I get outdoors frequently, although not as often as I’d like. Along the way, I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy some memorable wildlife encounters.
Here are just some from Mayo, in alphabetical order of the beauties I’ve met, rather than any kind of hierarchical chart.
And I haven’t even included other beauts like Red Deer, Red Grouse, Pine Marten, Stoat, Grey and Common Seals, etc, all of which I’ve been privileged to see multiple times in the wild.
Or the time a Badger trundled across the bog towards me, seemingly oblivious to my presence and nonchalantly shuffled past within a metre of my feet.
Apologies for the poor quality of most of the photos in this post; the worst on the whole website.
I don’t have a big enough lens to take good quality wildlife photography, so they’re all I’ve got.
Bottlenose Dolphins in Blacksod Bay
Perhaps one in four trips out to the wonderful Iniskea Islands, North and South, treats us to Bottlenose Dolphins bow- or stern-riding the boat. I never grow tired of the spectacle. One day, however, took the proverbial biscuit. We had just come around the corner beyond Blacksod Lighthouse, when a large group of perhaps 12 to 15 Dolphins gave us the show of a lifetime, repeatedly leaping clean out of the water off our starboard. It was pure thrilling magic.
The image below is the best I could manage from our swaying boat.
Fox on the wall
OK, so I’ve seen Foxes a thousand times, but this one was different.
I was crossing the Achill Island bridge on foot after dark. In the middle of the road, sitting on his hind legs was, I presumed, a dog. Except, as I approached closer, by the light of the street lamps I could make out that it was, in fact, a Fox. No biggie and when I got that bit too close, he being on my way to my destination, he jumped up and ran off. I didn’t expect to see him again until, surprisingly, there he was sitting on the top of a narrow concrete block garden wall, as a cat might.
This photo is of another amazing Fox encounter I had, one day up at An Ceathrú Thaidhg. I call it “Sleeping with the Enemy”, or alternatively, “Sleep with your Eyes Open”!
Hen Harriers at undisclosed location
I’ve been watching Hen Harrier winter roosts since 2009. The vast majority of my evenings return blanks, with only the occasional individual bird spotted. But one day I hit the jackpot. Just as an adult male appeared from over the hill into the roost site, he was immediately followed by a second. Within a minute, four adult males were interacting with each other right in front of me, swooping, twisting, falling and calling. It was a mesmerising experience that lasted ten minutes. No other viewing has come even close to this.
The very poor, heavily pixelated photo above is the best I managed that magical evening and the only remotely useable image of a Hen Harrier I have ever taken. It does, nevertheless, demonstrate the distinctive white band around the rump (part of a bird’s anatomy immediately above the tail).
A Merlin in Connemara
Merlins are elusive birds at the best of times and I’ve only ever seen one five times. The best viewing was when I was out leading a group up a valley in Connemara one day. Out of the blue, we were treated to the chase, with a Merlin hunting a Meadow Pipit across the open bog. Flying extremely low, at barely 1 or 2 metres above ground, they had to avoid hummocks, turf stacks and rocks. The raptor eventually caught his quarry, fell to the ground with it, only to then lose it once more. As the chase resumed, the birds disappeared behind a mound and we lost them, remaining ignorant as to whether the Merlin ate or not. What a show!
Otters in the bog drain
I was sitting on my backside on the ground, watching a Kestrel perched on a conifer overlooking a vast bog, when I heard this watery gurgly-gloop sound immediately to my rear. I got up onto my honkers, so I could peer through the rushes into the small drainage channel barely a metre away, conscious that I didn’t want whatever was present to see me. To my amazement, a handsome adult Otter was moving along this body of water no more than 1 metre wide and barely 20cm deep, his streamlined head and back visible out of the water. Even more fabulous, as he moved out of my sight, a second one followed, doing exactly the same thing. Double delight!
Ravens courting in the Nephin Begs
Corvids are said to be the most intelligent family of birds and, amongst them, Ravens are the greatest. I was once transfixed for five minutes up near Glennamong, observing two Ravens courting in early January. Their whirling and dancing was magnificent. They performed pirouettes around each other, locked talons while tumbling towards earth, before releasing each other barely a few metres from the ground, then rising up and recommencing. It was a simply extraordinary experience. Like Foxes, I’d see Ravens most every day I’m out and about, but have only witnessed this aerobatic behaviour once.
Definitely among my most memorable wildlife encounters!
In the picture below, note the distinguishing wedge shape of the Raven’s tail.
Red Squirrel mother and kitten at Cong
I was walking along a forest track near Cong one day in late spring, when I heard a rustle in the undergrowth just to my right. At first, I assumed it was a rat and carried on. But then I noticed that the sound was clearly progressing alongside me, so I crouched down to wait if something would emerge. What appeared was a special sight, that of a mother Red Squirrel with one of her kittens in her jaws. While on the track, she had a good long look at me, before bounding into the briars to my left. I later learned that, as Hares do, the mother Squirrel relocates babies around, to protect them from predation. A mesmerising encounter.
My image below is of a Cong Woods Red Squirrel, but from another occasion.
Snowy Owl on The Mullet
For several autumns on the trot back in the late noughties, a female Snowy Owl came to The Mullet from her home in the Arctic Circle for a few weeks. I got to watch this truly spellbinding creature on just one occasion, all other jaunts being in vain. What a bird! Her white plumage, interspersed with brown dots and streaks, blended in remarkably well with the granite boulders strewn across the peninsula’s depleted bog. Both in flight and while stationery on the ground, she was a true stunner.
I took this very poor photo in 2009, using a small old hand-held camera I had at the time.
Want to experience memorable wildlife encounters of your own?
Take the first step now. With binoculars in hand, get out more!
But that’s not enough.
Get as far from major human infrastructure as your locality allows, away from settlements and fast roads, if possible. Dress as well “camouflaged” as you can manage (wear dull colours, preferably browns and greens), identify an observation spot where you have a decent view of a large area and progress towards it as slowly and quietly as you can. Be warm, hang tight and wait…
If you want to get more serious about experiencing memorable wildlife encounters, go invest in proper camouflage gear, like what I’m wearing here.