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  • Writer's pictureAllan Sander

Howth Peninsula

Updated: Sep 5, 2023

“Next stop, Howth!” Traveling east of Dublin, this thirty-minute train ride has reached the end of the line, but it is just the beginning of a wondrous journey along the cliffs of this scenic peninsula. Exiting the station, you enter the town’s waterfront park with its adjoining fish repository and marina.

Across the way is a row of shops, restaurants, and pubs. A short way off, Howth Harbor Lighthouse stands sentinel along the northern edge of the bay. Directly across sits the “Stack,” a huge inaccessible rock that dominates Ireland’s Eye – a small island inhabited by a variety of seabirds; the Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus) being the most dominant. “That’s where I’m heading!”

Enroute, the placid water between the piers had nothing to reveal, however, just below me among the rocks a young Gray Heron (Ardea cinerea) stands motionless.

When I stop to snap a photo, it takes wing and docks itself alongside one of the trawlers.

I look out towards the entrance and notice some turbulence between the boats. Anxiously I wait for its source, a few seconds later a Gray Seal (Halichoerus grypus) breaks the surface - this was an exciting first for me! The Harbor Seal is the other species found in these waters.

I walk up onto the cement breaker, it has large boulders stacked at its base for added reinforcement. Plying across these waters are a variety of gulls and at low tide, they are joined by the opportunistic Hooded Crow (Corvus cornix), more often they will swoop in to join the family picnic.

Last week, adding some color to this scene, was the bright orange bill and pink legs of an Eurasian Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegas).

Today the tide is high, still, all sorts of human activity clambers about the rocks. One party flushes a White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) in my direction. It obliges me by landing alongside the car park for a quick snapshot.

I finish up top here with more images of the gannet colony and decide to head back towards the cliffs. I noticed European Shag (Gulosus aristotelia) and

Great Cormorant (Phalocrocorax carbo) share the rock face for nesting sites.

And right now, several of the shags are feeding within an acceptable distance for my lens. Their feeding behavior resembles that of the diving ducks. It raises the tail then quickly drives it downward while simultaneously kicking its legs, thusly raising the body upward. Then the long neck is arched, and head pointed downward allowing it to pierce the surface to begin its quest for its main source of food, fish!

Along the way a couple of lads are tossing scraps to an awaiting Rook (Corvus frugilegus) and

European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris).

I look up from my camera, and I am a bit perplexed. Are there a large number of people unemployed here on the Emerald Isle? This ‘is’ a Monday and yet there are throngs of people everywhere! Granted, it creates a ruckus for the avian population, fighting over an easy meal. Still, it had to be some sort of holiday!? On my flight back home, I discovered today was one of many ‘Bank’ holidays the country sets aside, encouraging its citizens to enjoy an extended weekend for fun and recreation.

I leave the flatlanders behind and unite with the hobnail express. “Let the trek begin!” The human hoards plus the narrowness of the sidewalk has people spilling out into the street. Eventually two lanes merge into one and terminates at a small car park. Homes along this section have some really fine views of the Atlantic. Many yards are adorned with healthy plants of fuchsia (Fuchsia magellanica) ranging in colors from pink to red to orange and cream. They are not native to this part of the world, its origins is in South America, however,

it is established and embraced by many of the Irish; they call it, 'Deora Dé', or ‘God’s Tears.’ Like the ferns, these plants can also be found hanging from the cliff wall as you make your way up to the trailhead.

Common Wood Pigeons (Columba palumbus) are one of the passerine species that call this rugged landscape home.

Back in town there is plenty of their brethren, Rock Doves (Columba livia), enjoying the city life.

In the trees at the carpark, I came across a young Blackbird, Magpie (Pica pica)

and several Blue Tits. Otherwise, it is the seabirds that dominate this coastal arena. Simply look to the sky to find a continuous movement of gulls: mostly Herring (Larus argentinus), along with

Lesser and Great Black-backed (Larus fuscus and marinus).

Cruising out over the ocean are the gannets, guillemots, cormorants and kittiwakes.

The eve of the Howth Cliff Trail has you ascend a handful of rocky steps, once conquered does one grasp the ruggedness of this terrain. Shooting out from the many crags and rocky outcrops of these sheer cliffs is a constant barrage of Black-legged Kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla), a type of small gull.

A few weeks earlier thousands shared these nesting quarters with Razorbills (Alca torta) and Common Guillemots (Uria aalge). I climb higher and break away from the trail, gingerly making my way to an ideal overlook. Directly below I find some roosting kittiwakes while off to my right

others are hunkered down against the cliff face. I could not ask for a more humbling view.

Another gray seal hugs the coast, out over the ocean an occasional gannet flies low over the water.

The same goes for the cormorants.

From where I stand, kittiwakes swoop in and out of sight. Many more can be seen off in the distance, periodically diving into the water to capture a meal.

On my way up I flush a small bird towards the bluff. I “pish” several times and up springs a Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis). “Go raibh maith agat!” (“Thank you!” in Irish Gaelic).

