Photographic Diary: Lizards of the Irish Coast

The stunning view offered by the Ballycotton cliff walk. Credit: Jess Leahy
The stunning view offered by the Ballycotton cliff walk. Credit: Jess Leahy

On a rainy Saturday afternoon in Cork city, my partner-in-crime, Seán, and I decided to head out in search of sunshine. After loading up the car with binoculars, cameras, and flasks of tea, we drove east to Ballycotton. The beautiful cliff walk in Ballycotton, East Cork, is popular with walkers, photographers and wildlife enthusiasts alike. At this time of year, it is a favourite of whale watchers, hoping for a view of a distant blow indicating the presence of the second largest animal on our planet, the fin whale.

With that in mind, we decided to do a bit of whale-watching (or more accurately, whale-looking-for) ourselves. While I scanned the flat calm ocean, Seán was distracted by the promise of a nearby geocache (it’s like modern day treasure hunting!). It was then, while rooting in the undergrowth, that he spotted something that surprised us both – a tiny lizard.

Evidently, Seán has a keen eye... Credit: Jess Leahy
Evidently, Sean  has a keen eye… Credit: Jess Leahy

Common, or viviparous, lizards are widely distributed in Ireland, occupying a range of habitats including bogs, woodlands, sand dunes, and even rural gardens. But because of their small size, speed, and excellent camouflage, many people have never seen one, and many others don’t even realise that there are lizards in Ireland.

Between October and February Irish lizards hibernate, but in the spring time they will emerge to bask in the open, absorbing heat from the sun. And that is exactly where we spotted it, curled up on a rock under a gorse bush, into which it could escape if it sensed danger. As these reptiles are only now emerging from hibernation, it is a good time to watch them as they will often move a little slower – come summer, they have a tendency to dart away the instant they sense someone approaching.

However, while watching these gorgeous creatures, it is very important to maintain your distance and not to cause unnecessary stress, as one of their defence mechanisms is to drop their tail when threatened. The tail will continue to wriggle, distracting the would-be predator just long enough for the lizard to escape. However, while the tail does eventually grow back, it requires a lot of energy to do so.

A clearer view of a basking lizard Credit: Jess Leahy
A clearer view of a basking lizard Credit: Jess Leahy

Because of this we didn’t attempt to handle it, so it was difficult to tell the sex. Males have an orange/yellow belly with dark spots, where females have a pale coloured underside. Once the males come out of hibernation, they will establish a breeding territory which they defend vigorously. Breeding takes place around April or May, and females give birth to between 2 and 12 live young around 3 months later. I have made a mental note to return to Ballycotton in the summer, with the hope of spotting some of the young.

No whales, but...close enough? Credit: Jess Leahy
No whales, but…close enough? Credit: Jess Leahy

After taking a few shots of the little guy, we left it alone to enjoy the sunshine and carried on along the cliff walk to enjoy the sunshine ourselves. But we had walked no more than 5 metres before spotting another basking lizard, this time tucked into a clump of dried grass. We excitedly pointed it out to a passing couple, who informed us that the only other time that they had seen lizards in Ireland was on that very same cliff walk, more than 25 years previously. This second lizard was significantly smaller than the first, and it only tolerated a few photos before darting back into the undergrowth with surprising speed.

We weren't the only ones appreciating the beauty Ballycotton had to offer. Credit: Jess Leahy
We weren’t the only ones appreciating the beauty Ballycotton had to offer. Credit: Jess Leahy

Throughout the afternoon, we saw 6 of these beautiful little reptiles on our walk along the cliffs, but as soon as the sun dipped below the horizon, there were no more to be found. I’ve seen many lizards on my travels, in zoos and wildlife parks, on the slopes of an Italian volcano, and I have a little leopard gecko at home, but it is always an absolute privilege to get a chance to see Ireland’s only native reptile for myself.

Credit: Jess Leahy
Credit: Jess Leahy

Jess Leahy ThumbnailAbout the Author: Jess Leahy is an amateur wildlife photographer based in Cork, working in environmental education. You can find more of her work on her Facebook Page: Jess Leahy Photography