White-tailed Eagle, Fin Whale, Common and Bottlenose Dolphin, Harbour Porpoise, Harbour and Grey Seal, Otter, Great and Sooty Shearwater, Chough, Peregrine and Red Squirrel… just a few memorable highlights from our Ireland’s Wild South Coast tour 26-31 August 2018. Read the full trip report below:

White-tailed Eagle on Ireland's Wild South Coast
Incredible views of White-tailed Eagle — one of many wildlife highlights of the trip

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Day 1: Cork to Rosscarbery

Within an hour of picking up guests for our 6-day Ireland’s Wild South Coast tour at Cork Airport we were striking wildlife gold on the West Cork coast as we watched a group of 6 Bottlenose Dolphins feeding on the Bandon estuary.

What a start!

While Bottlenose Dolphins occur regularly off the West Cork coast, they aren’t resident here, and their visits are sporadic and unpredictable. It seemed our luck was in and it appeared to be holding as we quickly added an otter swimming parallel to the far shore, and a harbour/common seal a little further downstream.

Watching dolphins, otter, seal and birds in Kinsale on day 1 of our Ireland’s Wild South Coast tour

As well as the dolphins, everyone enjoyed cracking views of the resident Redshank, along with newly-returned overwintering waders like Curlew, Black-tailed Godwit, and Greenshank. A rather splendid Dabchick/Little Grebe in full-summer plumage offered lovely scope-filling views, while a nearby Little Egret conveniently showed off its bright yellow feet for the group. Hooded Crows foraging on the foreshore were a novelty for the English group, who were more used to the all-black Carrion Crows back home. 

We moved on to the spectacular Old Head of Kinsale for a picnic lunch overlooking the Atlantic, where alongside the stunning scenery we enjoyed our first views of Chough, a West Cork speciality, and Raven familiar seabirds like Fulmar, Gannet, Guillemot and Razorbill.

Our base for the first three nights of the tour was the friendly and comfortable Celtic Ross Hotel in Rosscarbery — an ideal base for exploring the intriguing stretch of The Wild Atlantic Way from Galley Head to Baltimore and The Islands. We spent the afternoon making our way along the coast from Kinsale to Rosscarbery, stopping off at birding and wildlife hotspots along the way, and taking a brief look at a Fin Whale skeleton on display in the village of Kilbrittain.

Checking out the Fin Whale skeleton at Kilbrittain, Co. Cork — and hoping for an encounter with a more lively individual over the days ahead

This whale, which stranded on a sandbar in the Argideen Estuary, between Kilbrittain and Courtmacsherry in January 2009, and starred in the Channel 4 documentary series “Inside Nature’s Giants” before being claimed by Kilbrittain residents and put on display in the village.

Moving on we added a splendid summer-plumage Grey Plover and Buzzard to the tally in Timoleague, and had great views of the many waders gathering on the mudflats before making our way along the coast to the hotel at Rosscarbery.

Day 2: Galley Head, Castlefreke and Rosscarbery

Day two started with a look at the tidal pool opposite the hotel. No sign of the overwintering kingfisher here yet (although it’s due back any day now), but plenty of godwits, redshank and mallard in attendance, along with a family of moorhen to keep the trip-list ticking over. Then a movement in the reeds turned out to be an elusive water-rail — a superb little bird that proceeded to preen at the edge of the reeds, offering what, for a water rail, were exceptional views.

Loved every minute, a fantastic tour and thoroughly recommend… 
we will be back again next year!

Carole King, UK

Then news broke on the Cork Bird News service of an Osprey at Clogheen Marsh near Clonakilty, so we all piled in the minibus and headed up to see if we could spot it. Unfortunately, by the time we arrived the bird had moved on, but we had some splendid views of waders at the adjacent White’s Marsh, including a very smart first winter Ruff fresh in.

We dipped the Osprey at Clogheen/White’s Marsh, Clonakilty, but had great views of a variety of waders including a first winter Ruff.

On to Galley Head, where we walked out to the headland for more fantastic lunchtime views of the Atlantic and a memorable close-encounters with a flock of charismatic Chough. Galley also added Kestrel and Peregrine to our trip list.

One of about a dozen Chough that were buzzing around off the lighthouse road at Galley Head.

A stop at Kilkeran lake offered lots more Dabchicks, impressive Emperor Dragonflies patrolling the reed margins and fleeting glimpses of another Otter — this time much closer, but only seen briefly before it disappeared into the reed bed.

A change of scenery followed as we made our way to Castlefreke Woods, the dappled shade of the woodland paths a welcome change to the wild Atlantic coastline as we watched mixed flocks of tits working their way through the canopy.

Day 3: Cape Clear Island & Lough Hyne

Tuesday saw us heading offshore to Cape Clear Island for the day. We caught the 10:30 ferry in Baltimore and were treated to some great wildlife on the 45-minute boat ride across Roaringwater Bay… including dozens of Harbour Porpoises, Black Guillemot, Grey Seals and Common Seals.

