Falconry Fantasy

I’ve waited a whole life for this – the chance to be a falconer, if only for a moment.

Ever since I read T H White’s The Once and Future King, it’s been a fantasy of mine to interact with one of those magnificent hunting birds that he described so well. A couple of weeks ago, at Adare Manor, Robert and I got a chance to finally live that dream – yes, he read the same book and loved it just as much as I had. T H White was a falconer himself, although not a very successful one. The treat was part of a couple of days stay at Adare Manor – Robert’s post describes this fascinating place in wonderful detail.

This falcon is happier and calmer with his hood on

Our falconer at Adare Manor was Susan Kirwan, one of the team at Adare Country Pursuits. What she doesn’t know about birds would fit on a postcard. She trained her first bird, a jackdaw, at the age of nine, and was hooked. Now she shares her knowledge and her love of birds with those of us who have admired from afar but have never had an opportunity to get up close.

Susan has Saoirse, the American Bald Eagle, show off her wings

She spent the morning with us, handling each bird in turn and giving us an education on each one – habitat, habits, hunting style, personality, peculiarities, nutrition, feathers, weight – it was in-depth and fascinating. There wasn’t a question we asked that she couldn’t answer. She has spent her life studying and living with these birds.

All of the birds wore jesses (ankle leathers) and Susan showed us how to hold our gauntlets and our fingers to secure a bird once on the glove. She encouraged us to speak in a calm voice and not to betray nervousness – birds are excellent at picking up on human emotions.

Tiny, the White Faced Scopes Owl, awaits her turn with us

Some of the birds were trained to fly from perch to perch, attached to a ‘creance’ or long line. Each has a optimal weight for flying and it’s essential to keep it there, so weighing and inspecting is part of the daily routine. Food must be as close as possible to what they would eat in the wild, to preserve the level of roughage and protein. Falconry, especially when you keep several birds, is a full-time job.

Caesar is a Common Buzzard, which is a native species in Ireland

Owls, although excellent hunters for themselves, don’t make the greatest falconry hunters. However, they are often brought to Susan as motherless chicks and she becomes their parent, as they imprint readily on a human. Susan told us that the Harry Potter series started a trend among some young people of capturing owls ‘to train’ but of course this is almost impossible for an amateur, so that is how some birds have come to her aviary.

Noddy, a Dark Breasted Barn Own, has beautiful feathers and colouring

Oscar, a Eurasian Eagle Owl, has a good old ruffle

Raising an imprinted bird involves a particular set of skills and deep knowledge of the species. Susan is a certified falconer and has taken all the courses she can find to develop her skills. It was obvious, in the way she talked to and handled her birds how much she loved them.

Top: I’m obviously a ‘natural’ at this! Bottom: Well, maybe not quite yet

It was a thrill to be so close to a bald eagle. Living in Canada, I had many opportunities to observe these magnificent creatures in the wild, but I had never seen one as close up as I did at Adare. Saoirse is not quite four yet, and it takes a full four years for a bald eagle to mature and to grow both the white head and the white tail. Saoirse’s tail was there, but her head was at the salt-and-pepper stage that women of my age can relate to.

The Harris Hawk – ours was called Felix – is considered the easiest hunting bird to train because of its laid-back attitude to life and its natural ability to interact with humans. The highlight of our session came when Susan let Felix loose to fly to a high perch, and then called him down to land on our glove.

What a feeling! This IS a wild bird – Susan affixed a locator transmitter to its leg before we started so that if Felix took it into his head to fly away she could track him through the woods. She described how a falconer would track a bird before locators were used – it involved standing very still and tuning in to the sounds of the forest. Other birds would react to the sudden appearance of a hawk or falcon and the falconer would follow the sound-clues to his bird.

I learned that Oscar’s tufts aren’t his ears and that they don’t always stand up like this

We were extremely lucky to have Susan and her birds all to ourselves that morning – not sure how often that happens! But if you get a chance, don’t pass up an opportunity like this. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Thank you, Susan – you’ve made some old T H White fans very happy!

See you again, Tiny!

