I just love moths. So when I heard that the ‘moth man’ was opening the moth traps, I just had to be there. The man in question, Eamon O’ Donnell, was sitting at his box, removing egg cartons and carefully inspecting the overnight residents. Eamon was one of two moth men on Cape Clear that weekend; his brother Michael was recording moths in another section of the island. It had been a very wet night and the moths were fewer as expected. However, when Eamon lifted what appeared to be a twig from the box, the low quantity did not matter. It was a beautiful buff tip moth. The patterned wings and cylindrical shape camouflaged the moth to appear like piece of wood. I almost squashed the poor creature as I crouched in close with my camera. I tried my best not to sound like an absolute amateur, although my gasps of delight were a dead giveaway. If Eamon noticed, he didn’t show it and he was only too happy to show me his fresh captives.
It was the annual Bioblitz event, run by the National Biodiversity centre. Volunteer teams in different habitats around the country compete against each other over a 24 hour period to count as many species as they can find in that area. Originally, the national parks competed against one another to win the famed Bioblitz cup, then the forest parks and other habitats. This was the first year for the islands – Bere island, Cape Clear, Inishmore, Clare island and Tory island. Each island had a team of volunteers, each with their own specialities, walking the length and breadth of their island, to record everything they could find.
I was staying on Cape Clear that weekend. The hostel, run by Ann, sits in one of the most idyllic spots on the island, facing the South Harbour. When I rang her that morning, she told me to leave my bags in the car on the pier, with the broken windscreen wiper and she would bring them up to the hostel. On arrival, I spotted the wiper standing upright like an aerial, guiding me towards it. I left my bags in the boot and headed off. Soon I was climbing the cliff path above the South harbour. The ‘Gleann loop’, a stunning 7km walking trail, follows these cliffs round the headland towards the old signal station, before diverting inland on a path edged by an old stone wall down to the lighthouse road and then cross country over the old mass trail on the hill before exiting onto the incredibly steep road on the opposite side of the island, which brings you back down to the pier.
As I climbed, the clouds started closing in so I diverted my attention from the views to what lay underfoot. I slipped into the micro world of wild flowers and insects at my feet. When I finished taking pictures, I noticed a thick mist approaching the island. And with that came the rain and the realisation that I had left my raincoat at back on the mainland. I hastily made my way back down to the hostel where I bumped into Ann. She took one look at me and fished a spare raincoat out of a cupboard not before kindly offering to dry my clothes. She couldn’t have done more to help me, either that or she felt immense pity for the idiot out hill walking in shorts and a t-shirt.
The rain lingered briefly the next morning but I knew it wouldn’t be long before the sun returned. As is often the case, it can be raining on the mainland but the sun is blasting out on Cape Clear. Rain or no rain, it was time to see some moths and birds in action. After Eamon released the moths from their slumber, the bird people set up at a table nearby. This was one of the highlights of the weekend. Birds caught in the nets were collected and brought individually to the table. Here Sam, the bird warden on the island, and his assistant for the weekend, Lorraine, examined each bird to determine their age and sex before weighing them. The final step was the ringing of the bird’s leg with a small weightless ring before it was released.
There was great excitement as a reed warbler was produced from the second bag. For once, it wasn’t just me gasping with delight. This beautiful bird comes here to breed after spending the winter in Africa. The session continued with a chiff chaff and a swallow. While all the data was recorded, each birds sat comfortably in the warmth of Lorraine’s hands. The data is important because it keeps tabs on bird populations and migration routes. Earlier that week, a sedge warbler that had been ringed previously in France, was discovered on Cape Clear. As proceedings drew to a close, a curious robin flew in and nabbed one of the released moths before flying off with his plunder.
As predicted, the sun reappeared in full force. I attempted the ‘Gleann loop’ again. Up on the headland, I met Sandra, a Bioblitz volunteer sitting with a telescope and camera. An absolute wealth of knowledge when it came to whales, it wasn’t long before she was pointing out a Minke whale to me. This was my first time seeing a whale in Irish waters and it was such a beautiful sight. It was nearly impossible to tear myself away but I ploughed on and finished the walk. Back by the harbour later on, I bumped into Sandra again. She was on an absolute high after seeing a humpback whale breach off the headland. As she raced off to her next vantage point, I watched a basking shark idle his way across the South harbour. Just then, the kids from the Irish school strolled down to the water for a swim, stopping dead in their tracks when they saw ‘an shark san uisce’. The basking shark decided to avoid the clatter of noise and swam back across the bay. Deciding it was safe, the kids jumped in and cursed the cold water. After a few minutes, the basking shark re-emerged amid the mass of students. The screaming could be heard on the mainland as the kids scaled the jetty wall to leap out of the water. They had nothing to worry about though. It might be the second largest living fish, but the only thing this large beast is interested in eating, is plankton.
I joined a flower walk in the afternoon guided by island resident Geoff Oliver. While the walk was short, it was overflowing with a wealth of plant species. The island climate and untouched natural habitats in part, allow these beautiful wild flowers to thrive here. One rare specimen found on the trail was the yellow Centaury, a tiny specimen but high on the list of must see flora on the island. Joining us on the walk was Carrie, an expert on lizards. She showed me how to spot these tiny creatures as they bask in the sun on the hedgerows. Within no time, I was spotting them all along the roadside. Geoff guided us slowly along the south harbour, stopping every two steps because there was something new to look at. I do not have a good knowledge of flower names but after seeing so much on this walk, I have definitely been inspired to learn more.
Cape Clear is 3 miles long by 1 mile wide and every part of it is brimming with wildlife. The volunteers had their work cut out covering every inch of the island. I called into the school where Colette O’ Flynn, an invasive species officer from the National Biodiversity centre, was manning the Bioblitz headquarters. This was where all the volunteers dropped in with their recordings which were added to the Cape Clear list. As results from the other islands started flooding in, Inishmore island was leaping ahead in the race. However Colette wasn’t worried as she had yet to add Cape’s flora species which would boost the ranking. As I left, Bere island, Cape’s closest neighbour, was catching up fast.
Many of the recorders had travelled from all over the country to participate. Rosalyn had cycled down from Cork city through heavy rain showers to catch the ferry across from Baltimore. She was an expert on wild flora. Breda, another volunteer, studies ecology and works for Deep Maps Cork, a project exploring the rich history of the West Cork coastline. The bird observatory, recently re-opened after a brief closure, was full to capacity with volunteers like Lorraine, Jim and Alan, whose knowledge on birds and flora were a joy to listen to. The observatory itself, owned by Birdwatch Ireland, offers accommodation for groups, families and individuals. With a resident bird warden on site, there are fantastic opportunities to learn more about birds and see their work in action, or simply take in the beautiful scenery of the island. As the Bioblitz finished at midday on Sunday morning, the final results revealed that Bere island had nabbed the top spot with 1178 species. Cape Clear came third with an impressive 870 species. The loss did not however put a dampener on the weekend as everyone involved had such a fantastic time. Not only is Cape Clear brimming with wildlife, it is a truly beautiful place.