Dalkey Island's Heritage and Wildlife - A Photo Essay

July 21, 2021  •  Leave a Comment

It was a bright sunny first Sunday of July 2021 when I went to Dalkey Island, Co. Dublin - a magical offshore island only a few kilometres from home in Shankill. Indeed, Dalkey Island was once part of the medieval Manor of Shankill - a feudal territory owned by the Archbishop of Dublin that stretched south to the Glen of the Downs in Co. Wicklow. I was hoping to get a few shots of the terns at the breeding colony managed by BirdWatch Ireland and wardened this year by Joe Proudfoot. As well as the terns, there's a wealth of other nature and heritage to enjoy and photograph. Much of it is close enough for shots with a long lens without causing disturbance. I've a bit at the end on how I got my shots*.

I speeded from Coliemore Harbour across Dalkey Sound with Ken the Ferryman  - he's open everyday from 10am to 6pm during the summer - weather permitting. The fare is €10 return and only €5 for under 18's. The crossing takes about 5 minutes. And yes, as in the song by former Dalkey resident Chris De Burgh, you don't pay the ferryman until you get to the other side - nor do you have to spend a lifetime preparing for the journey! But if you do want to swot up beforehand, read the island's conservation plan by Dun Laoghaire Rathdown Co. Council. It has loads of detail on the island's geology, flora and fauna, archaeology, and history.

Once you get onto the island, it feels surprisingly remote and calm even though it's only a few hundred metres from the trophy houses of Coliemore and Sorrento Terrace. This is especially so when looking out to Dublin Bay and the Irish Sea - and if you turn your back on the land, you can really disconnect!


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Once you do get to the other side, be sure to read the sign on the landing pier to avoid trouble ahead and leave the island and its inhabitants as you find them. That's the last ferryman song reference, I promise! Also, here's a link to the information sign on the plaza above Coliemore Harbour.



Here's warden Joe showing us the off-limits Lamb Island where many of the terns nest. We weren't ogling to topless kayaker - honestly! Joe runs guided tours at 12 and 2pm on the weekends he's there.


The most prominent built heritage features are St. Begnet's church, the Martello tower and its associated gun battery. The island's conservation plan describes archaeological finds dating from the mesolithic period 8,000 years ago through the Bronze and Iron Ages, the Middle Ages and right up to the nineteenth century. Here's a great Wikipedia Commons map from the island's Wikipedia page that shows most of these features .


Dalkey Island is within two EU nature conservation designations defined by the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS). These are the Dalkey Islands Special Protection Area (SPA) under the EU Birds Directive and the Rockabill to Dalkey Island Special Area of Conservation (SAC) under the EU Habitats Directive. The island is also part of the proposed Natural Heritage Area (pNHA) "Dalkey Coastal Zone And Killiney Hill" that will eventually be protected in national law by the Wildlife Acts. Currently it's safeguarded in the county development plan. Again the conservation plan has a very good description of the island's natural heritage features. 

The Geohive Map Viewer from Ordnance Survey Ireland provides maps of Ireland's built and natural heritage. Red dots on this screenshot show the main archaeological sites and the pNHA is outlined in blue. The SPA covering the island and the waters immediately around it is bounded by the curved line. The remaining hatched area shows the nearby parts of the SAC that stretches 40 km northwards to Rockabill Island off Skerries in north Co. Dublin. If you go into the Geohive viewer and select the relevant layers in the data catalogue, you can click on these items to get their code numbers that will allow you to access lots more information via the National Monuments Service's Historic Environment Viewer and on the NPWS's listings of protected sites.

The National Monuments Service describes St. Begnet's church as a fine pre-Norman structure that survives to full height despite modifications, including the fireplace and the side window that were added during the early nineteenth century by workers building the nearby Napoleonic era fortifications.



The lichens on the church's inner walls have probably have growing there for the last two hundred years since the workers left. I think they're Cladonia from checking Irish Lichens. Warden Joe told us there's almost none lower down - starving goats ate them during the big snow of 2010. Happily, Dun Laoghaire Rathdown Co. Council takes hay out to them during hard winters, nowadays.


