In the first of two Bird Effect updates from Ireland, Ceri Levy finds himself in the company of sandpipers, sparrowhawks, and various waders.
An October trip to my wife Jackie’s Irish family in the south-western town of Schull in Cork was undertaken to scatter her mother’s ashes on the small island of Sherkin, where she was born and raised. This journey to the wilds of the Irish coast would reignite my passion for birds and was a welcome return to spending time tramping around beautiful locations, meeting old friends and family and seeing some splendid birds.
Schull is situated on one of the most gorgeous points on Cork’s coast looking out to the islands, which proliferate throughout the waters. One of the main islands is Cape Clear, which has a legendary status as a dropping off point for incredible bird rarities blown off course from the Americas. I start remembering some of the birds I have seen on the Isles of Scilly, which has a similar reputation. We decide to stay for a couple of days on Cape and see what we can find. I have also heard from my old friend David Lindo, aka The Urban Birder, who will be on Cape at the same time. Hopefully we will get time to catch up with him.
Once settled in our accommodation in Schull, our cousin David takes us to Crewe Bay to have a look for birds. There are various waders and plenty of hooded crows, which I adore, and then I hear a baleful yelp as a curlew lands in shallow water and its large hooked beak starts rooting around and dredging the muddiness below for food. I have missed the primal sound of Europe’s largest wader, which also connects me to my childhood when I encountered the bird regularly on holidays to North Wales. The sad news is that this once abundant bird now has Red Status – the highest level of threat amongst the UK and Ireland’s birds – and is considered a globally threatened species.
The next morning, Jackie and I set off for Baltimore with her Uncle John Norris to catch the ferry to Cape Clear. I rush to the upper deck to get a good vantage point, as I don’t want to miss any chance encounters with nature. On the crossing I see black guillemots in their black and white winter plumage and a couple of common dolphins. The air is sea-cool and invigorating on a beautiful, calm crossing and forty-five minutes later we are welcomed to Cape by our cousin, Michael John. Jackie is related to just about everybody in this neck of the woods, (although technically there are relatively few trees on Cape).
As we drive along the tiny road, I see a figure all birdied up with a scope, trudging up and down the hilliness that is Cape. We get closer. “Hey, David!” It is the Urban Birder himself. He looks up and sees Jackie and myself in the back of the car and he beams at us. We are staying at the same B&B and we arrange to meet later. We drive on to Michael John’s home and have lunch with him and his wife, Sheila, who has prepared freshly caught mackerel, home-made soup and courgette bread, which is extraordinary. Michael John tells us he took out a number of people on his boat during the summer in search of ocean wildlife. This sets my mind racing, as I haven’t been out on a pelagic trip in search of sea-life since the last visit to Scilly five or six years ago. I know it’s probably too late in the year to go out and a hurricane is expected in the next few days but I mention my thoughts and Michael John says, “Why not? Thursday should be a good day. Hurricane Ophelia is due after then.” Most likely it will be a quiet trip as most of the large cetaceans and migratory seabirds will have gone, but what the hell, let’s get out there. We will be autumnal pioneers.
After lunch, Jackie and I take a supposed 90-minute walk round the headland and should be back at the B & B before dark. What could possibly go wrong? Well, there is only one small, muddy and slippery path that is quite steep in places but with a superhuman effort we scramble to the highest point and it is a breath-taking view. But the light is dimming and we still have a long way to go and tramp our way through the now birdless wilderness and as we find the only path leading us steeply downhill back to civilization we notice what looks like cows and bulls blocking the way. They have broken through fencing and seem to be loitering with intent. We survey the situation. We can either go back the way we came, which would take us at least an hour, or wait it out until the herd moves away from the path and make a dash for it (as we are not experienced enough to deal with walking through horned animals). After ten minutes, they begin to move and we tentatively slip and slide downwards through the gloop and quicken our walk as we pass the ass of the last beast in the herd. The largest of them turns to look at us as if to say, “Next time, bucko,” and we are gone. The rain has descended and the darkness cloaks us as we enter the B&B and there to greet us is David Lindo, having a cuppa and some cake. It has been way too long since we saw each other but time means nothing with great friendships. Over dinner we find out that the cows we encountered were Kerry cows and they are a “friendly enough bunch.” How were we to know? We tuck into our beefy Cottage Pie and wonder if it comes from a Kerry cow.
The next morning I join David for breakfast to find him being berated for reading BBC News online by a trio of Trumpite Americans who suggest that the only real news – not “fake news” – is to be found on Fox News. I suggest that this may not be true and then say, “Of course only idiots vote for Trump.” The room’s atmosphere changes. I discover that Trump is the only man in the world who will stick up for the average Joe. “No-one ever listened to us before, it’s because he cares about us.” I ask, “Can that be true? A billionaire who listens and who cares specifically about you?” Apparently he always has done and he alone will make America great again. After a certain amount of posturing, seething and flexing of muscle behind my back they clear off to catch the ferry back to Baltimore. I think this is going to be a good day.
We go and see the latest rarity on the island – a spotted sandpiper, which has been here for some days having been blown off course from America. It seems quite happy with its surroundings, (although two days later a sparrowhawk would take it for dinner). Further on the road I hear a call that reminds me of birding in Spain. I look up to witness several choughs wheeling and performing aeronautics for us. There is a way they tuck their wings in and freefall that is breathtaking and one of the most exhilarating sights of birdwatching. I adore them and they land in a field next to us. We study these fearless birds, which don’t give a jot about our presence, and admire their vermilion beaks and legs. Suddenly a blurred missile flies past our eyes and we take in the feathered exocet that is a merlin. This is the UK and Ireland’s smallest bird of prey, but by jingo it can shift, and flies with menace. Small birds better beware as it means business. Then flying into view is the other express flier of the skies: a peregrine. The bird traffic in these last few minutes has been uplifting and my senses are alive. This is why I watch birds.