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Shoreline conundrums

Country Sights and Sounds

BIRDS OF A DIFFERENT FEATHER A European herring gull regards a larger Glaucous gull.

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

An hour at the coast was more than enough. Inland, the day had been balmy, with a spring-soft breeze rippling the tops of the bare wood. The drive had been pleasant, too, with intermittent sunshine warming the interior of the car. It didn’t feel like the darkest time of year, with these short days barely more than a break in the gloaming.
At Carrowmore a brisk wind cut in off the waves, bringing with it the smell of a winter sea; decomposing weed and distant mud flats together with an invigorating saltiness. A short distance offshore a group of gulls wheeled and danced, occasionally dropping to the water to feed on baitfish. A dark, sub-surface shadow showed us where these little fishes were being herded by something larger, and as they leaped to escape predatory jaws they found an army of sharp bills waiting.
I knew that among the herring gulls, the black-headed and common gulls and their regular companions there would likely be one or two tourists, birds carried from afar by errant winds or just wanderers.
Each year one or two Mediterranean gulls put in an appearance on the west coast. Although normally confined to warmer countries, a small number have started to colonise the south-east of Ireland, where they have successfully bred for 20 years or so. Birds have yet to be confined by the arbitrary lines we draw upon the map. They go where they will. As we continue to modify the climate we shall see an increase in irregular visitors, with more and species drifting to the north.
But look! What could that all-white bird be? Well, perhaps not completely white, but aren’t its wings marked differently to the rest of the flock? They are, in fact, not marked at all. While all our native gulls have various dark brown to black patterns on their wing tips, this one does not.
So what is it? If only I had my binoculars I should see. A Glaucous gull? Or perhaps an Iceland gull. Seen side by side there can be no mistaking one from the other, for the former is large and bulky with a stern, unrelenting expression, while the Iceland gull can only be described as pretty in appearance and dainty in flight. Place either in the midst of a hundred other gulls and it’s hard to tell.
Both are impervious to the severe cold of their Arctic homeland. I wonder what they make of life here? There was certainly no shortage of food this day. I wondered idly what sort of fish might have been harrying the unfortunate shoals of sprat. I should come back with the rod.
Tired of that wind funneling round the headland we went back to the car, and ten minutes later (sorry Gard) we were at the entrance to the strand at Doughmakeon, where the remains of ancient cooking sites can still be found. As is the case every winter, storms have continued to erode the dunes and expose burned rocks and a huge quantity of seashells. These shells give an indication as to the diet of our ancestors, and it seems as though anything that could be found on the sea shore found its way onto the menu.
Most prominent are the shells of common limpet and periwinkle, and if we scour the rocks and rockpools at low tide we find these still occur in abundance. How long would it take to gather enough to feed a family? With the tide halfway in and the richer pickings available at low water now out of reach, I spent ten minutes gleaning a harvest and came up with edible periwinkles, scores of purple topshell and a real prize in the shape of a common whelk, a three inch long shellfish that acts as a sort of Dustbin of the Sea, clearing away the dead and decomposing. That would have made a fine mouthful for someone!
With a sandwich in my pocket I had no need for shellfish. I couldn’t help but wonder, though, at those who were here centuries before, who braved that same wind and weathered themselves on the dunes. What did they make of the world? Did they search for meaning as we do now? Or were they as the birds, those gulls that find their way here by chance alone and care nothing for tomorrow?
The ocean is timeless. Generation follows generation as one wave trails the one before.