Nature Notebook

Winter: colour, detail and water

The weather and the shortest daylight hours of the year dictate what you can do and where you can go in the outdoors at the moment. As a result my extended Sunday walks tend to be close to home at Gallan on Mangerton Road in Muckross in Killarney.

Yesterday I wanted to get some photographs of that maple I mentioned a week ago.

autumn colourP1010236

At the western/lake-side end of Muckross Gardens the Japanese maple still shone out. It still had lots of leaves – and many more on the ground – ranging in colour from full green, through bright yellow to dark crimson and all of the shades in between and a whole range of combinations.

fallen tree P1010259

A huge Scots Pine fell on that western edge of the garden a number of years ago and now its six or seven trunks look even bigger – abandoned, untrimmed and untended, like so many trees in the woods now, their numbers added to yet further to in recent storms.

autumn yellowP1010263

The Norway maples on Ross Island were the first to make a spectacular splash of Autmn colour in early October. Because of the flooding I haven’t been able to get in to the Ross Island trees but in Muckross the maples are not only the last trees with Autumn colour but are almost the only ones with any leaves. Maple wood is used for violin-making.

My mention of the high level of the lake waters on Saturday’s radio programme encouraged a man to come from Tralee to see for himself. “It was exactly as you said,” he told me. Though by yesterday the levels had dropped enough to allow me to walk out to Dundag headland with its great panorama over Muckross Lake … with it’s sheer backdrop of Torc mountain and the less imminent bulk of Glena, Purple and Tomies.

The southern end of the Jackoboys/Arthur Young trail were still completely inundated so I backtracked and walked along the Arboretum’s western edge/the boundary with Muckross Gardens. Here a Norway maple was the last tree in leaf but in this case the leaves were almost all green with a little yellow.


The direct path from the arboretum to the formal gardens is dominated by evergreen conifers with a lush tree fern as a centre piece. The image of a tropical rain forest again came to mind – as it had a week ago.

bare tree P1010275

The great oak in the middle of the formal gardens, now bare of leaf, shows the enormous complexity of the structure of the tree.

This morning as I worked at my desk two unusual sights. A heron circled and dived high in the sky. Within minutes just above ground level four cavorting jays – our most exotic native bird with its bright flash of blue against a buff background. The only other time I had seen more than one jay was high over the banks of the River Moselle in Germany.

This surely must be an omen!


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There are lakes everywhere in Killarney at the moment. Lowlying land is all under water. Yesterday (Sunday, December 6) I spent three intriguing hours along by lake margins that I had never seen before.


My appetite was whetted by the piece on the Radio Kerry web site showing the thundering, white, contorted mass of water coming down Torc Waterfall.

Joining the shores of Lough Leane/the Lower Lake opposite Muckross Abbey a first realisation of the effects of 48 hours of non-stop heavy rain on Friday and Saturday last. A few hundred yards down Lover’s Walk it was completely impassable.

There were lots of people out walking all marvelling at the height of the water and wanting a breath of fresh air after the claustrophobia of the previous days.

The big beech and yew trees surrounded by still water at the edge of the lake suggested images of a quiet backwater off a great rain forest river like the Amazon. Having a fertile imagination makes walking in the outdoors even more enjoyable.

The level of the water at the Garden Quay on Lough Leane appeared to be eight or nine feet higher than it was at the end of October. The Muckross Rowing Club boathouse was completely inaccessible. Here the water was almost up to the road.

Access to the Muckross peninsula was completely cut off, the water was up to the Arthur Young House. At the end of the ice age the water levels in the Killarney Valley were much higher. The levels of these past days must have been what the they were like as they very gradually dropped.

All along the way people were stopping and chatting. One eagerly looking forward to a son coming home for Christmas. Everybody marvelling at the water.


Several hundred yards at the start of the Jackoboys walk was flooded.


The wet boathouse at the start of the Dundag headland was completely inundated.

Two young women visitors used their tablet to record the scene. A mother with two young children was determined to get to see Torc Waterfall. She was not put off because the Park roads between Muckross House and the falls were all flooded. “The jaunting car road is not flooded”.

Skirting floods by going through Muckross Gardens an exotic maple was surrounded by, and still had a generous coat, of the most colourful Autumn leaves.

Then by the entrance to the Muckross Traditional Farms there was a gaggle of talking parents and excited children were preparing to go on the most exciting Santa excursion ever seen in this part of the world.

By the time I got home it was nearly dark. Now it is Winter. Christmas is coming. And the outdoors are as exciting as ever.