Centuries of salt and storm exposure hides the details on this cross-inscribed stone - even with sharpness, contrast and clarity pushed well up in Lightroom. I might do better another time with evening side lighting that would provide shadows to highlight the carvings.


Here's a few phone shots of the Martello Tower. It's one of nine surviving of sixteen built from Bray and Sandymount between 1803 to 1805 to counter a Napoleonic invasion that never came. Check out the Irish Martello Towers blog or the Wikipedia list of Dublin's Martello towers for much more on these coastal lookouts. If you look carefully from the Dalkey Island tower, you can see the tops of its neighbours to the south on the flank of Killiney Hill, and to the west near Bulloch Harbour. Of course that was the whole idea so that news of an invasion could be signaled along the coast in those pre telegraph times. Both of these towers are privately owned and hard to see from nearby roads. The Killiney tower is sometimes open to the public but you'll need to drop a few million euro to buy the Bartra tower as the country's priciest one bedroom house! Here's a link the map of the coastal walk route between them.


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Next is the associated gun battery although only a few Martello towers had these.

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Here's some Mallow and, I believe, orange Caloplaca lichens on the battery ramparts.


The main drama of the day was when Joe shouted that a Peregrine Falcon had caught a tern - I managed to get a few heavily cropped shots as it flew past the apartments near Coliemore Harbour with its prey. Predation of one protected species by another is always a quandary, but now that Birdwatch Ireland has removed rats from the island – a much more damaging predator – hopefully the breeding seabirds can tolerate occasional Peregrine strikes. From a conservation point of view, it's good that the Peregrine took a juvenile tern rather than a breeding adult. Juveniles have a much lower chance of surviving to breeding age whereas the predation of a long-lived adult could result in the loss of breeding attempts in this and future years. Later another Peregrine flew past, this time a recently fledged juvenile as shown by it's brown plumage. 

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Next are some shots of the terns themselves - this time at the sub-colony on the main island. These are Arctic Terns - the main species nesting on Dalkey & Lamb Islands although there are also a handful of Common Terns. There are warning signs and roped off areas to ensure human visitors don't stray into the colony but even 30m or so from the rope, the Arctic Terns approach you aggressively and even draw blood from your head with their beaks if you go closer - of course I didn't! The trick is to stay well back from the roped off area as they approach briefly to check you out. When they realize you are not coming any nearer they fly back to the colony. If you are ever near a seabird colony and terns or gulls are dive-bombing your head - you're way too close!

Apart from the risk of attack, please also remember, that it's illegal to photograph birds' eggs and nests without a license from the NPWS.  Check out this excellent article from BirdWatch Ireland with loads of advice on avoiding disturbance of breeding birds. 

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In spring, Oystercatchers move from their usual winter habitats on the Dublin Bay shoreline to nest on grassy parts of offshore coasts such as Dalkey Island. If you are within 50m or so of their eggs or chicks, you can't miss them "kleeping" anxiously around you. Despite the occasional disturbance from human visitors, a few pairs have raised several chicks this year on the island, One large chick followed its parent to the seaweedy shoreline to forage. 

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Here's a recently fledged Pied Wagtail that was also bred on the island - they look very tatty at this age!


Here's a group of roosting Shags and Cormorants on the rocks of Lamb Island watching a regatta outside Dun Laoghaire Harbour!


There's also a mixed breeding colony of Herring, Great Black-backed and Lesser Black-backed Gulls in the bracken on the outermost part of the island - largely hidden from the mainland. Here's three shots of adult Herring Gulls from various angles, followed by shots of nearly and newly fledged juveniles.

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Next we come to perhaps the most attractive of our large gulls, the Lesser Black-backed Gull (LBBG), with its yellow legs and dark grey back contrasting with its black flight feathers. When you're near their colony, they are much less aggressive than their bigger cousins, Great Black-backed Gulls (not pictured here). They will also attack people too near their nests - and much more forcefully than the smaller Arctic Terns! In contrast, Lesser Black-backed Gulls just fly over for a look - but if they are calling loudly at you, again you are too close!


