HARDY SOULS Turnstones visit our shores in winter, where they forage for invertebrates and other morsels hiding under pebbles and seaweed.
Country Sights and Sounds
Far below that treeless hill that makes the highest point above Old Head, a small fleet of cormorants fished the silvered edge of many waves. We watched their looping dives; see how the whole bird leaves the water for just a split second, before plunging headfirst with barely a ripple!
Strongly webbed paddle-feet propel this master fisherman many feet beneath the surface. Wings cooperate, powering the bird toward panic-stricken prey. Small fish turn sharply, twisting between warp and weft to avoid the cruel hook that is the bird’s beak.
It is to no avail, for the cormorant reappears at the surface to smack his mandibles as we would our lips after tasting some delicate morsel. See him stretch his neck to help his catch along its way, into his crop. A sip of saltwater will help it down and he shows his appreciation with a flurry of wings. The whole process is so gratifying he must repeat it, and again.
Seen from afar, as from that high hill, the cormorant is only black. But we know where he lives, along with a great number of his tribe. We shall yet go and see him close at hand, and once more be surprised at the hints of purple, green, blue and more within his plumage. We shall see that heavy bill with its yellow gape, and, if we take our time so as not to hurry the bird away, we shall wonder at that strange, reptilian eye that shines azure in some birds, bright emerald in others, and at the cold dark within the pupil.
The beach is filled with birds. At Killadangan we found that watchman wader, the redshank, ready to flee far before we drew near. As our feet clatter over cobbles away he goes; his shrill whistle warning every other bird of our arrival, and away they also fly.
His larger cousin, the grey-feathered, white-bellied, green-legged greenshank skulks between seaweed and rock but for a moment, then follows his watchman friend to the far-off mudflat. But hear his voice! Soft and sweet, a monosyllabic melody so pretty we cannot hear enough.
But the greenshank makes only a brief appearance, enough to grace the moment and no more, so that our attention is taken by distant egrets glowing almost neon in the deep of a winter evening.
We have more egrets than ever, and this trend looks set to continue. The west coast provides an abundance of small prey items such as small fish, shrimp and other marine invertebrates, enough to keep a great many of these colonising birds happy.
Among the prettiest of shoreline birds is the one we call turnstone, which name is derived from the bird’s habit of turning pebbles to see what delicacies might live beneath.
These little waders, which are no bigger than a blackbird, are essentially tourists. Good numbers come here for the winter, or are passing through on their way to somewhere warmer. Autumn birds are relatively sombre in appearance, but see them again in spring! Then, on their way home to their Arctic breeding grounds, their plumage becomes a rich chestnut, trimmed with black and white. They are only beautiful.
Some fly as far as South Africa, others to Australia, covering an impressive 1,000km in a single migratory day. The round trip for some of these birds can be as far as 27,000km.
Turnstones spend only a brief few weeks in Canada, Greenland or Scandinavia, just long enough to raise their family. Then, before July is out, they are away once more, making their way down our west coast, or even settling to stay awhile.
There is something pleasing about settlement. Where is the hurry? Where the haste? What is needed but a little, a place to shelter from the storm and the hope of traveling home when the time is right?
What else did we see? A pair of shelduck, smartly ginger, white, and green-black. There were wigeon, teal, and others too many to mention, and these in such a short time.
Birdwatch Ireland, in conjunction with the National Parks and Wildlife Service, are always looking for more people interested in helping with the annual Irish Wetlands Bird Survey (IWEBS), a valuable piece of research that runs from September to March and is repeated annually.
As Birdwatch Ireland’s website readily acknowledges, wetland birds can be a challenge to identify, as well as to count. There is free training available on the website, which will help volunteers with their work.
Michael Kingdon formerly wrote these columns under the pseudonym John Shelley. A naturalist and keen fisherman, he lives close to the shores of Lough Carra.