Great Saltee: A visit strictly for the birds

THE other day, I revisited Great Saltee Island, off the Wexford Coast.

I love visiting offshore islands and Great Saltee, in May, is one of my favourites.

You disembark from a launch, into an inflatable dingy, which runs up on a stony beach, where you try to hop out without wetting a foot (I succeeded on the way out, but not on the return trip, when the tide had changed). There is a welcoming committee: two, young, female Atlantic grey seals with a massive curiosity about people. They surface a couple of metres away and scrutinise you with their enormous, round eyes.

The main reason for visiting Great Saltee is that it has massive colonies of nesting sea-birds. The best of these are at the other end of the island, a walk of about a kilometre from the landing place, some of it steep. This is not a chore at this time of year, because you walk through a sea of bluebells.

Bluebells are usually a woodland under-storey flower, but there are few trees on the island. There is much bracken, brambles and furze, and they provide a miniature version of the woodland canopy.

The sea-bird nesting colonies are massive and consist of a wide range of species, most of them oceanic birds. Satellite tracking has revealed, for example, that many of the Saltee puffins cross the Atlantic when the breeding season is over, and fish on the Grand Banks off the Canadian coast. These birds have little contact with humans and are often tame. You can usually get close without any great rock-climbing skills.

However, disturbing them can have serious repercussions. Some years ago, a British television crew went too close to the gannets and disturbed them. In the confusion, a lesser black-backed gull dived in and stole a gannet’s egg. The crew filmed this and it was subsequently broadcast. When the authorities here saw the programme, they tightened restrictions on access to sea-bird nesting colonies.

I encountered the puffins first, nesting in burrows at the top of a grassy slope down to the sea. Many of them were standing guard at the burrow entrance, and some had fish or sand-eels crosswise in their amazing beaks, just like the classic pictures. Then, I saw fulmars, kittiwakes, common guillemots and razorbills. But the high point is the gannetry, which had grown considerably in size since my last visit. They are the largest North Atlantic sea-bird, the size of a goose, with a two-metre wingspan. Being able to watch them at close range is very exciting.

Great Saltee Island is privately owned and there are some restrictions on visiting it.

Nature Table

GREY HERON (Ardea cinerea)

Herons are often called cranes in Ireland, though the true crane became extinct as an Irish breeding bird centuries ago. At this time of year herons are breeding in colonies called heronries in the tops of tall trees.

They are large birds, standing up to a metre tall with a wingspan twice that. During the breeding season the yellow bill of the adult male turns a surprising coral red for a short period of time. Herons mostly eat fish, though they will take frogs, small mammals and other birds if they get a chance. They catch their prey by standing motionless or wading slowly until they spot something edible. Then they unleash their long neck like a coiled spring and strike.

Herons are widespread wherever there’s suitable water and have been increasing in numbers in Ireland. However, there is evidence that pine martens have affected the breeding success of some heronries.


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