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– Frank Lewis



If you were up Mangerton Road on November 17 you might have imagined you were witnessing the overflow from a rich oil well. There was oil flowing down the road for much of the mile or so from here to the foot of the mountain.

It was not the emergence of a major oil discovery – just the result of shooting tar and chips into water-logged potholes.

As I was walking down from Mangerton on November 18 I noticed a bushy tail sticking up over the stone ditch/wall. For the following several minutes the red squirrell raced vertically up a Scots Pine trunk. Then horizontally along a branch. Now it jumped from one impossibly thin branch to another.

On Sunday November 22 an idyllic four hours walking along the banks of the Gearhameen River looking for spawning salmon.

Up near Analann Bridge John Murphy pointed out the substantial holes the salmon had just dug out of the gravel river bed with its tail in which to lay her eggs. They were up to half a meter long by half a meter wide by a third of a meter deep.

Genie Tangney said a mink had killed eight of their nine turkeys during the week while his wife Mary was away in Belfast – having warned him to care for her precious birds. Was he worried about her reaction when she came home? “I rang her before she came back and told her ‘You’ll have one less job when you come home’.”

Cormac Foley marvelled at the colour and amount of leaf still on the trees in this area where placenames reflect its having some of the oldest oak in Ireland.*

Then last Saturday three dry hours from here at Gallan Eile through the woods to the Owengarriff river. My canine companions were happy to rest – convenienty framing the river’s rushing cascades.


Then down river to Torc Waterfall where, as you can see, there was a great flow. At any time from before first light to after last there are people admiring the thundering cascade, particularly when it is in spate. Being here during extended very heavy rain is a special experience.

And all of that is to show that there was no shortage of nature subjects to write about over the past fortnight. I didn’t have photographs. I could give you other excuses. I won’t miss any other week, I promise.


– Frank Lewis

* Hear the whole story of our search for spawning salmon ( – search under podcasts for Frank Lewis, The Saturday Supplement, November 28) … you can get the programme live every Saturday morning from after the 9 am news to 11 … on 97fm … or worldwide on


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(A new Nature Notebook every Monday morning and, if nature dictates, more often)

– as intriguing as a spider’s web

MH 1853 P1010199

All three of us were quite clear that the engraving was VH and, on the basis that they didn’t do that sort of thing in 853, the years must have been 1853 and the line on the left was a decoration. Later at home Siubhan looked at the photograph and immediately said it was MH – and then the line on the left made perfect sense.

We were walking along the Gearhameen River in the Black Valley starting at the Toll Bridge that leads to Lord Brandon’s Cottage preparing for a radio programme on salmon spawning that will be broadcast on November 28.* More about that on the November 30 notebook.

I presume MH was one of the Herberts. In this area the two great Killarney estates joined. But we were on Herbert land. Any idea who it might have been?

There are intials and dates carved into rocks all over Killarney. Most that I have heard about are all from the 19th century. And they all tell a story.

Along the Kerry Way in Esknamucky (Eisc na Muice/the pigs’ cascade) the engraving reads ‘James Neill Tippy Reg 1815’. Who was James Neill? Presumably his Tipperary Regiment was based at Ross Castle. Why was he based up here with a good deal of time on his hands?

Not far from Esknamucky on the southern side of Cromaglan Mountain a rock records the shooting of a fine stag with eighteen points. The initials are RB & DD. I believe, on good authority, RB was Rupert Baring, one of the banking family. Elizabeth Baring was the mother of the famous Lord Castlerosse, the well-known Sunday Express social columnist. DD was the gamekeeper Dan Donoghue.

It would be an interesting project to photograph and map all of these rock carvings in the Killarney Valley. I will come back to others in future nature notebooks. They weave as fascinating a story as the spiders webs I came across just up from Gallan Eile last Wednesday morning about 8.

spider web and furze P1010197

– Frank Lewis

* My programme on Radio Kerry (97fm – or on internet world wide and on podcast at is broadcast every Saturday morning from after the 9 o’clock news to 11am. The programme on the last Saturday of every month is a walk.

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and the endless enthusiasm of a 7 year old

Where would we spend yesterday afternoon with 7 year old grandson Noah? Siubhan suggested Derreen Gardens in Lauragh.  It is a place of lush sub tropical vegetation, along the shore of Kenmare Bay.  A place of endless twists and turns. Something new around every bend.

As well it should be an ideal place to experience yet another display of Autumn colour.  In these days of endless sunshine, warm, calm and dry we brought a picnic.  And Noah was as enthusiastic as we were.


We decided to use the pergola at the far end of the garden as our base.  Hauling the picnic gear my aching arms suggested a mental note ‘In future only bring the essentials’.