Watching Harbour Porpoise in Roaringwater Bay from the Cape Clear ferry 

We checked a few of the island hotspots for early migrants… but alas it was still a bit too early in the year… and then headed up the cliff-walk to Bullig with stunning panoramic views of the Atlantic from Galley Head in the East around past Fastnet Rock to Mizen Head beyond.

Watching the Wild Atlantic from Cape Clear Island, Co. Cork

Ireland’s most southerly Atlantic vantage point is a wonderful place to eat a picnic lunch. As we ate our sandwiches we scanned the ocean for cetaceans as Chough, Peregrine and Fulmar soared over the cliffs. Our efforts were rewarded when we picked up several groups of feeding Common Dolphins and fleeting glimpses of a couple of Minke Whales attracted to the dolphin-created baitballs. Alas, the bigger whales were still proving elusive.

Another fantastic ferry ride awaited us as we returned to Baltimore, with plenty more porpoise and seals on display. Back on the mainland, we headed for the famous Lough Hyne… an enclosed tidal lake betweeen Baltimore and Skibbereen. This was Ireland’s first marine nature reserve and is the most studied piece of water in the country. It’s unique tidal nature and curious temperature and salinity profile provide countless micro-habitats and supports a bewildering array of marine life.

As we pulled up we noticed a Gannet soaring above the lake, and we watched it circling and diving within feet of the shore. It’s rare you can stand on terra firma and watch these magnificent birds fishing at close quarters.

A gannet taking off after a dive… photographed from shore at Lough Hyne in West Cork.

Day 4: Glengarriff, Beara and The Healy Pass

On the morning of the fourth day we headed for Glengarriff in search of White-tailed Eagles. These magnificent birds where reintroduced into Killarney National Park in Co. Kerry from 2007, and are now breeding with moderate success at a number of sites around the country.

A pair holds a territory around Garnish Island in Glengarriff. Unfortunately, they were unsuccessful in their breeding attempt this season, but we had news that the adult birds were still around, so we were all hoping to catch a glimpse of a soaring eagle.

An adult male White-tailed Eagle on the rocky shore at Glengarriff, Co. Cork

A short woodland walk to a vantage point overlooking Garnish Island gave us good views of the eagle nest, but no eagles. We did see plenty of Harbour/Common Seals in the bay and has some close-up views of a few hauled out on the rocks close to shore.

After lunch we headed out on a small boat to see if we could catch a glimpse of an eagle. As we headed down the slip to board the boat we looked up to see an eagle soaring above the bay. The sheer size of the bird as it hung in the air was mind-boggling. People describe them as “flying barn doors” and when you see them in the air, it’s easy to see why.

Eagle Spotting from Glengarriff

As we headed out on the boat, the eagle we were watching dropped behind Garnish Island out of sight, but was replaced in the air by its partner. Then, as we rounded the island and cruised gently into a small bay there it was — the first eagle, the adult male, sitting on the rocky shore.

The sheer size of the bird as it hung in the air was mind-boggling.

Ireland’s Wild South Coast

As we watched at close range he flew across the little inlet and into a nearby tree. What fantastic views of an incredibly special bird.

White-tailed Eagle in flight — simply breathtaking
Just look at that bill! White-tailed Eagle, Glengarriff, Co. Cork.

We were all buzzing as we left the eagles in peace and headed back via the rocky islets in the bay for more close-encounters with the Harbour/Common Seals.

Harbour/Common Seal siesta

Once back on dry land, we headed down the Beara Peninsular to Adrigole, where we stopped for coffee and cake before winding our way up the Healy Pass and it’s spectacular views.

View into County Kerry from the top of the Healy Pass
View back towards County Cork from the top of the Healy Pass

Day 5: Whale Watching and Seabirds

You could feel the excitement building over breakfast as we prepared for a day on the water in search of ocean giants. We’d switched the trip from Monday (Day 2) to Thursday (Day 5) to make the most of the week’s best weather window. The flat-calm conditions as we pulled out of Reen Pier, Union Hall aboard the Cork Whale Watch vessel, The Holly Jo reinforced the benefits of keeping these itineraries as flexible as possible.

The anticipation as we left Castlehaven Harbour was palpable, every eye on board scouring the ocean for the tell-tale signs of cetacean activity skipper Colin had briefed us on at the pier.

First up were some fabulous Grey Seals at The Stags… with lots of individuals in the water and hauled out on the rocks. Up close the differences between the greys, with their flat foreheads, spaced nostrils and greater bulk, and the smaller Harbour/Common Seals we’d seen in Glengarriff were very apparent.

A lovely portrait of an apparently very healthy Grey Seal, marred by the ugly circlet of mono-filament line wrapped around her neck. She didn’t seem too distressed by it, so let’s hope she manages to dislodge it before it becomes a problem. 

