Monday, October 14, 2013

Ireland: To the Far Southwest

Only a few weeks after our return from South-East Asia, Eileen and I were off again - this time, for a Joint Meeting of the Animals and Plants Committees of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Dublin, Ireland.  This was our first visit to the Emerald Isle, so Eileen and I booked off two weeks after the meeting for what turned out to be a circuit of the entire island.  Late March and early April in Ireland are far from a guarantee of good weather, but we were quite lucky, at least most of the time.  We began our trip, on March 27, 2012, with a drive to the most scenically famous part of the island, the peninsulas that jut out into the Atlantic Ocean from Ireland's extreme southwestern corner.

 It can be hard, in Ireland, to separate natural history from prehistory.   The signs of early human settlement, even at this extreme end of Europe, are many.   We got our first taste of Ireland's distant past at the Drombeg Stone Circle, a roughly 3,000-year-old monument near the south coast in County Cork. Though this is reportedly one of the most frequently visited bronze age sites in Ireland, this early in the season we had the place pretty much to ourselves.

Primrose (Primula vulgaris)
Along with the lovely scenery and the seventeen sandstone pillars that make up the circle itself, we found scattered signs of early spring – in particular, clumps of blooming Primrose (Primula vulgaris).

Further along, on the coast itself, we visited the Altar Wedge Tomb, a much older structure than the stone circle - perhaps four or five thousand years old.

Common Dog-Violet (Viola riviniana)
Here. too, were spring flowers, including Common Dog-Violet (Viola riviniana).

Stonechat (Saxicola torquata)
Though I wasn't carrying my telephoto gear on this trip, I was able to get close enough to this Stonechat (Saxicola torquata) for a reasonable photo.

This was our first (of many) chances to explore the rocky edge of the sea, where we could look out to the peaks of the Mizen Peninsula, the most southerly of the three southwestern peninsulas...

...or admire the rocks covered with clumps of yellow lichen and dotted with spring flowers growing from cracks in the stones.  The pink flowers here are Thrift (Ameria maritima).

Yellow Scales (Xanthoria parietina)
Most prominent among the lichens were the patches of Yellow Scales (Xanthoria parietina). Lichens are symbiotic combinations of a fungus and an alga, and the bright yellow colour of this one is produced by the outer coating of fungal thalli protecting the algae beneath.

Eileen was content to hang back a bit as I scrambled down to the shore to look for sea life.

Here I found Common Limpets (Patella vulgata) clinging to the rocks along the tideline…

Oarweed (Laminaria digitata)
…and fronds of Oarweed (Laminaria digitata), one of the subtidal giant kelps, stretching out beneath the water's surface.

We pressed on further into the southwest, finally reaching as far as you can go in a car: Mizen Head, Ireland's most southwesterly point.

We admired the spectacular cliffs, and were blown about by the spectacular winds.

Greater Golden Plover (Pluvialis apricaria)
From Mizen Head we turned back eastward, passing on our way the little town of Rosscarbery.  Here we passed a coastal estuary dotted with a few Mute Swans (Cygnus olor) and an immense brown mass of shorebirds.  Naturally I called a halt.

Greater Golden Plover (Pluvialis apricaria)
The birds proved to be a wintering flock of Greater Golden Plovers (Pluvialis apricaria), perhaps soon to depart for their breeding grounds.  Unlike the Pacific Golden Plovers (Pluvialis fulva) I see in Borneo, they may not have far to go; there are breeding populations in the highlands of both Great Britain and Ireland.

Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)
The Little Egret (Egretta garzetta) is a recent colonist in Ireland.  It first started breeding here only in 1997, but can now be found around much of the coast.  County Cork is its Irish stronghold.  Could the Irish birds be beneficiaries of global warming?

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