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Looney tunes, alarm bells and whistles

Outdoor Living

CLEWED IN Icelandic Loons visit our shores to dine on the small fish that come to feed in Clew Bay.

Mulranny shoreline teems with winged winter visitors

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

A pair of Great Northern Divers, Icelandic (probably) Loons on their winter holiday, were fishing the swift flow at the edge of Mulranny pier, intercepting small fish that come to feed in the bay. Above the water, or on it, they appear as cumbersome lumps of birds, heavily built and sooty black, adorned with a waistcoat of bright, clean white. To me they looked like poorly made geese.
One was rather shy and retreated some hundred metres offshore to sit, low in the water with only the top of its back visible, apart from the head and neck, of course. The other didn’t seem to mind me being there, but focused on fishing. I can only imagine them beneath the waves, powering along with remarkable speed and no little agility. Each dive of the near bird lasted between ten and 20 seconds and took it far or brought it near by, so I didn’t know where it might surface next.
It proved eminently successful, with about one dive in three ending with a snack. It was impossible to see what sorts of fish were being taken – small coalfish abound along the west coast, as do immature whiting and numerous other species.
The manner of feeding was interesting. I’ve watched divers at work before, and seen how small fish are swallowed down in one. This bird, however, went to considerable lengths to prepare its meals, guddling and nibbling with its heavy beak, possibly softening any sharp spines that many fish bear.
After enjoying a lunch consisting of several short courses, my loon stretched its neck to its fullest extent and uttered a series of musical tremolos, peculiar laughing calls that, according to my book, are an indication of alarm. Whether that is right or not I cannot say, but the bird that had moved into open water appeared to respond immediately by returning to the shallows to hunt. Interestingly, this one was far less fastidious in the preparation of its food.
A pair of cormorants soon arrived, a mature individual with glossy black plumage with a much paler juvenile in tow. While these birds are equally graceful and pleasing to watch, they seemed to have a much depleted catch rate. The young bird, although it dived in imitation of its elder and mentor, failed to catch while I looked on but went begging when the more experienced adult found success.
I would have stayed longer, but Light-Bellied Brent geese flew in from the east in a series of short, broken flocks. I found them grey in the grey light of afternoon, but then suddenly and magically buff and black and brightest white in a sudden burst of sun. More appeared, and more still, as the incoming tide displaced them from their feeding grounds further round the coast.
The sea is not yet cold. Small bands of krill still inhabit brackish shallows and miniature flatfish, most little larger than a postage stamp, others the size of my palm, lie half buried in the soft sand, darting for safety a mere footfall ahead of me. They appear to have an instinctive strategy when it comes to escaping danger, puffing a cloud of silt into the water as they dart forward, then swiftly doubling back through it and careering away to bury themselves once more.
I have a rule regarding these fish: any smaller than my hand may live a little longer, but once they attain such a size that might fill a slice of toast they are fair game.
I went to see the geese and found the remains of one in the salt marsh. It must have been killed not long before, for loose clumps of downy breast feathers bore fresh blood. There were no larger feathers on the scene, so the carcase had been taken away to be eaten. A fox then, for nothing else would have the guile needed to catch one of these wary birds, plus the strength to carry it off.
The deep cuts formed by the tide were filled with a variety of other birds. Greenshank and redshank whistled warnings and kept their distance. Oystercatchers probed for worms with orange bills. Wary curlew scythed away to the far corner, where I wouldn’t follow. An egret, snowy white, caught my attention. When I walked toward it I disturbed the geese, which took to the air as one, trumpeting their displeasure until they came back to the ground further away.
When a steely wind cut in from the north, bringing mist and spitting lightly, I felt it time to go. We’ll have winter birds a while, but it nearly feels like spring.