The Turning Year in Rossbrin

We are fortunate to live in a rural idyll: our immediate environment is immersed in the natural world. In fact, I suppose it is ‘Nature tamed’ – as we have pasture all around us as well as banks of gorse and rock: even a few trees which manage to cling on to the shallow soil all through the winter gales and (occasional) summer droughts. As the years go by we feel we become more closely entwined with the cycle of everything around us – we get to know personally the fox, pheasants and rabbits that pass by our window, and the myriad of birds that feed here, forage in the Cove or just show themselves to us on memorable occasions – Spioróg the Sparrowhawk is so handsome when she is resting on our terrace wall while on her deadly missions, and our choughs frequently perform wild dances in the air to entertain us. This year was special for me because, for the first time, I saw a hare amble around the house, alert with erect ears, before loping off into the next door field.

I have written about Rossbrin Cove many times before: look at A Moment in Time, Tide’s Out and Words on Roaring Water, for example. That sheltered natural harbour and the old mine road up on the hill above probably give us the most pleasure because we visibly see the year change and turn every time we walk there. Just now the days are rapidly shortening, and the autumnal influx of wading birds is returning. One we keep a particular eye out for is the curlew – a threatened breeding species here in Ireland. We see many on and close to the water, particularly at low tide, but these are probably migrants rather than resident breeders.

The year is turning – from late summer into early autumn, and the colours are changing from rich reds and purples – fuschia and heathers – to the more sombre yet equally attractive yellows and browns of furze and fern. Finola has closely followed the wildflowers right through from the spring – she is still finding and identifying every imaginable species – it’s a complete world of its own!

We have been seeing some exceptionally high and low tides here in Rossbrin. I’m always fascinated to see the mud-flats revealing bits of discarded history, while I am convinced that the huge remnants of dressed stonework on the north-east shore are the vestiges of once-busy quays, dating either from the medieval period, when Sir William Hull and the Great Earl of Cork owned the lands around here and set up thriving fish-processing ‘palaces’, or – at the latest – when the copper mines were active up on our hills and on Horse Island in the nineteenth century.

The real turning point comes at the end of October – Samhain – when the old calendar enters the ‘dark year’ (the ‘light year’ begins on May 1st –  Bealtaine). We know we have long, dark nights to come – time to huddle down by the stove – but there will be bright days as good as any in the year for walking, exploring and breathing in the Atlantic breezes. And the Rossbrin sunsets will be magnificent!

Choughs – and their travels

You’re looking here at a 500 year-old Chough! It’s a carving from a medieval rood screen in an ancient church at Sancreed, on the West Penwith peninsula in Cornwall. There’s no mistaking it: the curved red beak and the red legs make this the most distinctive of all the corvids. This is an accurate representation but, interestingly, on the rood screen it’s in the company of other curioser beasts and beings which we perhaps would not recognise. Were the others around once in Cornwall, but now vanished? You can have a look for yourselves in next week’s post. But first, a little more about our own Choughs.

This wonderful photograph by our neighbour Oliver Nares (thank you, Oliver) shows Choughs in flight, and you can tell they are Choughs rather than any other sort of crow by the distinctive ‘finger’ feathers on the tips of their wings. But also their call is very particular – they tell you their name!

The pattern of their flight makes them stand out. The other day a chatter of twenty Choughs passed over us at Nead an Iolair and swooped down over and around Rossbrin Cove. They were wheeling and turning, performing acrobatics in the sky – even flying upside down! – clearly enjoying every moment of their airborne peregrinations. Why wouldn’t you, with such a beautiful landscape below you?

I have written about Choughs before, but there is a special relevance now, in my series on links between Ireland and Cornwall, sparked off by the West meets West exhibition currently running in the West Cork Arts Centre’s gallery in Skibbereen – Uillinn. The Chough has always been the ‘national bird’ of Cornwall – it has pride of place on the coat-of-arms of the county, alongside the fisherman and the miner:

It was somewhat ominous, therefore, when the Choughs disappeared from Cornwall, back in 1970, after a long period of decline. Attempts were made to reintroduce them artificially, over the following decades, but without success. And then, suddenly, the birds returned! It seems that changes in agricultural methods on the coasts – removing grazing cattle to inland sites – had upset their habitats. Now, following changed grazing patterns, Choughs are re-establishing themselves and – here’s the exciting thing – they have come over from Ireland to do that! It has been found that the entire new breeding stock originates from here, where the birds are plentiful. Just imagine those pioneering birds setting out to cross the Celtic Sea from Cork, Waterford and Wexford… Another gift from Ireland to Cornwall, following in the path of Saint Ciarán from Cape Clear who floated across himself (on a millstone) to convert the Cornish heathens and giving them their own patron saint, known as Piran in their own language.

