Caught by the River

The Bird Effect Diaries

Ceri Levy | 20th January 2018

In the second of two Bird Effect updates from Ireland, Ceri Levy encounters Sooty Shearwaters, Bonxies, Storm Petrels, and even some dolphins

Common Rosefinch. Photo courtesy of David Lindo

On our way to the harbour we meet the guys from the Cape Clear Observatory, who have just caught a Common Rosefinch for ringing. At this time of year there’s nothing rosy about it, but it’s a rare enough bird to see. We get on Michael John’s boat, along with a few other keen birders. The day is bright and the waves are calm and before long we are far away from the island and all we can see is the Fastnet Lighthouse. Then, to our right, a grey curvature pops out of the water — and then another. There is a yellow tinge to the side of the hump. Common dolphins have come to check us out. They tunnel through the water, rapidly switching from port to starboard. Then there are others, and magic descends upon our craft. A cry goes up: “Sooty flying past! Correction, TWO sooties to the left!” Following the vocal directions, Michael John wheels the boat round, and as the hull slaps across a rising wave, we become aware that the weather has picked up and the sea is no longer calm but billows with a minor malevolence around us. People lurch across the deck, clutching binoculars and cameras, staggering like sea-drunks sprayed by shockingly cold, surging waves, as all try and see what apparently are sooty shearwaters. There is a desperation pervading the air as the committed birders seek out these uncommon birds. We edge forwards through the gathering and ominous swell, and there in front of us are not just a couple of sooties, but a raft of 200 or so. It’s an incredible find, and there are further surprises as a Bonxie – aka a Great Skua – flies past us and joins the congregation, which also includes a lone Manx Shearwater. A Storm Petrel buzzes past the flotilla as kittiwakes elegantly hover around the boat, eager for the scraps of food being thrown into the water. It’s an unexpected encounter with a selection of birds that were believed to have left these waters months ago. Look and ye shall find. In the meantime dolphins have been continually appearing and there must be 20 or so of them trying to garner some attention as they arch through the surface of the water. The boat is becoming rockier as the weather sets in and while most are trying to cope with their lack of balance, Michael John happily wanders around, handing out cups of tea without a drop being spilled. The warmth permeates the coldness within my body and is very welcome indeed. As the waves grow ever higher and seem to replace the sky above us, we decide to head back to Cape. The birdlust has been sated. What a trip this has been. Lunch and then a ferry back to the mainland. Goodbye Cape Clear, you have been magnificent.

Photo courtesy of David Lindo

The rest of the time on the mainland is taken up with family. We scatter Jackie’s mother’s ashes in the ruins of Sherkin Abbey on her home island of Sherkin, which is a moving and beautiful occasion. All is done in time before Hurricane Ophelia appears on the day we are meant to fly out of Cork. It is actually downgraded to Storm Ophelia and we wake at 7 to find it a bit blustery, but think we’ll be fine and our plane will take off. How bad can a storm be? Our flight is listed as on time on the Aer Lingus website. We have breakfast and watch the TV. People are being advised not to leave their houses as Ophelia wreaks havoc. The sound of the wind outside has become decidedly eerie and unearthly and the sky is an odd shade of yellowy grey and reports suggest that our road out of here is already littered with large fallen trees. Finally our flight is cancelled and we no longer have a decision to make. The next flight out will be two days later, so we’re stuck here to ride the weather out.

The storm subsides, having reached speeds of 197 km/h, and gingerly, we venture out. Gusts of wind appear from nowhere, lifting us off our feet, and I understand the nature of true danger. It’s not the constant wind that gets you, but the unexpected moments: much like when a rogue wave in the sea knocks you down, even though all had seemed so gentle. A roof has been peeled back from a building and a boat looks deliberately placed on top of the rocks. But it was moved there by Ophelia, the minx.

The next day cousin Nick drives us to Cork to stay with cousin Ursula and her family so we can get our plane the next morning. They have had no power since the storm and we become acutely aware of how electricity is essential to our lives. It surely has to be the easiest way to take over a country. Switch the electricity off and wait for everything to run out. We nurse our phones and keep an eye on how much battery power is left. We go into Cork city, where there is power, and have a wander round. The Crawford Art Gallery is fantastic and has a fine collection of Irish art. I am particularly taken with the painting of Sean Keating, who documents moments in the creation of the Republic of Ireland. We then visit the indoor food market, known as The English Market, which is full of great local produce, including the shop, which sells the traditional Irish dish of tripe and drisheen. That’s stomach and blood sausage, which is served in cow intestines. That evening we get the barbecue going in the garden, as there is still no power. We choose to have burgers and not tripe for dinner.

In the morning we finally make it to Cork airport, and as we board the plane, I get a text from cousin David. It is a picture of Storm Ophelia in action on Cape Clear, taken by Shane O’Drisceoil. There but for the grace of God… Ireland, as usual, has been perfectly different and wonderful. Here’s to the next time. Sláinte!

Photo courtesy of Shane O’Drisceoil