I clamber back up to what is called the maritime heath zone but stop a ways before the main trail; shrubs of Gorse and Heather blanket these cliffs with their brilliant yellow and pink blossoms - nature’s floral design is simply impeccable!

This vibrant tapestry is literally, ‘buzzing’ with activity. Bumblebees seem to be everywhere, then again, their size cannot help but get them noticed. The most numerous is the White-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus lucorum); she’s a real beauty. Wearing the typical black-and-yellow uniform, where the abdomen starts with a thin black band followed by a thick yellow one, back to black and terminating in a cottony white tail.

I discover two species of Carder Bee; both are smaller and have a ginger brown thorax. The Moss Carder Bee (Bombus muscorum) is a more intense ginger color on its topside and has a yellowish band across the abdomen,

whereas the Common (Bombus pascuorum) is generally more faded in appearance, less the yellow band.

Hovering about are

long, thin flower flies (Sphaerophoria philanthus)

Ling, or the Common Heather (Calluna vulgaris), has pairs of scale-like leaves that climb up thin stems supporting long clusters of miniature bell-shaped flowers. Today it seems every plant has its own pollinating bee!

As the renown poet, John Clare, described it…

'How oft, though moss and grass are seen, Tann'd bright for want of flowers, Still keeps the Ling its darksome green, Thickset with little flowers.'

Within this dense shrubbery is another heather, called Bell Heather (Erica cinerea). Many describe its stems bundled with bell-shaped flowers, instead I see miniature mauve vases.

I find a solitary bee, this one is called the Heather Colletes Bee (Colletes succinctus), busily doing what bees do best; collecting pollen and extracting the flower’s sweet libations.

Also blooming in profusion is Western Gorse (Ulex gallii); it is a much smaller shrub

compared to its larger cousin, Common Gorse (Ulex europaeus), referenced as Whin or Furze, and is highly revered by the Irish for its bright yellow blooms that color the landscape year-round. This plant has been described as “…one mass of prickles and spines.” Country-folk have come up with a saying, “When gorse is out of blossom, kissing’s out of fashion.”

I swerve off an obscure path closer to the edge; here, the ocean breeze increases with intensity. A large boulder, cleaved in half, is high enough to harbor a splash zone habitat of wondrous golden lichens (Xanthoria species) atop its crown.

Sweeping up in my direction is the maritime grassland zone that is wreathed with mats of Bracken Fern (Pteridium aquilinum) along with fescue and sedges.

I am given a stiff warning not venture any further via a series of sharp ‘chipping’ calls. I stop, and up springs a Eurasian Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes) that bursts into its full repertoire of whistles and trills.

Looking further down the coast is an escarpment bustling with kittiwakes.

More time would be happily spent to continue however I need to start heading back. Despite the recreational activity, the blend of colorful blooms, weathered rock, scrub, and sedge, against the hard blue ocean… “Well, a more memorable landscape one could not imagine!”

I take one last diversion with an attempt to veer off course and head inland. I encounter more pink, that is, a stand of Rosebay Willowherb Fireweed (Chamaenerion angustifolium).

Earning its title for establishing itself in disturbed areas, especially after a burn.

Then I find the bright orange-red of Montbretia (Crocosmia x crocosmiiflora), its stalks arching over a small stream.

My progress comes to a halt when I face an impenetrable wall of briar and gorse.

Any direction you go, there will always be an experience to embrace. A splash of blue brings me to my knees. I am greeted by Sheep’s-bit (Jasione montana) tucked among the stone.

Changing position, nestled amongst some rocks, I find a small Bell Heather plant shouting to have its portrait taken.

Here, too, a late blooming Hairy Willowherb (Epilobium hirsutum) adds another shade of pink.

A repetitive chipping call sets me upright and I hop onto a nearby rock. It continues within the confines of some hawthorn and willow. It barely allows me to raise my bins before it departs, perhaps a Willow warbler?

I, too, flit my way back to the main track with the collection of trekking families, couples, and individuals from all walks of life. Lower down has fishermen anchored to their favorite crag, spending more time in conversation than casting out a line. A Great black-backed gull in the foreground seems indifferent.

Herring gulls continue their reconnaissance, I wonder if they were able to deliberate, what would their observations be from such human folly?

Stationed on a ledge, its crags garnished with tufts of white Mayweed Sea flowers (Tripleurospermum maritimum), a kittiwake surveys its domain. It will not be long before it vaults itself one last time out over the Atlantic where it will spend the winter, and return to this exact location in the spring.

Bracken and brush cleave the rock

To mell with kin of gorse and heather.

Fern’s foothold, solid and locked;

Silent song of Bell Heather.

Random, one’s path takes

Tracking hillocks, pastel clad.

Circling the serried brakes,

So joyous to be had.

The lea lambent and sweet,

Where petals herald you over,

Childish joy when thy greet

Campion, Crane’s bill and clover.

Location: Howth Peninsula, Ireland Date: August of 2023

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