Left – Chough fledglings, photo by Oliver Nares; right – Finola’s study of a bedraggled Chough sitting on our gatepost on a very wet day

In Cornwall, the Chough is said to carry the spirit of King Arthur, the Once and Future King who will return one day. In Ireland, however, Choughs are believed to start fires by carrying lighted sticks on to the roofs of houses. The latin name – Pyrrhocorax – means ‘fire raven’, perhaps because of the bright red bill and legs.

A taster for next week: another – curioser – bird-like creature from the Sancreed rood screen in Cornwall

Nest of the Eagle

eagles over nead

Nead an Iolair – that is the house we live in, here in the townland of Cappaghglass, West Cork. That’s it, in the picture above, with a pair of eagles flying overhead… We don’t see them very often. Well, in truth, we haven’t seen them at all – this is a bit of photographic magic – and wishful thinking. Nead an Iolair – our Irish readers will know that this means Nest of the Eagles – is a perfect name for the site, suspended way up above Rossbrin Cove – a good lookout with higher ground behind: exactly the right environment for the big birds. There were undoubtedly eagles here once – and in various other parts of Ireland – but when and how many? As with most things nowadays, someone has carried out the research and there’s a study available online. It’s worth a read, but I can summarise the main points: analysis of place-names and documentary evidence from the last 1500 years enabled the following diagrams to be drawn up:

eagles data

Data from The history of eagles in Britain and Ireland: an ecological review of placename and documentary evidence from the last 1500 years – Evans, O’Toole and Whitfield, RSPB Scotland 2012. Diagram (a) is 500AD and diagram (b) is 1800AD. The dots show Golden Eagle locations in dark grey, White-tailed Eagle locations in light grey and overlapping of both species in black

The diagram shows that White-tailed Eagles have lived here on the Mizen Peninsula 1500 years ago, and both species have been located a little further up the west coast as recently as 200 years ago. In 2001 fifty young golden eagles were released in Glenveagh National Park, Donegal, in an attempt to reintroduce the bird to Ireland. In a similar project to reintroduce white-tailed eagles,  one hundred of the birds were brought from Norway to the Killarney National Park between 2007 and 2011, and up to September 2016 thirteen chicks have survived. The aim is to get at least ten chicks flying from their nests each year. Six white-tailed eagle chicks have flown from their nests in Ireland in 2016, making it the most successful year yet; one of these chicks was born near Glengariff, which is only just over the hill from us in terms of an eagle’s range. So we remain ever hopeful that the white-tailed eagles (sometimes known as white-tailed sea eagles) will soon make their way down here to Nead an Iolair – attracted, perhaps, by the name. We’d be very pleased to see them circling overhead – they are the largest birds on Ireland’s shores. Already our bird feeders attract avians of all shapes and sizes, and they generally get along fine with each other, although the smaller birds do make themselves scarce when Spioróg turns up!

White-tailed sea eagle

A superb photograph of Haliaeetus albicilla – the white-tailed eagle or white-tailed sea-eagle, by Yathin S Krishnappa (via Wikipedia Commons). This was taken in Svolvaer, Norway – geographical source of the birds that were reintroduced into Killarney National Park within the last decade

Whenever we are on our travels we look out for the word Iolair (eagle) in place-names. We found one in Duhallow, a Barony in Cork County, just north of the wonderfully named Boggeragh Mountains. In fact we were alerted by signposts directing us to Nad or Nadd (nest) and found ourselves in a tiny settlement which was determined to point out its links with the eagles.

nad road sign

eagle on post 2

large eagle's nest sign

The village of Nead an Iolair in Duhallow, North Cork makes its associations with eagles very clear. The pub is named The Eagle’s Nest, and there is a fine sculpture of the bird sitting Nelson-like on a column beside it

Besides these features the village has a poignant memorial dating from the struggle for independence: a reminder of harsh realities still within living memory. The words that stand out are May God Free Ireland.

