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Nature's Calendar June (by Liz Sheppard)

 

 Horn Head Cliffs

Horn Head Cliffs 

 

Spectacular Sea Cliffs

Donegal’s magnificent coastline includes some of the most spectacular cliffs in the country. The edge of Sliabh Liag / Slieve League which plunges for 300 metres straight into the ocean is reckoned to be the highest sea cliff in Europe. We have the famous seabird colonies on the north side of Toraigh / Tory Island and along miles of cliff at Horn Head. And from the most northerly point on the Irish mainland at Malin Head, there are great cliff views in both directions towards Dunaff and Glengad Head.

Cliff faces with their exposed layers of rock formations are like an open book for geologists. The “raised beaches” at Malin are flat grassy terraces rising in steps from the shore, marking various heights of sea level in the distant past – an outstanding example of a late-glacial coastline. And seven miles offshore to the north-east, the rocky island of Inishtrahull has another fascinating story, for it sits on a bedrock base which is the only rock of its type in Ireland – and at 1780 million years old, it is also the most ancient. It matches rocks in the Outer Hebrides and others in Greenland and Canada, providing a vital clue as to how continents and oceans shifted around in the early history of the Earth.

 

Packing the shelves

A busy seabird colony is like a crowded apartment block with no front wall – and at this time of year the frenzy of family life is in full view. Different heights and types of cliff attract different species. Fulmars like to nest near the top where they can use their powerful gliding abilities to best advantage. These are often mistaken for gulls, but are more closely related to the Albatross, with their characteristic tubular beak-nostrils, used for filtering sea water. This species has had a dramatic population explosion from their original base in Iceland. They nested in Ireland for the first time in 1911, exactly a century ago, and are now common breeders all around the coast.

Shags tend to favour the basement, and build substantial nests on the lower rocks. Guillemots don’t build any sort of nest, but line themselves shoulder to shoulder along the narrow ledges, the parents taking it in turns to incubate the single egg held between their feet. Razorbills prefer to tuck themselves into crevices and holes in the rock, while Puffins nest in deep holes in the grassy parts of the cliff. The main gull among the throng is the graceful little Kittiwake which builds a solid nest of seaweed, grass and droppings, often on the most precarious projections of rock. The other gull you might notice is the bandit of the colony, the Greater Black-backed, who patrols the ledges and snatches eggs and young birds at every opportunity.

 

Whale Spotting

Perched high on a cliff with a telescope, or a good pair of binoculars, is where you have the best chance of spotting Cetaceans (Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises). Flocks of feeding seabirds can indicate a large shoal of fish which might have attracted a party of Cetaceans as well. Look out for water spouts from blow-holes, or glimpses of fin or tail. Many will be just passing by on migration, but families of Dolphins or Porpoises can stay around for weeks or months, and often enjoy swimming along close to boats, where you can get great views. Twenty-four cetacean species have been recorded in Irish waters – nearly one third of the world’s total. Most are seen between May and October, but they can appear at any time of year. You can check out the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group’s website (www.iwdg.ie) for recent sightings around Donegal.

 

The Celtic Crow

Donegal is one of the main strongholds of the Chough (pronounced “chuff”) – a very rare and special member of the Crow family, listed as endangered in Europe. In northern Europe it is largely confined to the Celtic fringes – the west coast of Ireland, West Wales, the Isle of Man and some Scottish islands. Ireland holds about 65% of the Irish and British population. Slightly larger than a Jackdaw, a Chough is easily identified by its bright red legs and long curved red beak which it uses to dig deep for food items. Frost-free coastal grasslands are their favoured habitat, where the ground is soft enough for probing all year round, and they are also closely associated with cliffs where they often nest in summer and gather in large roosting flocks in winter.

 

Four to find this month:

Elder Flowers: The Elder is a large woody shrub, found in rambling overgrown hedges, and often around old wallsteads and gardens. Its big creamy discs of blossom are heavily scented and have long been used to make white wines, soft drinks and aromatic teas.

Speckled Wood Butterfly: our most common woodland butterfly, found throughout the summer. Look out for individuals defending territory along hedgerows, or in pools of sunlight among the trees.

Yellow Flag Iris: found along undisturbed lake shores and ditches and in old marshy meadows. Sadly, as these wild and watery habitats are dwindling, this tall elegant plant is not nearly as common as it used to be.

Spotted Flycatcher: a summer visitor, which is one of the last migrant birds to arrive from Africa. They like to nest in ivy or creeper, and are usually found around big old trees, often in parks and gardens. Famous for their fly-catching technique, they tend to have a few favourite perches from which they dive out to snatch insects on the wing, returning again and again to the same spot.

 

An Action of the County Donegal Heritage Plan

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