Country Sights and Sounds
“I found myself on the top of a low cliff, miles from civilisation, watching wild birds at the edge of a rugged, untamed wilderness, and a telephone rang”


ALTHOUGH I never was a dedicated twitcher (for the uninitiated, a twitcher is a fanatical birdwatcher), I find those that could rightly be called both interesting and informative, even if a little short on patience. No, they do have patience; they will sit and wait for countless hours for a rare or unusual bird to show itself for even a few brief moments. But they have little time for those who, like myself, have difficulties differentiating between one small and indistinct species of bird and another.
I met a group of them prowling a stretch of coastline with telescopes and photographic equipment that would put the insurance industry to shame. There were gulls in the area, they said, and they had travelled all the way from the UK especially to find and photograph them.
“Look,” said one, “an Iceland gull”. I looked, and there, in a huge flock cresting the waves, were many dozens of gulls, all of them almost identical in appearance. I pointed my camera in the same direction as my new friends pointed theirs and pressed on the shutter button hopefully. Incidentally, Iceland gulls come from Greenland, not Iceland, and Iceland has far less ice than Greenland. Confusion reigns.
One gull broke away from the crowd and came to sit on the shingle. There looked to be something different about it, so I got to work with the camera. “A Ring-billed gull,” said somebody else. The Ring-bill surveyed us tiredly, as well it might, for this is a North American bird that only rarely finds its way across the Atlantic. It posed to have its picture taken, rather gloomily I thought, before heading off to sit on the water near its companions.
Back at home this bird is known with little affection as the ‘parking lot gull’, for it spends a good deal of its life in car parks scavenging discarded fast-food items. Most of their kind never get to see the ocean, let alone fly across it, so I wonder what this individual made of the experience. Having been raised in a dense colony with thousands of others and depending on humans for the bulk of its diet, it suddenly found itself caught in a westerly airstream from which there was to be no escape. Lost at sea for who knows how long, it finally turned up here in the west of Ireland. Will it ever find its way back home?
While I pondered these things the twitcher band took off around the corner at a rate of knots. Sensing that more discoveries might be made, I followed. Disconcerted, they quickened the pace. But I was on a learning curve here and I wasn’t going to give up easily.
They came to an abrupt and excited stop. Up went the telescopes; a Glaucous gull, this one, another winter visitor from Iceland. I had to accept the fact that the bird was present, even though I didn’t positively identify it myself. These guys really seemed to know what they were talking about. For instance, did you know that the Glaucous and the Iceland are the only two gull species that have no black markings on either wing or tail throughout their lives? Neither did I, but I do now.
I gleaned more information, gradually eliciting a sympathetic rather than a curt response. I detected something else too, as first one man, then another, looked at me sadly and explained rather slowly and simplistically, as one would to a persistent but harmless lunatic, the difference in bill shape between Larus Glaucoides and Larus hyperboreus. My eyes glazed. It would be nice to know this stuff, if only one didn’t have to learn it.
A telephone rang. Imagine, I had escaped from my desk, seeking refuge from that artificial world we have created, and found myself on the top of a low cliff, miles from civilisation, watching wild birds soaring over spume-tipped waves at the edge of a rugged, untamed wilderness, and a telephone rings. A North American Herring gull had been spotted a few miles down the coast.
Away went my new friends to add another rarity to their checklist. They didn’t look back until, as they hurried over the brow of a hill, a head turned in my direction to make sure I wasn’t following in their trail.
I didn’t mind. I settled with my sandwich to watch the gulls more closely.