It was only looking at photographs later that we noticed the mono-filament fishing line around the neck of the most photogenic seal in the group. It’s a stark reminder of how our pollution can have a direct and immediate impact on our marine life. Thankfully it’s an issue that’s getting more publicity, and awareness is growing, but we all need to be much more mindful of the waste we generate and how we dispose of it. 

After spending some time enjoying the seals, we headed out into the blue. Whales are big animals, and conditions were near perfect for spotting them, but they’re big animals in a seemingly endless expanse of ocean. For what seemed an eternity we encountered precious little. Then, as we were all beginning to wonder whether we’d see anything at all we suddenly started to pick up some Common Dolphins, they made a beeline for us, bow-riding and playing with the boat. It was lovely to see a few young calves with their mothers in the various groups we encountered.

Common Dolphin mother and calf off the West Cork coast

Then came that magic call everyone aboard was waiting for: “Blow”! One of our guides had spotted the signature blow of a fin whale.

One of our guides had spotted the signature blow of a fin whale.

Ireland’s Wild South CoasT

At up to 25 metres in length and weighing up to 75,000 kg, Fin Whales are true giants: the second biggest creatures ever to have lived on earth after their close relative, the Blue Whale. They are incredibly impressive animals when you get to see them up close… and this one treated us to some fabulous views as it moved between dolphin-created baitballs, lunging through them at speed to hoover up the fish in its gaping maw.

A fin whale surfacing against the backdrop of the West Cork coast

Suddenly the level of activity kicked up a gear — there were dolphins all around us, several Minke Whales joined the party and the area was alive with seabirds: hundreds of Manx Shearwaters, dozens of Sooty Shearwaters and a few Great Shearwaters for good measure. European storm petrels flitted about on the periphery, scooping up scraps generated by the feeding frenzy.

Fin Whale with Manx and Great Shearwater
A Fin Whale being photo-bombed by a Common Dolphin as a Sooty and Manx Shearwater look on. The dolphin provides a sense of scale… adult common dolphins are c. 2m long.

And, of course, there were the Gannets… gannets diving en-masse has to be one of the most impressive spectacles in the animal kingdom, and we were treated to a great display as these impressive birds, with their 1.8m wingspan, got in on the dolphin baitball action.

Incoming! Diving gannets are very vocal just before they plummet from the sky — warning other gannets to get out of the way.

Quite the contortionists, gannets twist and turn mid-plunge plunge, fine-tuning their dive to hone in on their submerged target.

Another noteable avian encounter was experiencing kleptoparisitism in action as a Great Skua or Bonxie seemed intent on drowning a hapless Sooty Shearwater to get it to regurgitate its last meal.

Natural pirates… a Great Skua closes in on an unfortunate Sooty Shearwater

There were some very happy guests… not to mention two happy guides… on board as we headed for home.

Ireland’s Wildlife Tours co-founder and wildlife guide Colin Barton (nearest the camera) with guests aboard the Cork Whale Watch vessel, The Holly Jo last week.

Day 6: Glengarriff Woods and Farewell

The morning of Day 6 saw the first rain of the week since we picked our guests up on Sunday morning in Cork. It was a fine misty drizzle… undeterred we headed for the wonderful oak woodland of Glengarriff Woods Nature Reserve for a woodland wildlife walk.

A woodland wildlife walk along the river to finish off the tour.

Distant jays calling to each other and moving through the canopy were a good start, and we encountered several mixed roving flocks of various tit species accompanied by Goldcrests and Treecreepers. Treecreepers in particular were a hit with the guests, their cryptic plumage and mouse-like antics intriguing.

Then a rustling in a nearby tree revealed itself to be a Red Squirrel — another iconic species of the region, but one of the shyest and most elusive. Red Squirrels are incredibly difficult to see, and even more difficult to show to people, but we all enjoyed great views of this individual through our binoculars as it posed on a nearby branch. The drizzle was working in our favour — keeping the dog-walkers, joggers and other sources of disturbance indoors.

A little further around the walk, we stopped for the “Grand Finale”. In the river alongside us was one of the rarest creatures in Europe.

One by one, guests joined our guide on the edge of the river bank to peer into the water, where his torch beam illuminated two Freshwater Pearl Mussels filter-feeding. Thought to live to over 200 years old, these exceptional molluscs were once widespread and common throughout European river systems, but pollution and the exacting demands of a very curious life cycle (their larval form attaches itself to the gills of salmonid fish) mean their numbers have plummeted across their range, and they’re literally teetering on the brink of extinction.

It was a real privilege to see these astonishing creatures in the wild. But we weren’t done yet… before the end of the walk we enjoyed a wonderful close encounter with another Red Squirrel.

The easy hour-and-a-half drive back to Cork flew as we recalled the highlights of what had been a truly memorable 6 days of wildlife watching. As we dropped some very happy guests off in Cork City, we were already looking forward to doing it all again.

We’d love you to join us on Europe’s undiscovered wildlife frontier….

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