Summer in the city: natural wonders
You don’t have to leave the city to commune with nature, and July is alive with mammals, flowers and marine life
VERY RARELY, things seem to happen on cue. Recently, I spent a couple of happy hours in Dundrum library researching books on nature in the city. As I walked to the Luas station afterwards, I barely glimpsed something small but boldly colourful in a scutty patch of pavement grass.
I bent down and found that the little burst of purple was a pyramidal orchid. The point that wonders of nature can often be found in apparently unlikely urban contexts could hardly have been made more clearly.
It’s surprisingly easy to find several species of orchid, sometimes in dramatic numbers, within Dublin’s city limits. The dune paths adjacent to St Anne’s Golf Links on Bull Island are often carpeted with them in spring and summer. You may also find them in railway cuttings, where benign neglect fosters many wildflowers. But even for someone who has learned to look at the ground a lot while walking in cities, this streetwise bloom was a show-stopper.
Urban wildlife has had good exposure here in recent years: foxes stalking the suburbs, peregrine falcons nesting in shipyards and gasworks, and otters fishing in abandoned industrial ponds have all made headlines. It’s a welcome reminder that we don’t have to travel to remote sites to find solace and interest in nature.
The notion that the city is itself an ecosystem (or rather, a rich mosaic of different ecosystems) is gradually taking hold among a broader public. But naturalists have known this for a very long time. Robert Lloyd Praeger, the doyen of early Irish natural history writers, dedicated some memorable pages of his classic book The Way that I Went to this phenomenon in Dublin and Belfast.
He does not just write about obviously “wild” sites within the city limits, such as Howth Head and Belfast Lough. He pays a lot of attention to the famous winter wagtail roost on O’Connell Street (recently migrated to Bachelors Walk). And he remembers the profusion of fern species that flourished between Leinster House and the National Museum until, as he puts it, “some unfortunate tidying up was done”.
City authorities today deserve credit for having learned, at least in some cases and places, to suppress this urge to “tidy up”. City parks and canal banks now often have some unmown patches. Wildflowers, once regarded as weeds, get a chance here to outcompete the ubiquitous grass of the manicured lawns.
And even where the urge to tidy seems irrepressible, nature is remarkably resilient. Someone regularly applies herbicide to the angle between pavement and terraced brick walls on my little street in Stoneybatter. Within weeks, in spring and early summer at least, 20 or so species of wild plant, including several of Lloyd Praeger’s beloved ferns, bravely raise their heads again.
So we can find nature everywhere in the city, but obviously some places are better than others. Éanna Ní Lamhna has described many of the capital’s biodiversity hotspots very well in her beautifully produced Wild Dublin (O’Brien Press). Her immediate recommendation, for those looking to visit such spots, especially with easily bored children, is the first stretch of rocky shore on the south side of Dublin bay, which is a short walk from Seapoint Dart station. “At low tide, you can find lots of periwinkles, crabs, mussels, and sea anemones. It’s good for birds, too, with cormorants drying their wings in the sun.”
She also urges visits to sandy shores to find lugworms. You need to watch out for a hole or depression inches away from the squiggly “cast” the worm’s burrowing leaves on the surface. Then dig very quickly.
Also, you are almost guaranteed to see porpoises if you take a long stroll along Dublin’s South Wall at this time of year. And if you are in Galway, Ní Lamhna suggests a shorter walk across to the Claddagh, to watch the abundant salmon as they forge through the weir on the Corrib river.
She also points out that you don’t have to go so far afield, to enjoy nature. With a little bit of patience, your local park or even pavement may be very rewarding too.
Getting there: Natural navigation
FOR TRISTAN Gooley, advocate of what he calls “natural navigation”, you don’t even have to leave home or your hermetically sealed office to enjoy a new relationship with nature in the city.
The point of the exercise, he says, in the week after he returned from sailing to the Arctic without instruments, is not to learn tricks to get to places faster. The trick is to slow down, notice more, and enrich your sense of connection with the natural world.
“Look out the window, and ask yourself, ‘which way am I looking?’ You might notice discoloration on a building, and that it is different on the two sides of the building you can see. If the prevailing wind blows from the southeast, it will be bringing more water and pollution to one side. Or the building may be south-facing and dried out by the sun, so the north side will be damper, with more lichen and ferns. So one minute you are thinking about direction, the next minute you are thinking about plants.
“If you are trying to go to a new place within the city, pause and ask yourself, ‘how is nature trying to tell me where it is?’ You might know the place is south of the river and you are north of the river, so you have to work out where the river is relative to you.
