Whales and eagles star on wild West Cork weekend

Atlantic Grey Seal

An atlantic grey seal — a regular treat on our Discover Wildlife Weekends.

I’d been afraid to look at the forecast all week.

The weather is the bane of anyone organising an outdoor-based activity in Ireland, and the last few weeks had been dreadful. There was no real sense things were going to improve either… but with a Discover Wildlife Weekend planned I simply had to bite the bullet and check.

I fired up two different weather apps on the phone and held my breath.

Lo and behold… for once both apps seemed to agree. Friday, they said, would be wet and windy, but would clear by the evening, and Saturday was looking dry and clear on the south coast, albeit with a moderate breeze from the south-west. We could live with that.

A quick call to Cork Whale Watch confirmed that Saturday morning was indeed looking suitable for a boat trip in search for whales and other marine wildlife, and the forecasters were predicting it hold fine for the rest of Saturday into Sunday… just about. Brilliant!

All aboard Cork Whale Watch vessel, The Holly Jo

The group aboard the Cork Whale Watch vessel, The Holly Jo at Reen Pier, Union Hall on Saturday morning

Sure enough as Friday evening rolled in the clouds rolled out. Blue skies emerged and Rosscarbery estuary was bathed in almost ethereal evening light as we welcomed guests to the Celtic Ross Hotel (of course I forgot to take a photo… doh). After an introductory talk on Ireland’s wildlife and biodiversity to set the scene, we set off along the pier road in search of nocturnal wildlife.

No otters this time around unfortunately (there were three last spring, just opposite the hotel), but a quick look with the torch along the stone wall revealed a hive of minibeast activity — slugs and snails, woodlice, insects and milipedes. It’s amazing just how much life emerges in damp coolness after dark — and all you need to reveal it is a torch.

Shining a light into the water of the estuary revealed common prawns, shrimps and shore crabs battling for scraps, with grey mullet cruising the shallows in search of a meal. A little further down the estuary jumping fish gleamed silver in the torchlight as they sought to evade something bigger beneath the surface.

It was quite cool, and a bit windy, which meant there weren’t many bats around — however the bat detector sprang into life a couple of times — the first time for a common pipistrelle and the second for a soprano pipistrelle. It was the first time some of the group had heard a bat through a bat detector — always a fascinating moment.

Minke whales, bonxies and… house martins!

Minke whale

A fleeting glimpse of a surfacing minke whale (photo © Padraig Whooley, used with permission).

The following morning dawned bright and sunny, with a scattering of patchy cloud. As we gathered on the deck of the Cork Whale Watch vessel, The Holly Jo the anticipation was palpable. It’s always like that when you get on a whale-watching boat — especially with a skipper as experienced as Colin Barnes at the wheel. You never know what you might find.

Before leaving the harbour we’d seen black guillemot, cormorant and the usual gull species: herring, lesser-black-backed, great-black backed and black headed. There were masses of gannets diving in the harbour mouth… but no sign of cetaceans… yet. On the bird front we soon added shag and fulmar to the tally, along with chough, raven, and house martin — the latter were nesting under cliff overhangs… neatly answering the question “where did house martins nest before there were houses”.

We headed west, around Cape Clear Island in seas that were perhaps a bit more lumpy than forecast. One or two aboard looked like they regretted a big breakfast, but the Holly Jo is a remarkably stable vessel, and most people were enjoying the ride.

A marauding bonxie or great skua

A great skua, or bonxie on the lookout for a meal to steal. (photo © Padraig Whooley, used with permission)

It wasn’t long before we had our first minke whale sighting (of six in total). Although sub-optimal sea conditions made for more fleeting encounters than usual, it’s always thrilling to see these majestic animals at sea.

For some on board this was their first encounter with a wild whale — and that’s an experience that stays with you forever.

During the trip we also encountered our smallest cetacean, the diminutive harbour porpoise, and at least two basking sharks, although the swell made these difficult to spot, so not everyone caught a glimpse of them.

