Bird Diary

birds group wb

Since we started this blog, back in 2012, I have regularly written posts on the many bird varieties which we have around us on the coast of Roaringwater Bay. There are lots to add! Watch out for more entries in the future which will include some of our new arrivals. In the garden of Nead an Iolair the other day we were surprised by a male Sparrowhawk perched on the wall: the small birds all kept well away! Recently we’ve been visited by Jays, too – someone else the smaller birds shun, as it is partial to stealing eggs and young.

jay

Today I’m going to recap on our feathered companions up here. Remember – if you see something printed in blue on these posts you can click on it and it will link you to a new page on the subject mentioned.

Loons (sketches by Richard Allen)

Loons (sketches by Richard Allen)

Almost a year ago I talked about the Great Northern Diver – or The Loon, as it is called in Canada. It’s only one of the many wading and shore birds which visit the unspoilt coastline in these parts. Watch out for future posts on Oystercatchers (which have already received a brief mention), Curlews, Gulls and Ducks, to name but a few.

Charm of Goldfinches - photo by Maurice Baker

Charm of Goldfinches – photo by Maurice Baker

In November of last year I discussed the Charm of Goldfinches which visited the bird feeders in our garden. We saw nothing of them through the summer – in fact they were absent until this November, when a whole flock suddenly descended upon us in one day: now they are regular attenders again.

Fly-past at Ard Glas!

Fly-past at Ard Glas!

The very first bird post that I put on the blog was Aviation – and this was when we were renting Ard Glas. That was a general review of the birds that came to our luxurious new bird table which Danny made for us – now sadly demolished by Ferdia the Fox who is as fond of peanuts as the birds are…

heron

Since then I have introduced you to Old Nog the Heron – who flies over us quite frequently, made a passing reference to the Swans who live below us in the Cove (but see more below), and set out a whole lot of fact and folklore about the wonderful Barnacle Goose.

Legend of the Barnacle Goose

Legend of the Barnacle Goose

My favourite birds of all here are the Choughs. This is because they had died out in my home county of Cornwall (where they appeared on the coat-of-arms) when I lived there, although a programme to reintroduce them was started a few years ago and I was delighted to see a pair foraging on the coastline there just before I left. Imagine how pleased I was to discover that Choughs are resident all around Nead an Iolair! They perch on our roof, forage on our rocks and generally make themselves known to us through their distinctive cry of Cheeeeough

Choughs over Nead an Iolair

Choughs over Nead an Iolair

The seasonal bird of the moment is the little Wren. On St Stephen’s Day (26 December) this – the King of all the birds – has to take cover, because he is being hunted!

Troglodytes troglodytes

Troglodytes troglodytes

Wren Boys in Cork (Maclise 1843) and drawing by Jack Yeats

Wren Boys in Cork (Maclise 1843) and drawing by Jack Yeats

Amongst many other creatures, Swans are depicted in the Honan Chapel – that gloriously effusive celebration of stained glass and mosaic art.

Honan Chapel Swans

Honan Chapel Swans

They are also well represented in Irish folklore – most prominently in the saga of The Children of Lir. Here the enchanted children are destined to live out one of their fates – 300 years in the cold, inhospitable Sea of Moyle:

stamp-children-of-lir

Loon the Sentinel

loon print

Our friend Julian lives beside the water in the Cove, and we were excited when he told us there were Great Northern Divers in the bay. During the recent storms he saw a large number of them – fourteen or fifteen – huddled together for shelter close by the shore. He called this gathering a ‘Raft’: In fact the collective noun is usually said to be Asylum, Cry or (more attractive) Water-dance. We saw them too, but distantly through our spotting scope up in Nead an Iolair, although we came across them close to when we were walking by the shore in Ahakista on the Sheep’s Head. Here they were mixed up with Cormorants (collective noun Flight of…) and Shags (Hangout of…) – but their markings were distinctive enough for us to be sure.

loonie

In Canada the same birds are known as Loons. Believe it or not, the International Ornithological Committee met especially to consider the problem of the differing names in America and Europe and proposed a compromise: the Great Northern Loon. I like the term Loon: supposedly this name comes about because the bird has large webbed feet set well to the back to assist diving but is clumsy on land. In Icelandic the word for ‘lame’ is lúinn, and in Swedish it is lam – this could well have been an influence. The Canadian Loon is featured on the one dollar coin – which is therefore know as a ‘loonie’ – the two dollar coin is a ‘toonie’.