“Extraordinary things can happen while you do. You may be able to smell the river, but there are much more subtle clues. The Inuit find water by looking at the underside of clouds. Above water, the colour of the cloud will be slightly different than over land.
“Obviously, you may fail at this a lot – I do, too – but just making the effort makes every journey that bit more interesting.”
The Natural Navigator by Tristan Gooley (Virgin Books) naturalnavigator.com
Habitat guide: Where to go now
Here are a few classic sites for nature-lovers in our cities
North Bull Island – flowers are the highlight right now, but also birds, insects, and bats; the Phoenix Park, especially for the fallow deer; Howth Head and Ireland’s Eye, for nesting seabirds and sea-watching; Dublin Bay, for all kinds of marine life.
Belfast Lough Reserve, D2 Lagoon, for nesting terns in July; Cave Hill Country Park, for rambles, birds and flowers.
The Claddagh and Nimmo’s pier, for gulls and salmon.
Westfields (Limerick City Marsh) for birds, flowers, dragonflies.
King’s Channel salt marsh, for flowers and birds; in nearby Dunmore East, the kittiwakes (a gull) right beside the harbour offer a remarkable opportunity to see a whole colony of nesting seabirds close-up in an urban environment.
CLOSER TO HOME
No one interested in nature, however, should limit their attention to the places above, enormously attractive though they are.
You can extend your urban safaris by thinking in terms of much more local habitats, radiating out from your home. These are a few pointers to get you started.
Older urban walls are especially rich in lichens, mosses, ferns, insects and a variety of flowering plants.
‘Waste’ ground and building sites
Recently disturbed ground is particularly good for “pioneer” plants that rush in to colonise them, from chickweed to buddleia – and the insects and animals that feed on them.
Graveyards, railway cuttings, canals
Frequently, these are refuges for plants and insects, sometimes birds and animals, long locally extinct elsewhere. Where there are even small patches of water, always look out for frogs, even newts. Lizards like to sun themselves on flat gravestones.
Invaluable green corridors for shy animals, from mice to badgers, and homes for nesting birds, hedges also include many unusual trees and shrubs, and shelter a wealth of wildflowers and insects.
City skies are constantly traversed by birds and insects, so don’t forget to look up as well as down.
But they are also the stage on which clouds, so common we often hardly see them, play out their constantly changing natural dramas.
Cloud appreciation is a rapidly growing hobby. The Irish society is holding its festival from July 27th-29th.
Field guide: What to see now
A KIND OF pause in nature seems to occur in high summer. The trees are in full leaf, but not yet coming into full fruit. Many spring flowers, such as celandines and bluebells, have vanished or are well past their best, and summer flowers may be difficult to spot among longer grass and thicker underbrush. Birds sing less and are harder to find.
But this pause is an illusion, and July is full of natural delights.
Look carefully into the branches of a horse chestnut tree: while its blazing candelabras of creamy flowers are long gone, you can observe the first swelling of the prickly green shells that will encase shiny brown “conker” chestnuts in a few weeks’ time.
The same tree may be the scene for avian family dramas, with the urgent calls of young fledglings demanding to be fed. It’s challenging to try to identify the young of very common birds during this month, which may be so different from their parents as to appear like another species.
Juvenile robins lack red breasts, but have a scalloped brown bib instead. Young starlings have none of the multicoloured glitter of adults, but are soberly suited in a nondescript shade somewhere between grey and buff. Young blue tits have the mature birds’ plumage pattern, but seem to be waiting for someone to colour them in.
The offspring of mammals have a special attraction for children, and if you have foxes or rabbits in your garden or local park, this is the ideal time to see the young at play. You may have to get up very early to see the fox cubs, though. This is a good time for insects, too, most obviously butterflies. A single buddleia plant on a building site may attract half a dozen species, including peacocks, red admirals and tortoiseshells.
The beaches are also full of treasures. Look out especially for the egg cases of the whelk, which look like models of the human brain, and the even stranger “mermaid’s purses” that once housed the eggs of skates.
Flowers, however, are probably the stars of nature’s show for most people in July. From the tiny willow herbs and fumitories struggling up through every concrete crack, to the yellow lady’s bedstraw and frothy meadowsweet in the parks, their variety is infinite. And if you want to get a little more adventurous, this is high season for orchids, too.
There’s a new Dublin Audio Biodiversity Tour available from the TCD Centre for Biodiversity Research: tcd.ie/tcbr/news/biodiver-audio.php