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Wowed by Achill’s wonders

Outdoor Living

SPOT THE DIFFERENCEThree guillemots flanked by two razorbills.

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

Whenever we have visitors from the UK a visit to Achill is always pencilled in. “There’s no point in coming to the west of Ireland if you aren’t going to go to the coast,” we tell them, “and there’s no point going to the coast if you don’t go to Achill.”
We like to take the coast road from Mulranny, pointing out various landmarks to help them get their bearings. “See there, across the bay? Croagh Patrick; we’ll climb it tomorrow – perhaps.”
They can if they feel so inclined. We might not – we’ve done it enough times to know that all we can see on the way up is the rocky scree in front of our noses, and coming back down we must watch where we put our feet. There is a view alright, and the climb is worthwhile if made early in the day, before breakfast and before the stream of human traffic reaches maximum density. Perhaps we are unkind in our assessment.
“And see that headland? That’s Old Head, where we walked through the woods. Those shadowy hills beyond? Connemara. We’ll go there at the weekend, if the weather is good.”
To my mind, Carrowteige and the north Mayo coast are as pretty, if not more so, and have eluded the grasping fingers of urbanisation. Add in the mile after mile of empty Atlantic strand along the Mullet and a welcome made for guests more than for tourists, and you have an almost perfect setting. When visitor numbers increase, the ringing of tills becomes the overriding melody. There is something about tourism in its infancy that makes us want to stifle development.
Achill. We cross the bridge at the Sound and make sure we call in to buy a filled roll at Sweeney’s. What would we like in it? Some of this and some of that, and a bit more if you like. Chicken, ham and cheese, and a few olives too. Salad? If there’s room for it. Eyes pop as our friends watch a filled roll really filled, stuffed with food rather than merely flavoured.
The Atlantic Drive is compulsory in all weathers, as is a visit to the beach at Keel. We drive toward the cliffs as far as we can and leave the car, scrambling up grassy, flower-filled slopes to find a rocky seat alongside one of those tumbling streams where we can watch the sea and eat. Beyond the roaring of surf and mewing of gulls there is magnificent, cathedral silence.
Last week we sat there in the warm sun and, having fed, began pointing out various birds to Dan, an enthusiastic beginner-birdwatcher. “Out there on the water? A guillemot. And that stubby fellow beyond it? Razorbill. Yes, they do look very similar. They’re both members of the Auk family – but can you see the differences?”
Dan studied them through his binoculars. “One has more white than the other, and more of a beak.”
“That’s the razorbill. It can be hard to tell them apart, especially in the winter, and although they have a lot in common we do have a few clues. The guillemot, that’s the lighter bird, lays a single egg on a narrow cliff. It doesn’t even have a proper nest. Where there’s a lot of them they cram up so tightly together you’d wonder how they’d ever know their own egg.”
“So how come the eggs don’t roll off?” Dan wanted to know.
“They’re almost cone-shaped,” I explained, “so that even if they do move they only roll in a tight circle. And the chicks seem to have enough sense to know they shouldn’t get too close to the edge, not until they can swim. When they feel ready, they just jump off. Some make it straight down to the water, while others bounce down the rocks until they reach the waves. They’re tough little things. They need to be. It might be nice here today, but you should see it with a strong westerly blowing in; you’d wonder how anything could live here at all.”
I told him what I knew about the razorbill, how it finds a more comfortable nesting site and lays an oval egg in something of a depression, in a safe place where it won’t roll and tumble. “And look at the birds on the cliffs. See how cumbersome they look, with their legs right at the tail end of the body? When it comes to hunting fish though they’re completely in their element.”
“So much to learn,” said Dan. “So little time.”