Take on Nature: Hermit haunter returns to Mermaid Cove

Sand Martins nest in small colonies digging long horizontal tunnels in the face of sandbanks and gravel pits
Stephen Colton

THE passage of time carries in its wake much change, for people, places and natural environments. I became aware of this during a recent visit to a small beach in Co Sligo, a visit which revealed how much had changed over the decades.

The beach, called the Mermaid’s Cove, is more fondly known to me and others as Bunduff, nestled as it is between the River Duff, a prolific salmon river four miles west of Bundoran, and Bunduff lake on its other side, a small coastal lake of great significance for birdlife, especially Icelandic whooper swans which arrive here in October.

This sandy cove is peppered with rocky outcrops and rock pools, enclosed by a cliff face at the base of which lie centuries-old polished, rounded boulders dislodged and deposited by powerful Atlantic waves.

What struck me most was how altered the physical nature of the beach appeared. More rock layers were laid bare by the shifting sands and many new boulders dislodged from the cliff lay coughed up by high tides. Deeply shelving sands now slope down towards the incoming sea.

There are also human changes, with many of the people who enjoyed this beach, its moods and refreshing waters, now gone from us – parents, relatives and friends. Some things, however, remain unchanged and constant, like the long sandy expanse of Mullaghmore strand further west, which winds all the way around to its village and pier.

Looking north out over Donegal Bay, St John’s point and its lighthouse are still visible, as is Ireland’s highest sea cliff, Slieve League, the place which Ballyshannon poet William Allingham wrote of when describing how, ‘With a bridge of white mist’, the King of the Fairies travelled, ‘On his stately journeys/From Slieveleague to Rosses’ (The Fairies, 1849).

Looking around, I also noticed the fluttering flights and short, sharp calls of Sand Martins (Riparia riparia – Latin for ‘of the river bank’) as they manoeuvred in and out of their breeding burrows on the sandy cliff face, something they have done for generations. These birds are no doubt distant relatives of the birds I watched here as a young boy, doing the same thing in the same tunnels, another constant.

Much smaller than their cousin the house martin, sand martins are also summer visitors and easily identified by their dull earthy brown upper parts and white underparts with a brown band across the breast.

The tail is only slightly forked and their flight is more darting and less graceful than that of the swallow. Living up to their name, they nest in small colonies digging long horizontal tunnels in the face of sandbanks and gravel pits, ‘more like the haunts of vermin than a bird 'says English nature poet John Clare who also writes of them inhabiting a world, ‘of waste landscapes far away from men’ (Sand Martin, 1935).

Though there have been recent population crashes in the 80s and 90s due to severe drought in their wintering grounds of the African Sahel, the Irish population is currently considered stable. They feed on insects caught in flight and their two clutches will join the adults on the autumn passage back to Africa beginning in mid-July and continuing through to mid-September.

Its Irish name Gabhlán gainimh translates as ‘sand martin’ with gabhlán referring to its forked tail. Clare, again in his poem, refers to the bird as the ‘hermit haunter of the lonely glen’, almost defining it by its estrangement from society.

Perhaps we should raise a glass in honour of this less familiar but resilient bird.


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