Dalkey Tidy
Brent GoosePainted Lady
Wildlife Newsletter for the Township of Dalkey
July 2006 - Michael Ryan

   In the last few days of May, after the torrential rain had been replaced by bitter northerly winds it was nice to have some benefit from the unseasonable weather and be able to see Gannets circling and diving into the sea a few hundred yards out from White Rock beach. I mentioned before this side of the hill is often sheltered from the cold winds and the much calmer waters in Killiney Bay probably made it a lot easier to see the fish under the surface. The Gannet’s large size and brilliant white plumage with distinctive black wing tips makes them easily identifiable from a distance. Gannets only began to breed on Ireland’s Eye in 1989, and have built up a very successful colony of over 250 pairs there, and this is probably where these birds were from.
More commonly seen from the beach or Vico Road is another seabird which glides out from the cliffs on stiff wings. This is the Fulmar, not a seagull but a member, like the Albatross (Fulmars are sometimes called the‘Northern Albatrosses), of the Petrel family. The name Petrel derives from St. Peter and refers to the birds of this family which skim low over the water giving the effect they are walking on the water’s surface. In recent years a number of bird species have moved their breeding range north in response to milder winters and warmer summers (do not know what they would make of the ‘springs’ though). Fulmars expanded their breeding range too but in the opposite direction, moving down from the north. Before the early twentieth century Fulmars bred in the far north specifically Greenland and Iceland. In the early years of the last century they began to be seen breeding in the northern islands of Scotland and gradually began to appear on cliffs all around the British Isles and the first breeding birds in Ireland were recorded in Mayo in 1911. One theory for their expansion is that they followed whaling ships south feeding on the discarded offal. They also feed on plankton, fish and squid. When seen flying they are usually seen gliding on stiff wings barely flapping them at all a manoeuvre that enables them to travel vast distances using minimal energy. A closer look at these birds reveals a very unusual, but very handsome, head. Black eyes surrounded by what looks like mascara but is in fact dark plumage designed to cut down on glare when the bird is searching on glistening sea surfaces for food. The bird has a very unusual bill as well, with what looks like a small tube on top of it. This is used to expel salt that the bird ingests through seawater when it feeds off the water’s surface. Fulmars often don’t begin to breed until they are eight to ten years old and they only have a single chick every year. Small birds like Blue Tits rarely live more then a few years and have up to twelve chicks every year whereas long lived birds can concentrate on bringing up a single chick every year over a long period. Fulmars can certainly be long lived, with birds that have been ringed in the 1950’s, when they were breeding adults at least six years old, still alive now and still nesting and raising chicks well into their 50’s. Sadly our Dalkey birds sometimes nest where they are vulnerable to human disturbance and on a number of occasions I have seen people throwing rocks at them from the railway line and the cliff tops, an act of gross mindlessness trying to injure these lovely creatures.
Fulmars do have a unique way of defending themselves when they are sitting on their nest which is to expel the contents of their stomach, a foul smelling oil on to the approaching predator, basically projectile vomiting on whatever approaches. When done to other birds it can actually destroy the oils on their plumage that keeps them waterproof. This habit explains the origin of their name Fulmar an Icelandic word meaning ‘foul gull’.