Tag Archives: Wheatear

The White Arse and other grassland birds

One of the most interesting things about birds’ names is that many of them are so strange you might find yourself wondering where they came from. However, in many cases they were changed slightly from their original, simple meaning because they were considered uncouth or not politically correct, particularly during the Victorian era of the 19th century. Such is the case with this handsome grassland bird, which likes to let approaching walkers get only so close before it suddenly flies off to land on a more distant fence post, usually just out of camera range.

Birdwatchers will immediately recognise this as the Wheatear (Oenanthe oenantha). I often wondered about the name ‘wheatear’ or ‘wheat ear’ and where it came from, and I did think it was a very romantic name. Presumably these birds frequented wheat fields… it makes sense. However, the truth is very different – the Wheatear has a huge patch of solid white at the top of its tail, and since the Middle Ages has been known as White Arse, as it’s particularly noticeable when this handsome, but otherwise drab bird, flies past. Many other birds have equally prosaic names, such as this infuriatingly difficult-to-photograph species:

When you get close it hides behind leaves, and only when it’s at a safe distance does it fully reveal itself, singing its grating, chortling call from a barbwire fence while simultaneously holding insect prey in its beak:

This infuriating little bird is the Whitethroat (Sylvia communis), which is a species of warbler, closely-related to the equally prosaically-named Blackcap. Many of the grassland birds could better be described as ‘fence birds’ as they like to perch on fences watching as you scare up insects which they then snatch. For some it’s a whole way of life, such as this common and beautiful species below, the Stonechat (Saxicola torquata):

The male of the species is very boldly marked, and in many ways is very similar to the European Robin, which it was once believed to be closely-related to. Females can even be confused with young robins, and juveniles too:

Not all birds are insectivores, some prefer seeds, some mostly seeds but will also supplement their diets with some insects too. This is typical of sparrows, but also the Redpoll (Carduelis flammea) which moves in small flocks. The individual below is a male, but there were females on the wire directly below him as he kept watch while they fed from grass heads:

I photographed all of these birds, and many more, in the space of two hours on the path leading from the main site of the East Coast Nature Reserve along the railway tracks to Blackditch Woods, which due to the prolonged drought and very recent heavy, thundery rains is now a veritable jungle, and well worth seeing… but watch out for the horseflies. Below is yours truly on the path, with the fences which the birds like to perch on. The birds – about a dozen of them altogether – are behind the camera and preceding me as I walk along.

 

 

On Safari in Glendalough

There are two wonderful creatures which I have not managed to see properly with my own eyes – the Emperor Moth, which only flies from April to early June, and the Green Tiger Beetle. The male moths fly over the heather of bogs in daytime, looking for the mcuh larger resting females. They are as large as butterflies, and often are even larger. The beetles are shiny green, with huge eyes and remarkable markings. Both species are very common in Wicklow, but I have only once managed to catch a glimpse of male moths flying past me on the mountains. This time I wanted a photograph, of both creatures.

Looking over the Lower Lake towards the ancient monastic city of Glendalough.
Looking over the Lower Lake towards the ancient monastic city of Glendalough. There was quite a haze over the water. Note the round tower.

The title might seem like an exaggeration, but it’s not. A good walk in Glendalough on a sunny day can be quite a safari, with big animals as well as little. While the lowlands where covered in cloud I went up there one afternoon last week with might brother, and found it bathed in sunlight.  We followed the path up by the Poulnadrass Waterfall and the many timber steps up to the Spinc overlooking the Upper Lake. This also seemed like a good place for a heroic portrait:

27036891242_b8c9278a42The whole hilltop was covered in heather and Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus). Bilberries are widely known in Europe as blueberries, and are a very close relative of the true, North American Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum). I even found one bush already had berries growing on it – they start off red in colour, and only turn blue in late summer:

The bases of flowers swelling to become berries. They have a long way to go still.
The bases of flowers swelling to become berries. They have a long way to go still.

Two reddish Emperor Moths flew past us, but we could not chase them over the deep boggy mud. They flew too fast for photos. But then I spotted something very exciting – the largest wild lizard I have ever seen in Ireland, and it was basking on the steps:

A very handsome male Viviparous Lizard, in breeding colours.
A very handsome male Viviparous Lizard, in breeding colours.

The lizard was over 20 cm long, and very boldly patterned. We have only one native species of reptile in Ireland, the Viviparous Lizard – Zoothoca vivipara. It is sometimes referred to as the Common Lizard, but this species is not always as common as other species in Europe. It gets its name because the female can lay eggs, but will also hatch her eggs internally and then give birth to live young, like mammals, an ability which allows this creature to live in much colder climates than other lizards. In fact, they can be found at the Arctic Circle in Scandinavia. It’s very strange finding them on mountain tops, but apparently they’re able for the harsh conditions. And they had a great view:

From a viewpoint like this lizards can see their main enemies coming - birds-of-prey such as the Kestrel.
From a viewpoint like this lizards can see their main enemies coming – birds-of-prey such as the Kestrel.

After climbing to the highest point we began to descend to the Glenealo Valley above the Glendalough valley. Here we found much larger wildlife:

A feral goat above Glendalough.
A feral goat above Glendalough.

There was a large herd of ‘feral’ goats. These animals have been living wild for centuries so ‘wild’ is probably a more accurate term for them. However, the goats were not alone, as nearby there were plenty of deer:

This would appear to be a pregant female, and she was quite large. Deer in the Wicklow Mountains are mostly crossbreeds between native Red Deer and Japanese Sika, both of which are classed as seperate species, but are genetically the same species, which is why their offspring are fertile.
This would appear to be a pregant female, and she was quite large. Deer in the Wicklow Mountains are mostly crossbreeds between native Red Deer and Japanese Sika, both of which are classed as seperate species, but are genetically the same species, which is why their offspring are fertile.

