them on inland waterways and along the shore on rocky perches, with their wings raised to the sun, making them look like prehistoric creatures.
Of course, there is another, completely different style of hunting, used by a very different waterbird. The Grey Heron is probably the most voracious predatory bird found in Ireland, which is really saying something, as it’s not a raptor or an owl. Grey Herons are stalking killers: they move through long grass or wade through water in a very cautious and methodical way, and snatch frogs, newts, fish, rodents, shrews, nestlings, small birds, and one has even been photographed (in the UK) drowning and swallowing a young rabbit. It is probably no great surprise that these large hunting birds also have an unfortunately common tendency to choke on their food. Probably more than any other birds, because unlike many other hunters, they don’t tear their prey into pieces before eating them.
Despite their wide diet they are not monsters, and effect the numbers of other species of wildlife less than more specialised hunters because they hunt no prey exclusively. We have these beautiful birds all year. Of course, you will find other beauties of the bird world around the Wicklow coastline all year round that can match them for colour: the Oystercatcher is just one extremely common and lovely example. It is probably one of the few birds whose call matches its appearance for beauty. It is a deep and resonant piping that can be heard as the bird calls from rocky outcrops at certain times of the day, particularly morning and evening, at twilight.
The Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus) actually feeds on many types of molluscs but not Oysters, which are normally found in deep water and not on the edge of the seashore. Recently it was thought that two species were developing out of one, based on hunting strategy: some were observed to crack the shells with harsh blows from their blunt-tipped beaks, and others were observed delicately prizing shells apart with long thin tweezer-like bills and pulling out the soft innards to eat. Then, recently, it was discovered that this was actually a sexual dimorphism, and the males tend to have the shell-cracking beaks and the females do the fine tweezer-type work.
Technically true or astronomical summer does not begin until the Summer Solstice (21 June), the longest day of the year. But, to all intents and purposes we are already entering the summer weather pattern. It is a great time of year for birds, but watch out for other interesting creatures too, particularly in the marram dunes near the shore. The Cinnabar Moth (Tyria jacobaea) is an amazing-looking day-flying species that relies on bright warning colours to advertise its toxic body, so that birds and other predators know not to eat it. They are not very frightened of anything.
And don’t forget to look at the earth and rocks too: there are fossils to be found. Here are some you might easily miss, from boulders excavated elsewhere in Ireland and deposited as part of coastal defence works near Kilcoole in the mid-20th century.
So, now that the weather is getting nice, warm and sunny, get out and look for these things. They’re all out there, waiting to be seen.