By Derreen House, the home of the descendants of Sir William Petty, surgeon general with Cromwell’s army, who conducted the first comprehensive mapping of this country and in return was granted tens of thousands of acres of land here. Petty’s descendants became the Earls of Lansdowne.


It was surprising how little evidence of Autumn colour there was.  But then dominant trees and shrubs in Derreen Gardens are nearly all evergreen, particularly exotic rhododendrons and tree ferns.

Noah ran ahead to be first to get to our picnic place.


And then unexpected Autumn colour.  The wide margin of seaweed along the seafront surrounding our pergola-base was bright orange.  Everything here suggested a tropical island.  The water was calm, the hills across the way were a soft, hazy blue and the distant trees were seasonably colourful.


The artistically designed pergola was built of good quality wood and stone to mark the millennium.

Our 7 year old was interested in everything.  The huge eucalyptus.  Running to the end of every path.  The shags drying themselves out on off-shore rocks.  Their feathers do not have an oil coating and if they didn’t dry out regularly the saturated feathers would drown them.


Then along the shore of the bay with luxuriant vegetation everywhere.  Turning in from the shore, behind the thick banks of tree and shrub, it was like dense rain forest.  Huge rhododendron. The most prolific self-seeding tree ferns in the country.

Briefly back on the seashore to collect our picnic things that still caused arms to ache in spite of the lighter load.  Now young legs were tiring but determined that ‘I’ll see the house first’ kept him running ahead.

P1010187 P1010189

We drove home via the top of Cnoc a’ tSi/the Hill of the Fairies. From here Derreen and Kilmakillogue looked like the Treasure Island that it is.  And Noah and Siubhan’s jumping for joy expressed how the three of us felt.  All the way home we sang snatches of songs.

Derreen is less than an hour and a half from Gallan Eile.

– Frank Lewis

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Format Gallery

Autumn colour at its best best at the moment


The brilliant yellow of the aspen, deep brown of the great beech, the brown and green mix of the oak, the tiny white bell-shaped flower and deep red berry of the Arbutus, the limes, horse chestnut, hazel, the deep red of the maple … that great pallet of tree-leaf colour at the moment.



The Aspen                                              Beech
I left Gallan Eile  before 8.30 yesterday morning when it was dry but the forecast promised strong winds and heavy rain.  The very light yellow of the leaves on the aspen tree shone out in the overcast conditions.  It was believed aspen leaves trembled vigorously in the slightest breeze because of some terrible sadness or awful guilt.  It was said the guilt was because the aspen wood was used to make the cross on which Christ was crucified.  It is now known that the quivering is caused by the extreme flattening of the leaf’s long stalk.
Lake P1010144

A little time after crossing the road into the National Park, across the park road from Muckross Abbey, the magnificent beech tree’s leaves are a deep bronze, like a smouldering heat that might burst into flames.  A chair made from the light red-brown beech wood is a prized possession for many.  I wonder might the great beech have been a young tree when monks were martyred in the Abbey.

The autumn colours are at present at their magnificent best – a best best in a number of years.  Now along the lake shore on a route that was for a while called Lovers’ Walk.  Green leaves still dominate here in the thick vegetation.  Now and again a glimpse of young Muckross oars people training, the training instructions of coaches carrying clearly in spite of the growing breeze.


At the beginning of the Muckross and Dinis route – that runs between the Middle and Lower Lakes – a magnificent Norway maple, one of our most colourful Autumn trees.  Now most of the leaves are a bright yellow but they can range up to a deep crimson and – as our photograph on last week’s notebook showed – one leaf can have all of the colours from green to dark red.

Along the Arthur Young Trail through the most extensive yew wood in western Europe.  Further on great oaks with leaves that are now green and brown.  Near Brickeen Bridge – under which the waters of the Middle Lake flow into the Lower lake – a great display of Arbutus (The Killarney Strawberry Tree) with  its tiny white, bell-shaped flowers and its rich red raspberry-size fruit, clear evidence of its two year cycle – this year’s flowers become next year’s fruits.  Excuse the shake in the photo but by now the wind was strong.


The Killarney Strawberry/The Arbutus


Now I back-tracked to Jackoboy’s Walk.  The first of two elevated limestone pavement areas has the most magnificent concentration of arbutus and display of its flowers and fruits, made even more magnificent by the great panorama of the Middle Lake and Torc Mountain in the background.

From Dundag headland I walked the western and northern edge of the Arboretum.  Now the brilliant white-barked silver birch from more northern climes is bare.  I picked up a horse chestnut conker of children’s games but have yet to eat my first Spanish chestnut of this autumn.  More about that in coming weeks – hopefully.


