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Tuesday, 22 August 2017

The coast less travelled. Dingle Bay's wilder spots

There's nothing quite like a good auld bird survey to get you out of your comfort zone and into areas were few have been. This spring and summer, there was to be a national Peregrine Falcon survey, organised by the Irish Raptor Survey Group, with the input of National Parks and Wildlife Service, BirdWatch Ireland, and many keen volunteers. Armed with OS maps and aerial photos of our assigned areas, the mission was to locate nesting Peregrines, wherever they might be.

The object of all our attention, a magnificent Peregrine Falcon, location withheld (All photos: M.O'Clery, June and July 2017).

Peregrines will most often breed on cliffs, though of course that might include man-made versions, such as castles, quarries and even high rise flats, gasometers and church steeples. Not too many gasometers in Kerry however. The survey brief was to visit each and every such cliff in a 5km square and establish whether they were breeding. I was to cover around 20 such squares, almost all in Kerry.

Stunning coastline, Dingle Bay, near Lispole.

Most suitable cliff habitat in Kerry is along the coast, though of course there is some in the higher mountains inland, but it was quite an eye-opener to realise how extensive and remote some of these areas were. Huge chunks of coastline in Kerry have no roads nearby, barely any paths, and are quite some distance from either a house or road if you should get into difficulty. A broken ankle, a tumble over boulders, your iPhone running out of battery or the realisation that you left the immersion on and you need to get back home RIGHT NOW are all issues that need to be considered before you set off to some of these remoter spots.

Out of curiosity, I did a map (below) of the general areas I was to survey, showing just how much of west Kerry might be considered 'remote'. Check out just how much of the coastline is away from roads and houses. The pale blue grid lines are 1km squares.

'Remoteness map' for west Kerry (M.O'Clery). 
Areas in black are within 200m of a proper road or an inhabited house. Areas in pink are 200m to 1km from safety, tv and electric kettles. Areas in orange are 1km or more from help and thus firmly in 'Bear Grylls' territory.

But away from the coastal roads and popular tourist lay-bys along the coast there are huge swathes of gorgeous unspoilt coastline, and with a variety of interesting birds to be seen. Here's a range of images which I hope conveys the beauty of these spots and which, until the Peregrine Survey came along, I was largely oblivious to.

Sit down a moment, put the phone away, and soak it in. Coast near Trabeg. 

In the photo above, the island just right of centre had a colony of around 50 pairs of Herring Gull. Not bad for a Red-listed species. On the stack to the right, nesting Shag, while Fulmars and Rock Dove nested along the cliffs to the left.

Stack, near Trabeg.

This prominent landmark can be seen from as far away as the road on the Dingle side of the Conor Pass, but the adjacent coastline has no paths or roads, so it is a bit of a hike to see it close up, but well worth the effort. Although it has nesting Fulmar and Shag it is also used on occasions by rock climbers, as evidenced by multiple climbing ropes left littering the rock faces.

Shag nest, with climbing rope adornment.

Nesting Fulmar, Dingle Bay.

Almost all sections of vertical or near vertical cliff in Dingle Bay have nesting Fulmars albeit in low densities. There were rarely more than about 15 pairs in any single view, but virtually all sections of coast had at least a few, often tucked away under boulders or ledges. Numbers are hard to quantify, but there must have been 150 to 200 pairs along the entire stretch from Inch to Slea Head.

Beach near Kells.

This spot looked like something in Thailand with lush greenery stretching down to a pristine sandy beach. You'll need a boat though, as there is no access other than by the sea. 

Beach near Kells.

And just offshore from this beach, Gannets were diving into crystal clear water, allowing a rare opportunity to actually follow their dives under the water.

Iveragh Peninsula on a sunny day.

Aw, jaysus. Gorgeous. It might be considered an Irish cliche, but this (above) is a real place, with real thatched cottage and real uninhabited, remote, vast mountains stretching into the distance. AND it's the Iveragh Peninsula on a perfect sunny day. Rarer than a royal flush in a poker game, with a live Dodo, during an eclipse.

If anyone from Failte Ireland is interested in the location of this image for their promotional literature, I am open to persuasion to reveal the location with, of course, the usual finders fee.

Skylark, near Anascaul

Plenty of song within earshot, thanks to the near continuous efforts of the local Skylarks, though this one chose a slight rise on the cliff top to woo the ladies rather than flying high over its territory. Lazy.

Rock Dove, near Minard

A much underrated resident of the Kerry coastline, or at least the rockier, cliffier bits. Most, like this one, are pure bred, untainted by the city version which attracts such disdain from birders and non-birders.

Juvenile Raven, near Minard.

During the survey, Peregrines were scarce enough, though a few pairs of Kestrel enlivened things, but there were several family parties of Raven still patrolling the cliffs in loose gangs.

Herring Gull nesting near Minard.

Like Fulmars, there are low densities of Herring Gull nests all along the cliffs of Dingle Bay. Not as plentiful as Fulmar, but important nonetheless. Many, like the one above, were nesting singly, rather than in the more typical colonies.

Juvenile Wheaters, near Trabeg.

The nest was in the low stone wall just below where the birds are perched.

Sea stack, Iveragh Peninsula.

About 20 pairs of Lesser Black-backed Gulls and 15 or so of Herring Gulls were nesting on this sea stack, west of Kells, as well as a few more Fulmars and another family party of Ravens. 

Now, I'm not a betting man, though last time I checked online it was odds on that I would become one within the next year and Paddy Power were even offering 5-2 that I would within the next 2 years, so obviously I put a hundred quid on that, but I bet if someone was brave enough or mad enough to land on this stack at night they would find a fairly large undetected Storm Petrel colony on it too. Lots of tussocky grass, not a hope of a land predator reaching it. Looks perfect. Maybe even Manx Shearwaters?

Waterfall, near the Conor Pass. No Peregrines here, but there were several pairs of Common Sandpiper around the lake.

I've lived in Kerry for 17 years now, and until the Peregrine Survey came along had no idea this hugely impressive lake and waterfall existed. Officially, Ireland's largest is Powerscourt Waterfall in Co. Wicklow, at 121m high. So how come this beautiful spot doesn't even get a mention when you Google 'Irish waterfalls'? It doesn't even have a name on the Ordnance Survey maps, yet by my own estimate is 180m high. 

Am I missing something? Perhaps like mountains, there is a clear definition of what a waterfall is and this one is not 'vertical' enough? The photo above was taken after a largely dry summer, so I can only imagine it is many times more impressive after a more typical Kerry wet month of heavy rain. There are 18 different types of waterfall, in case you were wondering, including a 'plunge', a 'punchbowl', a 'horsetail' and a 'chute' (a full list is HERE). I think this one best suits the definition 'cascade', a waterfall which descends over a series of rocky steps. A hidden gem though and, again, if Failte Ireland want to know where it is, they'll need to dig deep into their corporate pockets for me to reveal the location. For the rest of you, it's on the east side of Lough Duin, 3.8km north-east of the Conor Pass on the Dingle Peninsula.

Peregrine Falcon (location withheld).

The results of the Peregrine Survey are being collated and analysed now and will be available soon. We'll lash the relevant Kerry stuff on the blog when it is published.