Beautiful plaques are key to West Cork’s bird life

ON THESE bright winter mornings, when the tide is out, the sand of Courtmacsherry Bay is carved by cobalt rivers, flowing toward the surf line in the distance. 

The bay seems bigger then than when it’s full of sea, broken and brimming in bad weather, or when it’s calm as a mirror, the coloured boats set as if in silver. Everything glitters, everything gleams.

The shining rivers curve across the broad plain, cut deeply into it and make islands. Usually, one is the “mother river”, the channel, wider than the rest, and shallow. It gathers the streams and takes them to the sea. In its widest meanders, birds, by the hundreds, gather, roosting on the sand banks, padding in the slower, deeper water.

They are of many shapes and colours, from squat dunlin to tall herons, all harmonious together. Unhurried, they preen on the banks. Some sleep, heads under wings. Others float on the sheltered water. It’s a bird beach resort with pairs, families, flocks, individuals, all rejoicing in the sun. Beyond them, on the naked sands, others forage. To watch the scene from the bay shore path is a delight worth travelling to enjoy.

At the Timoleague end of the paved path that follows the bay to Courtmacsherry — built where the railway tracks once ran —plaques introduce 13 bird species of the bay. Created by Peter Wolstenholme, a master potter from Yorkshire, resident in West Cork for 44 years, they are set deep in concrete plinths and, this year, celebrate their 20th anniversary.

They are beautifully wrought: they could not have been better designed. Each illustrates a bird species, expertly and accurately drawn (for Wolstenholme was a co-founder and first chairman of BirdWatch West Cork) and lettered in stylised Gaelic script. They tell, one by one, the essential story of some of the birds the walker is likely to see.

It is worth coming to the bay to admire the plaques alone. The skill of the illustrations, the subtlety and accuracy of the colours, the effectiveness with which they communicate the information, all combine to make them outstanding. They might well be gallery pieces, tiles displayed in a museum of ceramic art, but here they are set in nature, for the public to learn from and enjoy.

Not only are they intrinsically beautiful, but the lichens that have, over two decades, grown on the plinths that frame them, are beautiful too. They set the glazed plaques in nature and complement the subjects, seen as one will see them in winter, when residents congregate and migrants colonise the mud and sands.

The lichen are white, green, orange and yellow. Thirteen species of bird are depicted on the plaques: I would imagine that there are as many species of lichen accompanying their portraits. But it is the gallery of ceramics that first catch the eye as one sets off on the path that starts by the pond across the bay from ruined 13th-century Timoleague Abbey.

The plaques are spaced at intervals of about hundred yards. The paved walkway to Courtmacsherry village is 5km. En route, the casual observer may then identify the bird in real life.

The first bird is the curlew, shown standing in reeds, and in flight, the abbey and fields in the background. The plaque reads “Curlew – Crotach –Numenius arquatta” Soft melancholy call “Cour-lee” typical sound of estuary, often heard at night. Breeds on upland moors and winters on the estuary with curlews from Scotland, England, Scandinavia + Russia. Night roosts at Kilbrittain Creek and Timoleague. Resident and migratory: Peak numbers about 1500 January. PW ‘97 Ireland.”

The gallery continues. Little Egret, “Éigrit bheag–Egretta garzetta. Before 1990, this was a very rare bird in Ireland....” and so on. Now, egrets are a common bird on the estuary; the walker almost certain to see one — and, their larger cousin, the grey heron, depicted in fish hunting mode, and, in recent years, enjoying an exponential increase on the bay. The bird hunters, top of the food chain, peregrine falcon and merlin, are shown in flight.

The tiles show four ducks of the bay — widgeon, teal, shelduck and mergansers (underwater hunters, fish eaters). The colours are vivid as on the day they were made. Wader portraits, too, are brightly coloured, Redshank (red legs) and Black-tailed Godwit —but not, as is correct, the Golden Plover. As recorded, flocks of 5,000 flew over the bay in 1990s. Not now.

For unknown reasons, they’ve found other roosts. Lapwing, however, still gather annually, as many as 4,000 birds. For those readers who venture, good luck with the viewing!


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