Now through the covered garden, skirting Muckross House and Abbey.  I had been out for five hours when I again passed the brilliant yellow aspen and got home dry to Gallan Eile.  Punch drunk and foot weary from the mesmerising range of the most brilliant Autumn colour in recent years.   An hour later there was torrential rain.

                                                                                                                – Frank Lewis


– surrounded by mountain, lake, woodland and story
Sarah with autumn leaves P1010123
          Ross Island’s constantly varied experiences of woodland, lake, mountain and story is special all year.   It is at it’s splendid best these weeks.
          In front of the 15th century Norman tower house that is Ross Castle on the shore of Lough Leane one might wonder about the land  under the water where, legend says, there is eternal spring and nobody ever grows old.   Is Lough Leane the lake of youth?
          Across the water Innisfallen Island with its extensive remains of a monastery.  The monks wrote part of the island’s annals and there was a major university.  Perhaps Lough Leane translates to the lake of learning.
          Imagine out in front the fleet of flat-bottomed Cromwellian boats that blockaded the castle in 1652.  Ross Castle was the last fortress in Ireland to be captured by the invading army.  And thus began the darkest period in Irish history.  During those Penal days there was no such person in law as an Irish catholic.  The ambition was to obliterate Irish identity.
          In complete contrast in August 1861 the huge crowd and great ceremony of Queen Victoria arriving here by carriage to spend a day on the lake.  An elaborate etching in the Illustrated London News captured the scene.
          Now along the course of the road developed here in the 18th century for the wagons drawing the loads of copper ore for smelting in Wales.  The shattered stone and flooded mine shafts further along on the shores of the lake are ample evidence of the 18th and 19th century activity.
          Legend tells of a blacksmith Len Línfíaclach (Len of the White Teeth) who worked his craft here. Perhaps the lake bears his name.   Mining here goes back 4,500 years making it the oldest copper mine in north western Europe.  If you search you might come across a shattered piece of a glacial-rounded sandstone that was part of a prehistoric axehead.  Look out for the grooves cut in the stone to hold a binding.
          A little further on Governor’s Rock was the first Irish nature reserve.  The headland offers a  great high panorama over the whole extent of Lough Leane with its dominant mountain backdrop.
          The demesne road goes on to the Library Point but we didn’t get there because we were anxious to see ‘that’ match.  But on the return we stopped long enough for three year old Sarah to throw colourful maple leaves in the air.
          And all of that is only five miles from Gallan Eile. 
Maple Leaf P1010133
                                                                                                               – Frank Lewis

Stag & Buck Best Given a Wide Berth

          The bellowing of the red stag was a little too close for comfort. It was about 8 yesterday morning on Mangerton Road less than a mile from our Gallan Eile holiday home. I could not see the stag at first but I was uneasy with what I was hearing.
          As the road rose I was eventually able to pick him out about 300 meters away. Already his entire attention was focussed on my every movement. My three dogs were probably his worry – but they were all on leads.
          The stag was on a rise out on the boggy Mangerton commonage. I couldn’t see any females. Presumably they were out of sight in the dip behind him. Thank God for that. Any indication that I was trying to take his women would have him attacking.
          Should I turn tails, I wondered. But then I decided to brazen it out. He didn’t move any closer but watched intently until I rounded a bend and went out of sight.
          Up at the foot of Mangerton there were stags bellowing to east and west. But they were further away, there was some scrub bushes and trees and the ground here is much rougher.
          It was a perfect Autumn morning.
          On the way back the stag was silhouetted against an angry orange early morning sky. The size of his anlter’s made him look even more intimidating. I wanted to try to magnify the scene on my small digital camera but decided not to risk being seen to express too keen an interest.
recent foggy morn nr GE 13)ct15 P1010111photo: a recent foggy morning near Gallan Eile
          This morning was even more idyllic. Only a few wispy clouds in an otherwise clear blue sky. Clear, dry, calm, though it was a little frosty. Overhead a few jets travelling from the west.
          As I got beyond the scenic lay-bye I dreamily wondered if the stag was still around.  A little further along two sika deer females idly watched from the top of the ditch. Now I paid a little more attention. Hopefully the sika buck is not at the other side of the road. The females ambled off.
          A few minutes later I happened to glance over the ditch. Less than 30 feet away a very angry looking sika buck glared at me very malevolently. Immediately behind him there was a group of females. I quickly moved away.
          That would have made a great photograph. I should have tried. On the way back I was ready with the camera in my hand. I expected the deer would have gone. But looking over the ditch he was still there. As I fumbled with the camera he bent down threateningly as if to charge. After two quick photos I made myself scarce.
          The photos are so poor I won’t even show them to you.
– Frank Lewis


This voice has called through ages – the pinnacle of wild nature

Photo: Valerie O'Sullivan
Photo: Valerie O’Sullivan

The annual rut of the Irish red stag is now at its height.  Close-by our ‘Gallan Eile‘ holiday home the mountains reverberate to the wild bull-like bellow of the stags guarding their females and warning off any challenger.  The heart of the red stag territory is in the valley between Torc and Mangerton mountains, about an hour’s walk away.  Do not venture too close.  The blood is up.

