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

 

The Old Mine Road

to the castle

Exactly two years ago I wrote a piece for this Journal – A Moment in Time – remarking on the very specific changes that we become aware of at the end of the summer: the holiday homes being closed up and shuttered; the boats being taken off their moorings and stored away in the boatyard; the shorebirds returning to their winter quarters. I finished up by pointing out that our own summers never end: we enjoy living in Cappaghglass just as much in the darker, colder days at the turning of the year as we do when the sun is high in the heavens.

cove gray day

high road gray day

Top – starting point: Rossbrin Cove on a gray day. Bottom – The Old Mine Road wearing its raincoat

It is an idyllic life and we are privileged to have the quiet boreens to ourselves in all weathers. We have talked about Rossbrin Cove so often, in its many seasonal variations: for today’s post I’m taking the upward road through the townland, the route that I call The Old Mine Road. This road – or more accurately this series of lanes and byways – will take the traveller from the Cove into the little town of Ballydehob, and will pass through an old copper mining district which, two hundred years ago, saw heavy industry, intermittent employment, smoke, noise, pollution and desperate human working conditions where now ‘peace comes dropping slow’ with only the crying of the Choughs over an undisturbed backdrop of rock, heather and coarse grasses – and the occasional jumble of stones showing where there were once buildings, shafts and crumbling walls marking the old mine complex.

cappaghglass

captain's house sun

Top – the landscape of The Old Mine Road: Mount Gabriel dominates the horizon to the west. Bottom – looking from the road towards Roaringwater Bay: in the foreground is the site of old mine workings, now reclaimed by nature, with one of the two Mine Captain’s Houses in the centre and the stump of an old mine chimney on the right

A walk along The Old Mine Road on a benign late September day will be rewarding because of the good air, the distant views to the Mounts Gabriel and Kidd, and with the bays of Roaringwater and Ballydehob below. You will find medieval history in the form of towerhouse castles, modern economy delineated by distinctive lines of mussel ropes spilling over the water and always alongside you the immediate wildness of a natural, undisturbed landscape. Views change as the way winds and dips – always interesting, always different, however many times you follow these routes.

mussel ropes

waving grass

mine buildings

Top – mussel ropes abundant in the Bay. Middle -waves of grass in the wild landscape to the north of the road. Bottom – ruins of old mine buildings can still be seen from the road

Autumn brings with it a certain melancholy. Time passes, our lives move relentlessly forward. We enjoy the changing of the seasons but we want to know that there will be so many more seasons to see. Each one will bring us unique experiences.

blue in the grass

from the road

Top – wildflowers in abundance on the boreens of Cappaghglass. Bottom – signs of old workings in the fields below the road

As I walk the old road, I can’t help trying to picture the scenes there from other times. I wonder what feelings the hard working miners had – did they take in the changing light and the views? Did they see the way the grasses moved with the wind, creating waves on the landscape? Did they have any time to notice nature’s fine details – the incredible variety, colours and designs of the wild flowers? Or was theirs just a drudging commute from cottage to workplace at dawn and dusk?

ballydehob wharf

The end of the road: Ballydehob Wharf, which would have seen great activity (intermittedly) when the mines were in full swing. Cappagh Mine was operating between 1816 and 1873, with its maximum output of about 400 tons of ore being produced in 1827

The poet Seamus Heaney has much to say about the hardship – and order – of a physical working life; his own father had worked the land and the poet was infected with memories of his younger days. This poem – Postscript – has a different emphasis but strikes me as a similar commentary on encounters with the landscape, although it’s concerned with another geography:

…And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully-grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park or capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open…
wall and heather

Feed the Bugs

Bee in Fuchsia

Our walk in Glengarriff Woods opened my eyes to the challenges facing us in regards to ensuring the continuing biodiversity of Ireland. Loss of habitat, invasion of alien species, climate change, and modern farming practices all combine to present our insect life with increasing difficulty in obtaining what they need to thrive. Perhaps the best-known (although not the best understood) example currently is the enormous die-off of the bee population, known as colony collapse.

Hildegard's Shrub

With this in mind, I have been observing the bees, butterflies and bugs in our neighbourhood, and the role of flowers, both wild and cultivated, in supplying the food and the nectar they need. We have the advantage here that the hedgerows are rich in flowering plants, and that by regulation they must remain uncut until the end of August.

Fly on yellow flower

But this has been a short, cool summer and already the flowers that we saw last year in September have gone, to be replaced with the browning bracken. Our Budleia, for example, also known as the Butterfly Bush, was still attracting butterflies in September last year but this year it’s been flowerless since late August.

A speckled Wood Butterfly and a Hoverfly enjoy some blackberry time

On the upside, we’re enjoying a bumper blackberry crop, and lots of insect seem to love blackberries as much as we do. Because of the way blackberries grow, ripening at different times, some brambles are only flowering now, providing nectar for the bees.