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I was so happily snapping the LBBGs just before I left the island that I didn't even look at them properly! It was only when I was going through my images a few days later, I noticed two shots of a much darker bird with almost no contrast between the black flight feathers and the very dark mantle feathers. This is typical of the race intermedius that breeds in the Netherlands, Germany and southern Scandinavia. Separation of this form from the lighter graellsii that breeds in Britain and Ireland is complicated because the two forms overlap in The Netherlands - the so-called Dutch intergrades. Joe Hobbs' "A List of Irish Birds" says that intermedius is probably a rare winter and passage visitor. A search of Irish Birding pulled up about 43 reports going back to 2009. These reports include a well documented one seen by Collins Bird Guide author Killian Mullarney in the gull colony on Great Saltee Island on 18 June 2016. Several records of this dark form have also been well-documented in Co. Kerry between 2013 and May 2021. So this was nice birding bonus on a photography trip - but I wish I had noticed it on the day! I would have liked shots of it with the resident LBBGs and also flight shots. The bird was searched for the following weekend but not seen.

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For many people, the real wildlife stars of the island are the seals and it was great to see people watching them from a safe distance so that they could comfortably haul out on the rocks. Exploring Irish Mammals by Tom Hayden and Rory Harrington tells us there are two species of seals in Ireland - Grey and Common - but the latter is the rarer of the two in Ireland! Key features of the larger Grey Seal include its long flat or convex "roman nose" - versus Common's shorter face with a concave profile. Up close, the shape of the nostril openings is also useful - almost parallel in Grey but V-shaped in Common. With one possible exception, the head shapes of all these seals match Grey Seal, as does the nostril shape where I can see it. The possible exception is the nearly black one in the seventh shot - a pup from last year I believe. On first look, the face appears to have a concave profile but I think that's just the angle of view and when I look at the nostrils closely, they don't meet at the bottom. According to Hayden & Harrington, the great variety of colours, as seen in this shot, is also consistent with Grey Seal. The degree of wetness of the animal also influences the coat's colour somewhat - note how slick the recently hauled out seal in the fourth shot is. Having said that, the wet and dry portions of the coats of the seals in the sixth shot aren't hugely different. Other clues to the identification of these animals as Grey Seals are range and habitat. A census of seals in Dublin in 2018 found that of about 120 seals found in the area, only 5-7 were Common seals and that most of these occur on North Bull Island - although one was seen in the Dalkey Island area. The intertidal sandflats of North Bull Island are also the favoured habitat of Common Seals, whereas Grey Seals prefer to haul out on rocky shores like Dalkey Island.

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The other mammalian stars of Dalkey Island are the herd of feral - that is gone back to the wild - goats. These were first introduced to provide meat and milk to the builders of the Martello tower and battery. However, the current flock are not their descendants but a later introduction. Due to the small size of the island, they have suffered population crashes because of disease, starvation and perhaps inbreeding but as I said previously, nowadays the Co. Council supplements their winter feed with hay. 


So that's it - I'll finish up with another sign - the one marking Lamb Island as off limits during the terns' summer breeding season. I learned a lot during my visit of a few hours but there's a lot more to see on future visits.

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* Photography Info: I used my Canon 100-400 MkII lens mounted on a 7D MkII camera - sometimes supplemented with a 1.4x Mk III teleconverter to get almost 900mm (full frame equivalent) at f8 and still with autofocus on the central point. While this is a very versatile combo, I should stress that addition of the teleconverter, by limiting autofocus to the central point, makes it much harder to get long range shots of birds in flight. The speed of autofocusing is also much slower - and a delay of a tenth of a second is an eternity for flight shots! As I was travelling light with just binoculars, camera and lens- well relatively light  - this lot still weighs 5kg - I used my Huawei P20 Pro for wide angle shots. I often do this in night mode - even in daylight! Night mode uses some sort of HDR (high dynamic range) to avoid blowing out detail in very contrasty midday scenes. These look a bit overdone on the phone screen but they're fine on the computer, especially if I reduce contrast and clarity a little in Lightroom.

** Acknowledgements  Thanks to several birders who gave me additional information on the forms of Lesser Black-backed Gulls.



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