Back to the eagles and – in an interesting diversion into semantics – we noticed that the name over the door of the pub is in old Irish script and has introduced an additional character to the word Iolair – it looks like an ‘f’. Finola tells me that the use of the accent over that ‘f’ – which is known as a búilte – serves to silence the letter. In modern script it would be converted to ‘fh’: so fhiolair would still be pronounced ‘uller’. But we can’t find any precedent for using the word in this form. Perhaps an expert in Irish language can help us here…?

nead an fiolair

Regular readers will be aware that I am always on the lookout for links between Cornwall and the West of Ireland (and there are many). Interestingly, Nead an Iolair is one of them. Just outside St Ives, on the north coast of Cornwall, is a superb house, also called Eagle’s Nest. It was the family home of Patrick Heron, one of the influential St Ives School artists. When I lived in Cornwall I frequently passed by the house and was always impressed with its location – like us now, it is high up above the coast with a commanding view over the myriad small fields and out to the ocean. I always thought I would like to live there, because of that view… Now I have my own Eagle’s Nest – and I couldn’t be more content.

eagles Nest cornwall

Looking across the Cornish moorlands near Zennor, towards Eagle’s Nest – photographed by the artist Patrick Heron, whose home this was

Spioróg, the Sparrowhawk

Spiro watchfulWe’ve been calling it Spiro from the Irish work for sparrowhawk – Spioróg (spuh-rogue). Ours is just one of the many sparrowhawks in West Cork – this is not a bird that is endangered in any way at the moment. They’ve been classed as secure. There was a decline back in the old DDT days, but the population has fully recovered since then.

Spiro head

Look at that raptor face – the hooked beak and the piercing yellow eyes

This is one ferocious hunter; but efficient, not so much. In fact, it catches about one bird for every ten it chases. Exhausting! We have watched it plummet from the sky to land on or beside our bird feeder. We’ve watched it chase birds into the bushes only to emerge battered but empty handed. We’ve never seen it actually catch something, although no doubt that will happen in time. When we suddenly see every bird at the feeder or on the ground disappear, we know the signal has been given and Spiro is around.

sparrow

Robin among thornsTop: an adult male sparrow keeps watch for Spiro. Bottom: Small birds, like this robin, will take refuge in thorn bushes. Sparrowhawks will go after them but often damage themselves in the process

Sparrowhawks rely on their agility to create the element of surprise. They will fly low on the other side of a hedge and at the last moment swoop up and over it to where birds have gathered on a lawn. Or they will catch them in flight, having used trees to hide in until the bird gets close enough. They can weave through branches like Ninjas, ducking and swooping with supreme manoeuvrability. In the open they flap and glide and never hover – it’s one way of telling them from kestrels.

Spiro looking left

They nest in wooded areas and their eggs hatch in May and June – about the same time the smaller birds hatch too. This means that they rely on a diet of fledglings to feed their young, and of course fledglings are easier to catch than adult birds.

Spiro Oct 2015

This is the smaller, darker, sparrowhawk – we think it’s the male

But it’s the male who goes after the fledglings. The female is larger – almost twice as large – and she hunts bigger birds such as pigeons and even pheasants. Females are paler too, so we think Spiro is a female. But we’ve seen a smaller, darker one too – must be the husband. We’ll call him Spirogín.

Spiro neck swivel

Like owls, sparrowhawks can swivel their heads to look behind them

A backyard feeder, such as we have, provides a source of small birds for sparrowhawks. So here we have unwittingly colluded with Mother Nature to help out Spiro and her family. We console ourselves that the birds of prey are important too and need to eat – but in fact, as I said, we have yet to witness a successful kill.

fledging sparrow

This recently-fledged sparrow is a prime target

Ireland's Birds CoverThe sport of falconry was introduced in Ireland by the Anglo-Normans, who arrived in the 12th century. In his wonderful book Ireland’s Birds: Myths, Legends and Folklore (The Collins Press 2015), Niall Mac Coitir tells us that the

…male sparrowhawk was called the musket and was traditionally the hawk kept by priests. The word musket was later used for a crossbow bolt and later still for the new invention of the handgun. Kestrels were the lowliest of falcons, used only by naves or servants. Nevertheless, they had a use, as they were traditionally kept near dovecotes to scare sparrowhawks away, because they would not bother the doves themselves. It was even said that pigeons would seek out a kestrel for protection if a sparrowhawk was about.

