Take on Nature: In the company of birds

Northern gannets are the largest seabirds in the North Atlantic
Northern gannets are the largest seabirds in the North Atlantic

A WALK around Mullaghmore Head peninsula, during the recent warm weather revealed a diverse range of birds, where land and sea meet. This stretch of Sligo coastline offers magnificent views across Donegal Bay to the north where St John’s Point, in shimmering haze, protruded like a wagging finger, sheltering Killybegs behind, and further to the west, the dominant cliffs of Slieve League, where Allingham’s ‘Fairy King’ roamed 'On his Stately journeys’, were also visible.

Around the headland, with Classiebawn Castle in view, the cone of Mayo’s ‘holy mountain’, Croagh Patrick heaved up, all under the watchful eye of Yeats’s ‘bare Ben Bulben’s head’.

This, the beautiful setting for encounters with cormorant, gannet, and more.

Moving beyond the village and pier, the winding road hugs the grassy cliff tops, where patrolling Fulmars followed me, like minders of their nesting ledges, growling and cackling, stiff winged as they glided on the updrafts.

A fulmar in full light
A fulmar in full light

This gull-like bird is white underneath, grey above and has tube shaped nostrils on its upper mandible, used to excrete excess salt. Fulmars also use projectile vomiting of foul-smelling oil to defend against predators.

Below, waves broke onto sloping rocks where another coastal specialist, the oystercatcher stood with its orange probing bill and fleshy pink legs, ready for flight. Out above the open sea, two Northern gannets with their yellow tinted heads, long necks and white plumage, scanned the waters. Their black wingtips and dark webbed feet stand out as they watch for mackerel or other fish prey, before plunging from up to forty metres, wings folded, and hitting the water at great speed.

Revered in coastal communities, the bird in some regions is given the Irish name, ‘Amhasán’, the ‘hooligan bird’.

Further along the rocks, small parties of cormorants stood, wings outstretched to dry in the warm sunshine.

The Fulmar flies low over the sea on stiff wings
The Fulmar flies low over the sea on stiff wings

Known for its voracious predation of fish, this dark green-black bird has a long neck, hooked bill, and webbed feet which help it swim powerfully in the water. Its gluttonous reputation is mentioned by Shakespeare when he talks of 'the cormorant belly’ in Coriolanus. Some of its Irish names include, ‘Fiach mara’, meaning ‘sea raven’ and ‘Cailleach dhubh’, the black hag or witch, a term which appears in Synge’s play Riders to the Sea, when Cathleen speaks of the "black hags that do be flying on the sea".

Back along the cliff top, clusters of clover-like pink sea thrift or sea pink swayed in the light breeze, while above the nearby fields, skylarks rose high into the sky singing their trilling songs until only a speck, before reappearing to descend, parachuting slowly, back to ground. Known as ‘fuiseog’ in Irish, the complex music of the skylark and its soaring flight have inspired generations of writers, musicians, and artists.

Leaving Sligo’s shoreline, and travelling inland past Bunduff lake, a last meeting of the day with a bird I hadn’t seen in a while. Rising from the sandy grassland behind the sand dunes, two lapwings released their haunting ‘pee-wit’ calls as they wheeled away in their typical floppy erratic flying style, referenced in the bird’s Latin name Vanellus meaning ‘willowing fan’. Also called green plover and pee-wit, lapwings have a long crest, rounded wings, white underparts, and dark green-purple upper plumage. A wary and nervous bird always alert, the cry of the plover being roused, was a sign of imminent danger for Mad Sweeney and his friend, in the ancient tale of Buile Suibhne, where they were to ‘scatter immediately’ if the ‘wheep of a plover disturbed in its sleep’, was heard.

Homeward bound, I felt grateful for the day.