circa.4300 BC to 2019 AD
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Wildlife Newsletter for the Township of Dalkey     
                   October / 2019 - Michael Ryan

A Wheatear on Tory Island taking a break from a very long migration                         Image: Michael Ryan

    A friend took a lovely photo of a Wheatear with his phone as it perched on the wall at Coliemore Harbour in early September. He was surprised he could get so close to it and wondered were they usually so indifferent to humans. I didn’t think so but I did speculate that some of the wheatears that pass through here on their return migration to Africa may actually have been nesting in Greenland and may never have been in contact with people. Wheatears that breed in Greenland and even farther north in Arctic Canada are the same species as Irish Wheatears but are of the subspecies leucorhoa. They’re larger than our Irish breeding wheatears but you’d need better identification skills than mine to confidentially identify them. Collins Bird Guide says these particular birds are ‘among the world’s real long distance migrants (moreover cross wide oceans, estimated to involve 2,400km nonstop flights in 30 hours)’.
   Wheatears are usually the first passerine migrant to arrive in the spring, often appearing on coastlines in early March and I used to be puzzled by seeing individuals, evidently new arrivals, on Dalkey Island as late as June. Dick Coombes of Birdwatch told me these were almost certainly birds of the leucorhoa subspecies heading farther north whose breeding grounds would only be warming up in early summer.
   We’d seen a few Wheatears the weekend before on Tory Island off the north- west coast of Donegal. Like the Dalkey bird they looked remarkably fresh and pristine and were very conspicuous in the almost totally treeless landscape. The forecast for the weekend we were going to Tory Island predicted gale force winds and since it’s a 9 mile, 45 minute ferry crossing over North Atlantic seas to get there I wouldn’t have been too disappointed if the ferry had been cancelled. It wasn’t and although earlier sailings had been postponed it was due to low tides not rough seas. The sun was shining when we did eventually set off for the 4.30 sailing. It was fascinating watching an island inhabitant returning home with a trailer full of new bedroom furniture which was lifted down to the deck. Most of us wouldn’t be bringing our shopping home by boat and it gave a foretaste of how different life is for the approximately 140 residents of the island. Was a bit wary of another returning inhabitant who had a rifle leaning against the harbour wall beside him but he turned out to be a very friendly chap who said he never shot for sport but was planning on culling some of the rabbits who have reached huge proportions and are destroying a lot of the land surface. He told us numbers of Basking Sharks had been seen around the island earlier in the summer but sadly they’d departed. A bit choppy in the bay as we set off and by the time we reached open sea the ferry was crashing through the waves with water flooding over the deck and a crewman cheerfully distributing sick bags to the passengers. Thankfully I didn’t need one but was very glad to disembark when we reached the island. Tory rises to high cliffs at one end which are home to big colonies of seabirds as well as Chough and Peregrine and it’s also one of the last strongholds of Corncrake although sadly the number of male birds calling is only in single figures. We were too late in the year for them and the windy weather didn’t help but for a few sunny hours on Sunday morning we had a walk to the flat west side of the island and that’s when we saw the wheatears.

   Later we attempted to walk to the steep end of the island but heavy rain forced us to take shelter against the wall of a house. We were rescued by a very friendly lady driver who offered us a lift back to the hotel. She told us she was one of the five teachers at the secondary school which had six pupils. Our return journey the following Monday didn’t look promising. We woke to a rain splattered window, the wind blew and outside the harbour foam-tipped waves crashed against the breakwater and a mighty swell under a angry sky had us a bit apprehensive. It was a far cry from most people’s usual Monday morning commute. The few locals travelling positioned themselves outside flat against the cabin wall at the back of the ship and didn’t move from there for the 45 minute crossing but it was actually a very exhilarating experience due in no small part to our companion outriders. Gannets flew alongside us close enough to see their beautiful blue eyes some occasionally plunging into the sea though it seemed almost incomprehensible that they could spot a fish under the churning foam. Shearwaters crested the waves, their long thin wings outstretched as they tipped from side to side alternating their dark wings and back with flashes of snow white undersides. Great Shearwaters had been spotted from Tory in preceding weeks but I couldn’t get a good enough look at these birds and they may well have been the more common Manx Shearwaters which can be seen off Dalkey’s coast. But the most impressive birds accompanying our vessel were undoubtedly Fulmars. Used to seeing them gliding effortlessly out of the cliffs at White Rock, drifting in gentle wide circles, here they were in their perfect element, skimming over a raging sea. They would glide past the boat which itself was fairly moving along then they’d double back and scan a wings riding the thermals occasionally dipping a wingtip to within inches of the waves as they scanned the water. Fulmars are surface feeders and their spectacular breeding range expansion in the last century is usually credited to their habit of following whaling ships and trawlers, feeding on the discarded offal, so they may have associated the ferry with a fishing boat. Our own breeding fulmars in Dalkey were last surveyed by Birdwatch Ireland in 2001 when they found 6 pairs of potentially breeding birds though I’m inclined to think there haven’t been as many in recent years.

Fulmars on the wall above Whiterock beach in Dalkey Image: Michael Ryan