Great Willowherb 2015

This photograph, showing a riotous mixture  of Great Willowherb and Montbretia (Crocosmia) was taken at this time in 2015: this year all these flowers have finished already.

holly close to flowering

This year the holly flowers are abundant – here they are about to bloom. The berries are honeysuckle berries

The fuchsia is still flowering, providing that gorgeous blush along the boreens that we love. One of the advantages of the fuchsia flower is that it is down-facing. This helps to keep it dry and preserve the nectar (see photo at beginning of post).

We have two types of bindweed here: hedge bindweed in the upper photo; a subspecies, the uncommon hedge bindweed ‘roseata’ is lower right ; lower left is sea bindweed, which grows along sandy shores

We might hate bindweed but it is an important flower for the bees. The hedge-bindweed we see around here has pretty pink and white stripes – apparently the white stripes act like a runway, guiding the insects into the heart of the flower.

rose with bee

Wild and cultivated roses are still blooming, here and there. This little guy is appreciative.

Speckled Wood Butterfly on sedum

How many bees?Red admiral at Helen's GardenMy  friend Gill grows sedum (upper two photos) and the bees love it. You can hear the hum from ten feet away. Meanwhile, Helen and William’s garden (lower photo) attracts butterflies by the score. I saw my first Red Admiral there last year.

Small Tortoiseshell on oregano

A Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly enjoys my Oregano, along with the bumbles bees

In my herb garden it seems to be the Oregano that is attractive to both bees and butterflies. It’s just finishing its flowering period now, but I still have to be careful when I pick a bunch, not to pick a bee as well.

Flies and spiders need the flowers too. Hoverflies are an important part of the ecosystem, helping to pollinate and preying on aphids and thrips. They (and the wasps!) seem to prefer my fennel. They also like the little pink Herb Roberts that are still to be seen in the hedgerows.

Honeysuckle

And what about the Honeysuckle? It’s abundant and beautiful, and with a name like that surely it’s a-buzz with bees? No – apparently the flower is too long and the bees can’t reach in far enough to gather the nectar. But the sweet scent, which gets even more intense towards the evening, calls in the moths who take their fill.

Snail on cabbage

Ah, but y’know – you can’t always welcome little critters to your plants. Sometimes, it’s us against them.

Cobweb on Montbretia

And of course, sometimes the plant isn’t so much food, as a means to an end…

Tide’s Out!

the Cove

Up here in Nead an Iolair we have a perfect view of the state of the tide in Rossbrin Cove, the natural harbour below us which is accessed from Roaringwater Bay. Just now it’s a Spring Tide – and an extreme one: we’ve never seen the Cove quite so empty. I think it’s because there was a ‘supermoon’ a day or two ago – that’s the point at which the moon’s orbit is closest to the earth, and this affects the rise and fall of the tides.

low tide

On a day when the sun does be splitting the stones we walk the long way over the hill and through the lanes to have a look at what the low tide has revealed. The surface of the boreens is hot to the touch, and it’s hard to recall that, during the last couple of weeks, we have had wild storms, some icy mornings and dank wintry fogs. Today the whole cove is a broad mud flat: a little rivulet runs through it and a family of Teals (Praslacha) is managing to make its way out to the bay, stopping every few yards to peck at tasty morsels in the silt.

Teals

Wading birds are everywhere, enjoying the rich pickings of nereid worms. We are particularly impressed with the handsome Redshank – Cosdeargán: Red Leg, Warden of the Marshes – who winters here, like the Teals – on holiday from Iceland. We have to make the most of him, and his piercing tew-hoo, tew-hoo call as he’ll be off back home shortly.

Redshanks 2

I think it’s exciting to see what the low tide has uncovered: down by the ‘new’ quay there’s something boat-shaped. It must have ended up here in living memory, so someone should know the story of it. An old engine block, perhaps, at one end – and a sort of metal frame at the other: a piece of fishing equipment, possibly. Of course, it could all be the skeletal remains of a great leviathan which has been stranded by the falling tide…

Drowned object

Enigma

On a tiny rock-pile which has never been an island before we catch sight of the Curlew, one of the Seven Whistlers. The Calloo, Courlie or Marsh Hen is declining rapidly and what we are seeing today is most likely to be a winter visitor from Scotland or Scandinavia, feeding on ragworms, crabs and molluscs. A few stay all the year round, mostly in the northern half of Ireland – although I’m pretty sure I have seen the occasional Curlew around here in the summer months: we live in a privileged place, after all.

Curlew

We are halfway through March now. We still have more extreme tides to look forward to, especially around Good Friday, when the Mussels will be harvested from the exposed rocks. That’s early this year – before the end of the month – and it’s a festival which is based around the seasons of the moon. Let’s hope that never changes (there has been some talk among officialdom of regularising the dates for Easter) because, if it does, all the customs and traditions associated with it will be thrown out of sync.

feast of mussels

We have a good ol stretch in the evening to look forward to. On the reasonable basis of what goes down must also come up we’ll be off to the Cove again to see it filled to the brim: it will be a particularly high tide as well, of course, and there will be another set of shore birds and waders foraging from the fresh influx of salt water.

muddy waters