As well the Sika buck’s triple whistle-like roar is most frequently heard on lower ground.  The Sika is smaller, much darker and has a flared white rump.

What better way to mark the red stag rut – that has sounded in these hills since the end of the Ice Age some 14,000 years ago – what better way to mark this annual ritual than with Paddy Bushe’s poem, which he kindly dedicated to me.

Listening to the Roaring of the Stags

for Frank Lewis


The sun is making love to winter in the glen

And a calling can be heard as it echoes here and there,

An imperious ululation that rolls from ben to ben.


Between us and the light, sharp as a blade’s edge,

See the seven-horned stag, etched deep into the air.

The sun is making love to the winter in the glen.


The elemental bodhrán grows more and more intense

As the piping of the birds becomes antiphonal prayer,

And an imperious ululation rolls from ben to ben.


The spear-wail of the Fianna lives on in branch and stem

With leaf and nut and berry in rampant display,

While the sun is making love to the winter in the glen.


The music of what happens is music without end

And a universal note now permeates the air,

An imperious ululation that rolls from ben to ben.


This voice has called through ages in story and in verse

And if we lose its echo, the loss will cost us dear.

The sun is making love to winter in the glen

And an imperious ululation rolls from ben to ben.


                                                   Killarney, October 2003

Paddy Bushe wrote the original version of this poem in Irish.  If you would like to have the Irish version (Ag Éisteacht le Dord na nDamh) let me know and I will email it on to you.

Frank Lewis



– to superb new lake panoramas

P1010105Cardiac Hill

“Why don’t we try something different – what about Cardiac Hill?” I offered following the brother’s expected suggestion that we walk Muckross and Dinis – a route that I agree has no parallel but it is good to experience some of the many other options.

“Oh great,” was the response of his 25 year old daughter, but ‘cardiac’ had him more than a little non-plussed. To be fair he had walked from our ‘Gallan Eile’ holiday home to Faill a’ Crann only a few weeks ago (September 7 nature notebook).

“Is this an old path?” the brother asked. It is hard to believe that a route developed less than ten years ago has settled down so well. The entire stone-stepped way has the feeling of a path that might date back to Victorian times.

The whole way is through dense foliage. Over the millennia this was oak woodland with holly underneath. A grove of tall eucalyptus was planted some years ago. Now all are drowned in rhododendron, through which the path had to be cut.

From the beginning Kate and Billy (my dog) raced ahead.  From very shortly after the start there are ever widening panoramas. First over the Middle Lake (also called Muckross Lake & Torc Lake). The brother stopped regularly – to admire the view, of course. I also stopped and looked. As a good guide, of course.

My impression was that the Cardiac Hill steps rise about a thousand feet over a mile or so. The Ordnance Survey map (1:25,000 Killarney National Park) would suggest that height and distance are significantly less.

As we climbed higher the view opened up to the wooded Muckross peninsula and the Lower Lake (Lough Leane).

P1010101Cardiac Hill

I love the humour of the wags who placed the sign ‘THE END IS NEAR’ a little way from the finish of the climb. The photograph might suggest that ‘the end’ referred to the brother’s life expectancy, but that is entirely unfair. He was responding to my request to be theatrical. But it was not difficult.

At the top of Cardiac Hill the path travels east across the north face of Torc. This was a route developed over 50 years ago. The much less demanding original path continued further west to a dramatic view over the entire Upper Lake. Hopefully this will be re-opened in the near future.

The work in recent weeks by the Mountain Meitheal has opened up unprecedented views of the entire Middle and Lower Lakes, cutting back huge banks of rhododendron growing on very sheer mountain terrain. A very difficult and dangerous job. Now most of the high route has an almost constant view of lake, mountain and woodland – the three essential elements of the Killarney landscape.

The route joins a forest road. There are options of coming down west of Torc Waterfall – with no view of the cascade – or east by the falls. Then back to the start along the park road that runs parallel to the main road. We went a different way – more about that next week.

“I am glad to have climbed Cardiac Hill but I probably won’t do it again”, was the last word from the brother.

– Frank Lewis