Take waking up at exactly the same time every morning. Most of us do it as a matter of course: we rise to an alarm set to make sure we get the kids up for school or that we get to work on time. There’s no doubt that routines work, the trouble is that our bodies get programmed to the routine, so that even when we don’t need to follow them, we often do.
That’s why I was lying wide awake at 7:30 am somewhere in a Dublin suburb listening to the tit-for-tat exchange of a song thrush and a robin vying to outdo each other with bursts of song. It was the morning after a friend’s stag night, and an early start was the last thing I needed… but that’s routine for you.
On the face of it perhaps you wouldn’t expect wildlife to feature much on a trip to the big city, but once you’re tuned in to nature it’s amazing what you notice in the most unlikely of places. On the Cork-Dublin drive for example I counted 3 buzzards, a dozen kestrels a sparrowhawk and the occasional fox. That’s not a bad tally, and can be a good way to while away the hours on a long journey, as long as you’re not driving of course.
The small suburban garden of the house we were staying in was full of life too. Bumblebees buzzed around the early-flowering plants, busy in slow motion: foraging languidly for the first of the spring nectar. House sparrows chirped cheerily from a nearby bush; blackbirds, song thrushes, and robins filled the air with song while magpies ferried back and forth, bulking up their scruffy-looking nest with unwieldy twigs. Wood pigeons gorged themselves on late ivy berries watched by an imperious-looking hooded crow perched on high.
All sorts of insects, spiders, woodlice, plants, mosses, lichens and encrusting algae thrived on this tiny patch: despite it’s modest size, and almost certainly without it’s owners’ design or intervention, here was a miniature wildlife sanctuary right in the heart of suburban Dublin. It was surrounded by countless others, and the thought crossed my mind that collectively, and all but unnoticed, I was looking at a significant and valuable piece of habitat for Dublin’s urban wildlife.
By this time my companions had woken up, and after that ultimate “morning-after” cure, the full Irish breakfast, it was time to contemplate how we’d fill the time before hitting the road back to West Cork. I suggested a bracing walk on the coast somewhere to clear the head. A chorus of disapproval ensued. The result: I was dropped off on Bull Island, while they headed back to the City to do a spot of shopping.
While I’d heard about Bull Island through other people’s posts on the Ireland’s Wildlife and Birdwatch Ireland pages on Facebook, this was my first time visiting the site. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I certainly wasn’t expecting somewhere a stone’s throw from Dublin City Centre to rival any rural nature reserve.
Bull Island is a sand island in Dublin Bay just off Dollymount and Raheny. It formed from natural tidal deposits following the completion of the North Bull Wall, constructed in the 1820s in an effort to divert the buildup of silt from the entrance to the Liffey. The island consists of a mixture of salt marsh, mud flats, sand dunes and a 5 kilometer long sandy beach on the seaward side. It was declared a national nature reserve in 1988, and is listed by UNESCO as a bioshphere reserve.
Wildfowl peppered the salt marsh either side of the causeway as I walked onto the island proper. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of pale bellied brent geese were accompanied teal, shoveler and wigeon, and a selection of common waders foraged in the muddy shallows. On the beach side of the island rafts of gulls floated just off shore and flocks of finches skirted the dunes. On the far north of the beach I was delighted to see a dozen or so seals hauled out just above the lapping tide.
As I moved back into the dunes the sky erupted with the cascading trills of the skylark’s song. I was just a quarter-of-an-hour from the city centre… but it seemed a million miles away.
This column was published in the Weekend magazine of the Irish Independent on Saturday the 07 April 2012