When Finola and I were on a road trip up to the north of British Columbia (through spectacular scenery) we stopped by a lake and we could see diving birds a considerable distance away. Finola told me they were Loons and I said I really wanted to have a good look at them. She immediately put her hands up to her mouth and produced the distinctive wavering call:

I couldn’t believe it when a few seconds later a Loon surfaced right beside us! I was full of admiration (as always) for Finola’s many talents…

An endearing habit of the adult bird is that it carries its chick on its back until it can swim on its own.

Hitching a ride...

Hitching a ride…

I can’t find any Irish legends mentioning Loons, Great Northern Divers or any other variants, but there are plenty of Canadian ones among the First Nation cultures. There the Loon is invariably a ‘good guy’, and even helps Raven the Creator to make the world, and to bring Sun, Moon and Water to it. It has various names in these tales, including Big Loon, Black-billed Loon, Call-up-a-storm, Ember-goose, Greenhead, Guinea Duck, Imber Diver, Ring-necked Loon, and Walloon. We also have a very fine carved Loon on our living room wall, from Finola’s First Nation art collection.

loononwall

I call Loon the Sentinel because he seems to stay just outside our Cove, swimming and diving across the entrance – keeping it safe for us. When our spring comes (and we can begin to feel the sun getting stronger already) he will be off to colder climes to breed.

Making Friends

One of the joys of our sojourn here is being in communion with a whole world of wild creatures. The house, Ard Glas, is wonderfully situated, looking down over a sheltered inner stretch of Roaringwater Bay where there occurs rapid tidal movement creating – twice a day – mud flats teeming with waders, shorebirds, divers and seals.

Ard Glas

To date the spotting scope has shown up everything we might have expected – Curlews and Oystercatchers seeming the most prolific – and some surprises, including pure white Little Egrets, which are not supposed to be here at all! I’m sure I saw a Great Northern Diver, although it’s not impossible to mistake the profile and behaviour of a Cormorant for one of these most magical of birds. In the Canadian myth-time ‘Loon’ (as she is called over there) shares a high place in the panoply of Gods – or assistant Gods – close to the great creator, transformer and trickster Raven. It was Loon who helped the Great Spirit to recreate land after the all-consuming deluge because poor Loon was lonely: she missed the company of Human and Animals, who had all lived, worked and conversed as one race before the punishment of the flood was brought upon the world, largely through Man’s misdemeanours.

Loon

The Fox (or Foxes) frequently visit Ard Glas and the lanes around the townland, as do errant Cows who are either adept jailbreakers or who are being informally grazed on the ‘long acre’ – as Finola so aptly describes the Irish verges. This necessitates that we keep the gates closed, to preserve our neat lawn – whose pristine sheen we have already disturbed by installing a bird-table: a very Irish bird-table finely executed by our friend Danny and painted a most appropriate green. It has yet to receive a feathered visitor – but it’s early days…

Up in the hills – on the Sheep’s Head Way – the quest for friends continues: rewarded, yesterday, by a glimpse of one tenth of a Hare – the first seen to date on this visit. The one tenth was its backside and tail as it disappeared into the bracken: the tail was long and black striped, thus confirming the sighting as a Brown Hare, rather than an Irish Hare. Another excitement on that walk was an ‘almost certain’ Snow Bunting – distinctively white bodied and black winged in its adult male plumage: a rarity in Ireland, and in all likelihood just passing through: the species only breeds in northern Scotland, Iceland and Scandinavia.

I am always on the lookout for more Hares: they are my passion. I’m rather afraid that I won’t see them in the fields around Ard Glas, as there is a large Rabbit population established here – and Hares don’t like land which is used by Rabbits.

But there is rough and seemingly Rabbitless land up behind us, and I am optimistic that some sightings are to be had over the next few months. I have enjoyed many such sightings in the past around Danny’s townland of Ballybane West: I have seen groups of ten or a dozen racing around a field for no apparent reason (Haring?). They do seem to be animals which have a very strong will to confound and confuse, evidenced by a great lack of logical or consistent behaviours and by a whole wealth of folklore, some examples of which I might recount in future posts.