April is a month of transformation. The spring equinox on 21. March marks the beginning of spring in many cultures and it is the time when nature starts to awaken again after a long winter slumber. Even here on the western fringes of Ireland, where the North Atlantic Current, also known as the Gulf Stream, provides a mild climate all year, the change of season is tangible and visible. Average temperatures rise into the double figures and fresh green is starting to emerge in the weather-beaten landscape. Wildflowers begin to appear in greater numbers and the birds of the countryside start their concerts. April also has a reputation for very changeable weather, spells of warm sunshine and bursts of heavy showers are what is expected of the first full month of spring.
This year April came with an unexpected hint of summer after long months of very wet and windy weather. Temperatures reached the mid to high teens and not a single April shower was in sight. Because of the persisting mild weather it wasn’t a surprise that the spring flowers were already in full swing at the beginning of the month. Primroses, dog violets and lesser celandines added welcome colour to the roadsides and cliff edges. Scurvygrass also had burst into bloom in many places while its usual flowering companion, the sea pink or thrift, was only starting to show its first buds. Thrift and scurvygrass are the quintessential spring flowers of Ireland’s west coast and together can form vast carpets along cliff edges and the upper shoreline. Thrift eventually came into full bloom towards the middle of the month which was pretty much right on time. In between the tufts of thrift however other flowers also had decided to get going. Bird’s foot trefoil and kidney-vetch, species which are more associated with summer and usually come into bloom only towards the end of May, were showing first blossoms. Even sea-campion and sheep’s-bits, two typical summer flowers, had produced the occasional flower. The warming effect of the Gulf Stream had always influenced the flowering behaviour of some plants and it is not unusual so see herb robert or the daisy produce the occasional flower. Over the past years however a new trend has started to emerge. Many flowering plants start to bloom several weeks earlier than usual and others, like my own backyard daisies, now produce flowers consistently throughout the year. While it is hard to tell where the influence of the North Atlantic Current ends and the warming effect of climate change begins, it is clear that fundamental changes are happening in the flowering behaviour of many plants and these changes will have a ripple-effect that will affect insects, birds and many other species.
Away from the immediate coast other plants also started to wake up from their winter rest. The gorse shrubs that showed a first hint of yellow back in February were laden with flowers by early April while daisies and dandelions blanketed roadsides and fields. These early spring flowers are a vital food source for emerging bees, bumblebees, butterflies and other insects. Unfortunately these wildflowers were and still are often seen as weeds and their suppression and eradication over the past decades have played a major part in a steep decline of insect populations. Thankfully more and more people are starting to change their mindset and start to realize not only the importance of wildflowers but also that a yellow carpet of dandelions is visually much more attractive than a green lawn.
April is also the month when the cliff faces are starting to crowd up. The first to arrive are always the fulmars. The first birds return from their winter domicile on the open ocean as early as February, some birds even stay close to the coast over the winter months. The other summer guests, kittiwakes, razorbills and guillemots, begin to return in March but the majority of the birds make their grand entrance in April. A visit to the breeding sites early in the month revealed singular birds and small groups sitting slightly forlorn on the cliffs or bopping on the water. Late April then showed a very different picture. The cliffs were packed with birds and echoed with cackling, cooing and trumpeting while flocks of guillemots and razorbills floated on the water at the bottom of the cliffs. The resident birds also got ready for breeding season. All members of the crow family - jackdaws, rooks, hooded crows and choughs - could be seen with sticks and other nesting material in their beaks flying back and forth and the local raven couple seemed to have a clear sharing of the workload. While one bird was staying on lookout at the cliff edge, the other was busy selecting sticks and blades of grass a bit further inland and once in a while was reporting back and seemingly received instructions from its other half. For me this characteristic vocalization, the unique deep croak of the raven, encapsulates the wild edge of west Clare.
The high-pitched chirp and gurgle of the swallow couldn’t be more different. This summer visitor is the bird everybody is waiting for and this year the swallows arrived in Kilbaha around the 9th April. I was hunched over at the roadside trying to get a decent picture of an uncurling hart’s tongue fern when the distinctive song of this tiny bird reached my ears from right above my head where a lonely swallow was singing its heart out on the telephone line. The other birdsong, one less melodic but equally distinctive, everybody is waiting for this time of the year arrived a bit later around the 20. April. I had just discovered my first cuckoo flower of the season when the call of the bird that gave the flower its name echoed across the fields. The cuckoo had arrived in west Clare and the cuckoo flower had started to bloom. It couldn’t be more perfect.
While the summer visitors were arriving, other birds got ready to leave or visited for a stopover on their way to their breeding grounds further north. Bent geese were getting ready for departure and flocks of redwings were gathering around Loop Head early in the month. The other end of April saw groups of whimbrels having a bit of a rest along the sheltered bays and inlets of the peninsula.
Around the same time another, more elusive, visitor arrived at Loop Head. Reports of basking sharks sightings had been coming from Kilkee and Doonbeg since late March and on the 28th April one basking shark was feeding at the small cove at Ross, followed by 3 more animals the day after and more sightings from all around Loop Head over the following days. The basking shark is the planet’s second largest fish, adults reach an average length of 8 meters, and feeds entirely on plankton. On their search for food they follow plankton blooms and can cover thousands of kilometers throughout the year. Basking sharks are regular visitors to Ireland in summer but the sheer number of animals that would appear over the following weeks was staggering. With this April came to an exciting end so I didn’t really care that the weather had returned to the normal wet and windy.
Carsten Krieger, May 2020