One Good Tern: Jon Gower goes birdwatching by bicycle in Ireland
A tern colony in high summer is a veritable seabird bedlam, a screeching cacophany as the birds fly madly back and forth, scything out to sea to feed or bringing in their shivering bounty. Lady’s Island Lake in County Wexford is the largest tern colony in Ireland, which means the volume control is set screamingly high.
There are Sandwich Terns galore – 2000 pairs nested there this year – as well as Europe’s rarest seabird. This is the Roseate Tern, which owes its name to the very pale wash of pink on its underparts: think old red wine stain washed out of a starched white shirt and you’ll have a sense of it. They all nest on islets in the middle of a lagoon which runs to the sea near the huge vanes of the windfarm at Carnsore point, sharing the area with legions of human pilgrims who come to Our Lady’s Island to visit the oldest Marian shrine in the country.
Some idea of the sounds made by the birds is present in the old, local Yola dialect names for terns – Skirr, Skers, Sherawee and Skeerane – which fair capture the essence of these cries as do names used elsewhere, such as tirrick for the Arctic turn in Shetland or Orkney where known as Pickieterno, Rittock and Ritto.
Tony Murray, the Conservation Ranger for the Irish National Parks and Wildife Service has worked with terns on both sides of the Irish Sea, having worked at Dalkey Island in South County Dublin and at Ynys Feurig on Anglesey before moving to Wexford 15 years ago. He thinks of all these colonies as part of an Irish sea unit, with a great deal of interchange between them, an idea borne out by ringing birds with rings that are field-readable. He tells me ‘This has allowed us to find out that most of the juvenile birds, when they leave move north, congregating in huge flocks between north Wales and Merseyside.
They’ll be birds from Cemlyn, Our Lady’s Island, probably the Hodbarrow colony up in Cumbria, all concentrating in the post breeding season – wherever the grub is. So we can see the Irish Sea tern population as a meta-population: we’re getting Cemlyn ringed birds, ours are up in Cemlyn and we’re getting some up in Hodborough in Cumbria as well.’
I’d spent much of the lockdown period researching a book about the facing coasts of Ireland and Wales and the seas between as part of Ports, Past and Present project, an EU funded project examining the cultural heritage of ports in the Irish sea basin. I was struck by how each of these ports was in very close proximity to outstanding wildlife sites. Dublin has its own tern colonies on Rockabill island while substantial flocks of Brent Geese feed on urban green spaces right in the heart of the city. Pembroke Dock and Fishguard are, of course within easy reach of islands such as Ramsey, Skomer and Skokholm while Holyhead is just a Chough’s hop away from the seabird colonies of South Stack, not to mention Anglesey’s burgeoning population of Red Squirrel.
The same is true for Rosslare where many superb wildlife experiences are very easily accessible. How accessible? Well, thinking of my own experience, an overweight man in his early sixties who has two kinds of arthritis can easily go by bicycle from the Rosslare Europort to Our Lady’s Island in just over half an hour. You can then take quiet country lanes out to the sandbanks which separate the brackish lagoon from the sea and have a long stretch of empty beach all to yourself. I sat down to watch black and red Burnet Moths feeding on the lavender coloured flowering heads of Sea Holly and small squadrons of Cormorant which seem to come in threes, flying in trident formation.
Another hour’s bike ride and you can be in Kilmore Quay, the fishing trawler-crammed harbour where you can catch the small passenger ferry to Great Saltee island. It’s only a 20 minute crossing before you decamp to a dinghy where you have to take off your shoes and socks for the wet landing. You wade through aromatic fronds and wracks of seaweed to get to dry land and can thus feel a bit like the Oystercatchers that are progging around in the nearby shallows.
In Irish Gaelic the Oystercatcher is called Griolla Brighde which translates as ‘Servant of St.Brigid’ the same saint’s name that occurs in St.Bride, as in St. Bride’s Bay in Pembrokeshire. Legend has it that the aforementioned Brigid crossed the Irish Sea in a boat made from a single sod of earth before making landfall and being known as San Ffraid. It sounds like a really uncomfortable trip and makes me glad I went from Pembroke Dock to Rosslare with Irish Ferries. You can buy strong tea to sip as you enjoy views of Grassholm, fly-pasts of Manx Shearwaters and the evocative lighthouse at Tusker Rock.
The walk around the Great Saltee, a privately owned island with its own “Prince,” takes you through shoulder-high bracken, hiding tripwires of bramble. It keeps you on your toes. Seals snout around in clear water offshore. A pair of Chough needle in some low maritime turf, their matching red, decurved bills and legs distinctive as is their wild caw as they fly away on splayed black wings.
Then the land out towards the south-western edge of the island starts to rises and as you climb you begin to smell it. It’s that aroma when grandmother rediscovers the tin of sardines she’d hidden under a cushion, away from the cat. The aroma intensifies until you gain more height on South Summit and reach the gannetry at Seven Heads.
Breathtaking. It’s a smelly, kinetic spectacle to easily rival that of African Big Game – thousands of dazzling fish-eating, white seabirds with black-tipped six-foot wingspans, wheeling in the air while others hug their nest sites underneath them. The magic of the place is that you can sit just a few yards away from them, close enough to appreciate the buff yellow tinges of the neck and head and the blue of their eyes. Some stand sentinel at what’s left of the nests they built from sea-campion at the start of the nesting season, their great bills cropping this plentiful cliff-top plant much like secateurs, maybe adding its leaves to a base of rotting seaweed.
Other birds bicker with their neighbours, or pairs indulge in beak-rubbing and entwining of necks to mark the return of a bird to the nest, reinforcing the bond between them perhaps. This year’s chicks are in various stages of development, the youngest covered in grey powder puffs of feathers while the older ones, which have shed their down, have dark brown plumage, with small white speckles a bit like a starling’s.
There’s the smell of the place – fish cannery with overtones of old cod – and there’s the noise of the gannetry, as the wheeling birds utter raucous, throaty, vibrato calls, which evoke the sound of a Soviet-era helicopter, its rickety rotors needing some attention.
In recent years the gannets have expanded to other locations such as The Megstone on Great Saltee, so there are now three sub-colonies on rocks along the island’s southern. Here the snowy-white birds sit in serried ranks on bare rock, chattering and squabbling as their lives are lived in such close proximity to each other. This gannetry is the smallest of the three colonies in Ireland and was only established a little under a hundred years ago when two pairs nested in 1929. Its burgeoning is a success story in and of itself.
As the ferry takes us back to the mainland we watch these magnificent birds plunge after fish, their wings crumpling, each body making just a small sherbet fizz as it slices into the water to chase after its silvery, underwater prey. The presence of a quartet of fishing birds attracts others and soon the channel is full of white pixillations, as our biggest seabird species makes an animated start to spearfishing its piscine evening meal.