Frank McGourty

Written by:
Frank McGourty

IBIOLI Secretary, Hons

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Visiting the Saltee Islands

The day, Saturday June 6th, was our planned visit to the Great Saltee Island, just over 5km off the coast of Wexford; this was Activity No 6 of the IBIOLI Activity Series for 2015. The Great Saltee is the most famous bird sanctuary in Ireland and is very popular with both day-trippers and birdwatchers alike.

Activity No 6 of the IBIOLI Activity Series 2015. Institute of Biology of Ireland visits the Great Saltee Island, Co. Wexford. The day, Saturday June 6th, was our planned visit to the Great Saltee Island, just over 5km off the coast of Wexford; this was Activity No 6 of the IBIOLI Activity Series for 2015. The Great Saltee is the most famous bird sanctuary in Ireland and is very popular with both day-trippers and birdwatchers alike. These islands are privately owned and are rated as one of the world’s major bird sanctuaries.

Two boat loads of members of the IBIOLI and the public left the very beautiful and peaceful harbour at Kilmore Quay. We had just rounded the habour wall and into the open sea when that apparent ‘peace’ was very soon shattered. The open sea still running very strong, was accompanied by a stiff SE wind that churned up rather challenging waves and cross currents. Declan, our skipper urged us to take shelter in the cabin. The throttle was opened ‘full’ and the roller coaster, wave vaulting trip to the island had begun.

Waves crashed into our boat and the salt water sprayed over its deck as our competent skipper read the currents and rode the waves until he landed us safely onto the island. One of our group described the sea journey as a most memorable element of the trip.

A stone plaque dedicated to Prince Michael the First who purchased the island in December 1943, welcomed us onto the island. Since his death in January 1998 the islands are now owned by his five sons Michael, John, Manfred, Paul, Richard and daughter Anne. He is buried in the family vault in Bannow Bay, Co.Wexford. His title was passed on to his eldest son, Michael.

We were so fortunate to have the expertise of Chris Honan, an ornithologist. His knowledge of the island and the birds that live and breed there go back for many years, and he freely shared that great resource with our group. He led us to the ‘Throne’, and through a bluebell field to the first bird colony.

Sitting there on the rocks along the island’s edge, we absorbed the absolute beauty of the island, its birds, the sea and sunshine; Chris Honan set the whole scene by placing it in the context of Europe’s largest sea bird breeding colony as he identified for us the Guillimots, the Razor Bills, the Oyster Catchers, the Puffins (just a few as they return to their nesting burrows towards nighfall), Greater Black-Backed and Lesser Black-Backed Gulls, Herring Gulls, Choughs, Fulmers, Kittiwakes (with the black wing tips), Gannets (with their distinctive yellow heads), Rock Pippets, Shags (with those green eyes), and Cormorants.

He enlightened us further by gradually unreeling useful and fascinating facts on particular species – their life expectancy, their sea journeys, their breeding and feeding habits, the hierarchy of nesting on the rock faces and their particular adaptive characteristics such as egg shape/structure, flight take off platforms and other interesting items of information that gripped the imagination of the whole group. He also explained that the Saltees lie on an important migratory route and a popular stopping-off place for spring and autumn migrants. As we sat on the rocks eating our lunch snacks, we observed a number of the breeding population of Grey Seals. This is one of the very few breeding sites in eastern Ireland. Up to 120 breeding seals are present in autumn and up to 20 pups are produced annually.

This first resting spot provided us with microcosmic views of what we were later likely to see on the island. And indeed, much more was to follow as we proceeded to cross to the North Eastern end of the island. Chris and his colleague, Tom Kealy, also an ornithologist gradually, and tantalisingly fed us with just sufficient information to raise our eagerness and wonderment of what we were to expect in that NE corner of the island – but they did not kill off our anticipation!

In fact, Jack who was ahead of the group and who had a sneak preview as he peered over the knoll, came chasing back to meet the main body of the group advising them to creep over the hill and allow the indescribable Gannet colony gradually unfold before their eyes, just over the horizon. He had been enthralled and ecstatic with the excitement of seeing those thousands of pairs of breeding Gannets and their chicks in that orderly chaos on the tilting rock as if it were orientated towards the sun. In a few moments the rest of the group were able to join with him in their absolute admiration of nature. Watching at close up I could only marvel at the total control of those large Gannets as they come in to land and take to the air against a stiff wind. Even more fascinating was watching them dive into the sea from +25 metres; they penetrate the waves to great depths at speeds of up to 100km/h. Their bodies are adapted to this entry speed by having air pockets under their wings and in their wing feathers. Even a high velocity bullet will almost stop dead after penetration of a few feet into the water!

The Gannet colony has continued to expand and Chris pointed out where new colonies have established over the past 20 years. Vast numbers of Guillemots and Razorbills, and the occasional Shag, intermingled with the Gannets, also pack the ledges and create a frightful incessant din after a return from a fishing trip which only at night abates a little. The Fulmars too play their part in this vast kaleidoscope of splendour as they float effortlessly on the updraughts. The Greater Black-Backed Gull protected their chicks on the ground with noisy ‘squaking’ or ‘dive-bombed’ would-be intruders with a shrieking screech – a good reason to wear a hat!

With reluctance, we made our way back along the cliffs to view again the great variety of sea birds and to reinforce our identification skills. In fact, one of our members was heard to utter that he ‘didn’t want to leave the island yet’. On our way and as evening fell, the sight of the Puffins congregating in small groups near their nestling burrows presented a marvellous sight.

We departed the island in two boats but this time the seas has greatly abated (much to the pleasure of a few of us). Our destination was a source of fish and chips and other great fish dishes in the exceptionally busy ‘blue coloured’ restaurant close to the quay. Not only did we all enjoy the marvellous island experience and, as the photo shows, some of our Council members also enjoyed their fish and chips.