From here we made the long, scenic descent to the floor of the Glenealo Valley and followed the long stoney trail to the very rear of Glendalough’s valley, which you can see here very well:

After crossing the handsome footbridge across the floor of the Glenealo Valley we followed the stream to the waterfalls dropping into Glendalough. You can see here where Glenealo terminates and Glendalough begins far below.
After crossing the handsome footbridge across the floor of the Glenealo Valley we followed the stream to the waterfalls dropping into Glendalough. You can see here where Glenealo terminates and Glendalough begins.

Just as we reached the bottom of the Glenealo Valley we spotted what appeared to be orchids next to the pools and streams, but the leaves were sticky and insects were lying dead on them – they were carnivourous plants:

Pinguicula - better known as Butterwort.
Pinguicula – better known as Butterwort.

There are three known species of Butterwort native to Ireland, and based on the leaves I suspect this one is Common Butterwort (Pinguicula vulgaris) but I’ll need to return to see them in flower to be certain of the species. Believe it or not, but there are actually more than ten wild species of carnivorous plant in Ireland.

We still had a bit of walking to do before we got back to the Upper Car Park, which has its own security in summer, and costs €4 for the day, which is worth it for peace-of-mind, and to be certain of a parking place.  We saw, but failed to photograph a few bird species, namely the Wheatear, Meadow Pipit and the huge chortling Ravens spiralling above us. Sadly, this walk is beyond the capabilities of wheelchairs or mobility scooters, but some day in the future this might not be entirely the case. However, the valley floor of Glendalough is almost completely wheelchair accessible and there is always lots to see and photograph, not to mention the beautiful sounds and scents of the natural world.

Cliffs of Adventure

Right now is a great time to check out the cliff areas of Wicklow. The cliffs of Bray Head in particular are wildlife paradises of the first order, and in summer are the best places to see lizards and the fascinating Leaf-cutter Bee. But this time of the year they are dominated by seabirds, which come inshore to breed.

Looking north along the Cliff Walk where fragrant yellow blossoms of gorse can be seen at the moment.
Looking north along the Cliff Walk where fragrant yellow blossoms of gorse can be seen at the moment.

 

Looking south along the Cliff Walk towards Greystones. To get the best of the light it's a good idea to set off walking around 11.30 am, south from Bray to Greystones. This way you are moving with the sunlight.
Looking south along the Cliff Walk towards Greystones. To get the best of the light it’s a good idea to set off walking around 11.30 am, south from Bray to Greystones. This way you are moving with the sunlight.

Down near the sea there are Cormorants, Shags, Kittiwakes, Black Guillemots, Razorbills, Herring Gulls, and immense Great Black-backed Gulls.

Cormorants in breeding plumage, high on the cliffs, just below the Cliff Walk.
Cormorants in breeding plumage, high on the cliffs, just below the Cliff Walk.

Especially interesting are the Fulmars, which will ‘buzz’ you as you walk the cliffs, ensuring you don’t get too close to their nests. These seabirds are related to petrels and albatrosses, the so-called “tube-noses”, birds which have tube-like nostrils which look like spectacles perched on their beaks.

 

Fulmars perched on a ledge below the Cliff Walk, where they will rear their chicks. Both the adults and chicks are infamous for their projectile vomiting of foul-smelling oil, which is said to be virtually impossible to get out of clothing, so don't get too close to them.
Fulmars perched on a ledge below the Cliff Walk, where they will rear their chicks. Both the adults and chicks are infamous for their projectile vomiting of foul-smelling oil, which is said to be virtually impossible to get out of clothing, so don’t get too close to them.

The Cliff Walk is also a terrific place to see plant-life too. A particularly interesting plant that grows on the bare faces of the cliffs is a lush succulent called Navelwort, on account of the leaves looking like bellies with navels. The leaves also have a fleshy feel to them. This plant is also known as Sea Pennywort.

Navelwort growing on the hard shale of a cliff.
Navelwort growing on the hard shale of a cliff.

Also, as you move southwards along the cliff you will have terrific views of the town of Greystones and the coastline beyond.

Looking down on Greystones from the Cliff Walk. A beautiful scene.
Looking down on Greystones from the Cliff Walk. A beautiful scene.

As you gradually descend towards the town the landscape widens, there are high sand cliffs which are home to Sand Martins, and many other birds. This part of the walk is also a good place to see other African migrants that live along the Wicklow coastline in summer, including the Wheatear. Large numbers of Wheatears have just arrived this month.

A Wheatear waiting for me to approach and scare insects into the air, which will be deftly snatched by the bird.
A Wheatear waiting for me to approach and scare insects into the air, which will be deftly snatched by the bird.

Finally, while Ireland is not the warmest of countries, it is very important to remember to bring a hat, and/or sunglasses, and some sunblock would not be a bad idea either. One person got very severe third-degree burns on these cliffs while out taking photos with me a few years ago, and it was days before he recovered. A leisurely stroll, stopping to take photos, usually takes two-and-a-half hours to complete.

Yours truly on the Cliff Walk towards Greystones - note the hat, and the bag containing a bottle of water, among other things. It was not a particularly hot day, but still sunny enough to get burned, and the weather will only improve from now on.
Yours truly on the Cliff Walk towards Greystones – note the hat, and the bag containing a bottle of water, among other things. It was not a particularly hot day, but still sunny enough to get burned, and the weather will only improve from now on.