Most of the references from Irish folklore and mythology don’t specify what hawk is being talked about. The word for hawk, seabhac (show-ock, where ‘show’ rhymes with ‘cow’), is used generically. But Mac Coitir looks to the behaviour of the bird for clues to find sparrowhawks in Ireland’s great sagas. For example, in the Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley) the warrior Cúchulainn warned his rival Fergus to stand aside or he would ‘swoop on you as a hawk swoops on little birds.’ 

Yellow finches

Our ‘little birds’ (green finches) keeping a wary eye open for Spiro

Robert talked about Spiro in his The Wild Side post, but we both thought she deserved a post of her own. Most of the photographs of the sparrowhawks in this post were taken, of necessity, very quickly and through a window, so I’ve had to work on them a bit. However, we were lucky enough to be lying in bed one Sunday morning when Spiro herself came and sat on the low terrace wall outside the bedroom window. She stayed for a while, alternately grooming and watchful.

Spiro Having a Scratch

We felt very privileged to be so close to such a fierce wild female.

Spiro on one foot

Wild Beasts of Ireland

tiger at feet st canice

There are wild beasts all around us!  Animal, fish, serpent or fowl, real or mythical, carved, painted – imagined. This is my second ‘Menagerie’ – previously we explored the Honan Chapel in Cork, and I was struck by all the wildlife representations there, as set out in this post from over two years ago.

2 deer cashel

Deer and antlers on a memorial plaque in the Cathedral at Cashel – one of the earlier representations here, dating from 1574. Top picture – believed to be a tiger, this fine beast lies at the feet of a medieval knight in St Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny

Our travels take us around many of Ireland’s historic sites, and I’m always on the lookout for Creatures – they are abundant everywhere. Countless stories of the saints involved animals: they are common symbols on tombs and heraldic plaques, but we can’t resist also using them today – for inns, shop signs or just decoration on the streetscape. Have a look around you – you might be surprised how many you can see…

toucan guiness

Inhabited streetscapes: top – two Kilkenny Cats undoubtedly belonging to Dame Alice Kytler and, above – there are plenty of these toucans still around in Ireland! They originate from a ‘zoo’ advertising campaign for Guiness begun in 1935 (abeted by Dorothy Sayers who wrote captions and verses); the toucan campaign flourished until 1982

Nobody has ever claimed the toucan as an Irish bird, but pelicans were certainly not uncommon in medieval carvings here. That’s because the pelican in early Christianity symbolises atonement as it was believed to wound itself in order to feed its young with its own blood.

2 birds shield cashel

fish lid st canice

Christian symbolism: top – medieval pelicans at Cashel, and below – a fish incorporated in a modern lid to the ancient font in St Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny. The Greek ΙΧΘΥΣ is an acrostic for ησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ, literally translating as Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour

Also in Christian symbolism the lamb represents Jesus – the Lamb of God – who was sacrificed in order to atone for human sin.

lamb with pennant kilkenny

ihs lamb detail
Top picture – not a wild beast, perhaps, but a pascal lamb mosaic in St Mary’s Cathedral, Kilkenny. Lower picture – this strange creature is also a lamb, from a graveyard memorial in Killeen, Co Meath

Lions are popular animals in Britain and Ireland, possibly because they appeared on royal crests and were therefore associated with status and dignity. I was surprised to find bears and eagles well represented.

All the lions (graphic tiles and wistful memorials) are from the Collegiate Church in Youghal. The stained glass is from St Peter’s Church, Bandon, Co Cork and shows off bears (from crests of the Earls of Bandon – their motto was Bear & Forbear), eagles, another lion and – for good measure – a fine serpent

Some of the most splendid and oldest carved stonework in Ireland is to be found at Cormac’s Chapel, Cashel and at Clonfert Cathedral, both dating from the twelfth century. The Hiberno Romanesque doors and arches display arrays of human heads but also numerous creatures.

Heads cormacs chapel

Upper pictures – a small selection from the riotous carvings at Clonfert Cathedral, Co Galway and – lower picture – ambiguous creatures from Cashel, Co Tipperary: all are around 900 years old

I’ll round off for now with some more cat-like creatures and a Kilkenny pig. Oh – and a carving we found in the Cashel museum, titled ‘Elephant and Castle’. Both the carving and the name are enigmatic, as the creature with a castle on its back (wherein resides another creature – a gryphon?) looks to me like a boar with feathers!

pig dores kilkenny

Elephant + Castle