On the seabird front we saw gannets, razorbills and guillemots aplenty, Manx shearwaters banking effortlessly over the waves on long outstretched wings, and a couple of marauding great skuas, or Bonxies — fantastic birds that often harry other seabirds to purloin their victims hard-earned dinner.

Off the wild Atlantic… back on the Wild Atlantic Way

White-tailed eagle, West Cork, Ireland

Distant, heavily cropped shot of a white tailed eagle on the West Cork coast — magnificent views through the scope were a highlight of the weekend.

It was a great trip, but after 5 hours aboard the Holly Jo we were all ready to get back on terra firma. After a quick coffee-stop at Union Hall we were heading west (or north, if you believe the signs) along the Wild Atlantic Way to Glengarriff in search of more wildlife — and another weekend highlight.

White-tailed eagles were only re-introduced to Ireland recently after an absence of more than 100 years, so seeing an eagle in the wild here is a real privilege. That was our goal this afternoon.

A short walk through some pleasant native woodland, with some cracking close-up views of an obliging treecreeper along the way, brought us to a suitable vantage point to scan the bay. It wasn’t long before I picked out an adult eagle in a tree on an island just offshore. While the bird was distant, high quality spotting scopes gave us all great views — and using a phone-adapter meant I could use the smartphone as a mini-monitor so everyone got to see the action.

Common seals hauled out on rocks

Common seals hauled out on seaweed covered rocks were completely indifferent to our presence.

It’s not until you see these birds in the flesh, and in the context of their natural environment, that you appreciate just how big they are.

After spending some time marvelling at the eagle, we continued around the looped walk to a vantage point looking out at a colony of common seals hauled out on a seaweed-covered rock in the bay. The views of the lounging seals were incredible, and offered a perfect opportunity to point out some of the differences between these and the grey seals we’d seen earlier from the boat.

The rain started just as we got back to the cars for the drive back to the hotel after a fantastic day of wildlife watching. After a very enjoyable group dinner and a short after-dinner wildlife talk it was time for some much needed rest before even more wildlife the following morning.

Woodland wonderland

A change of scenery on Sunday morning saw us visit the local naturalised beech woodland at Dromillihy. The highlight here at this time of year was always going to be the incredible display of bluebells, and sure enough they were approaching their best.

Bluebells

A carpet of bluebells on a West Cork woodland floor

The looped public walk here is a wonderful amenity, and slowly reveals the woodland’s treasures as you follow the well maintained path. In parts, with the dappled light filtering through the translucent green spring foliage it’s like something out of a fairy tale.

We saw more treecreepers, and other common woodland birds like blue-tits, great-tits, coal-tits and black-caps. Then the flash of a white rump and a salmon-coloured wing revealed the presence of an elusive Irish jay. Irish jays tend to be much shier than their cousins in other parts of Europe — so this was a rare treat — and a fantastic way to bring our woodland jaunt to a close.

Watching an Irish jay in West Cork woodland

Watching an Irish jay in West Cork woodland

A short break back at the hotel, and we were off again. This time down to The Warren beach, and a spot of sea-watching from the cliff walk between Rosscarbery and Owenahincha. Clouds of diving gannets plummeted into the waters just outside the bay, while in the relative shelter of the bay a couple of large bull grey seals bobbed up and down, looking comfortable despite the swell. Two great northern divers in their stunning breeding plumage revealed just why they get their name by spending as much time submerged as on the surface — but the views when they were visible were extraordinary.

A close up look at whimbrel, stonechat, meadow pipit and skylark rounded off a truly spectacular weekend of wildlife. Everyone went home with a smile on their face… including me. And that, at the end of the day, is what it’s all about.

I’m already looking forward to the Autumn weekend in October.

You’ll find more information on our Discover Wildlife Weekends here, and you can book your place on our Autumn 2015 weekend from 09-11 October by filling in the booking form here.

About Calvin Jones

Calvin Jones is a freelance writer, author, birder and lifelong wildlife enthusiast. He is founder and managing editor of IrelandsWildlife.com. He is also the tour leader and wildlife guide on our West Cork based Discover Wildlife tours.
Calvin is also co-author of bestselling digital marketing titles and offers digital business consulting services and training through Digital Marketing Success

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