Take an urban safari on the city's waterways
Irish Times, February 22, 2015
I know few betters ways to see wildlife in Ireland than to walk Galway’s inner bay, and waterways. Start from the aquarium in Salthill and follow the prom towards the city. For me, Galway Bay seems most vital on calm autumn evenings, when the syrup-still water shakes with life as mackerel chase sprat inshore, while seals and gulls stalk the frenzy.
The prom brings you to Grattan Beach, where I’ve found everything from cuttlefish to sea stars to small conger eels in tidepools. Past here, you can walk the causeway out to Mutton Island, under an amphitheatre of mercurial light and weather. But don’t venture out here in high winds or very high tides. The causeway was the first place I saw an otter: when I approached at dusk, a lone walker, it slinked from the road into the sea and was gone.
Back onshore, follow the path through South Park above the Claddagh beach. Last summer I watched a bottlenose dolphin feeding not far offshore here, and soon after a harbour seal reared its head, mole-like, only a few metres out.
The path brings you to Nimmo’s Pier. Around low tide, the stretch of coast from here back to Mutton Island offers rich birdwatching – particularly in winter, when gulls, waders and geese migrate here from northern Europe and North America.
Go left and follow the pier to the Claddagh Hall, then go right along the harbour, which bulges with shoaling mullet in warmer months. Turn right on to the quay by the traffic lights, and cross the footbridge by the sea lock.
At low tide in dry weather the Lower Corrib can be reduced to a sad dribble, but during winter rains it becomes a boiling mass of grey foam. And when the tide floods and the river is calm, it turns smooth and salty – a good time to see seals come upstream. From Wolf Tone Bridge, follow the right hand side of the Corrib. Then from O’Brien’s Bridge, follow the path between river and canal to Newtownsmith.
Go left and cross the road by the Salmon Weir Bridge, staying on the right side of the river. The weir here controls the flow of the Lower Corrib, and in summer you can watch anglers artfully fly casting in the low water under it.
You can now follow the water out to the quay at Waterside, another rich spot for birding. Local birdwatcher Tom Cuffe spotted a slaty-backed gull here last winter that had migrated from the northern Pacifc, the first time the species was recorded in Ireland.
Go back and take the Salmon Weir Bridge over the Corrib, where peregrine falcons have been spotted perching on the cathedral. Go right and follow University Road. You can join the Eglinton Canal by Ward’s shop and follow it back to Wolf Tone Bridge.
The canal is a good place to see small trout rising for bugs. Half way along, the mysterious St Clare’s River, accessible only by boat, branches off. Galway’s waterways form a complicated labyrinth, and while I’ve kayaked some of its backwaters, I could not draw a map of it. Only the ducks and otters can fully comprehend its pattern.
From Wolf Tone Bridge, follow the coast back to the aquarium, or for a faster route, turn right on to Fr Griffin Road and walk back towards Lower Salthill, turning left along the way on to Whitestrand Road, which will bring you out near Grattan Beach.
Time and distance: About 9km (returning via Fr Griffin Road), two to three hours at relaxed pace. Returning by the coast adds about 1km. Start and finish: Toft Car Park, beside the Galway Atlantaquaria, Salthill. Suitability: Easy, flat walking on footpaths. City traffic is busy, so use pedestrian crossings. Map: Any good digital map, or a street map of the city.