You are viewing the content for Monday 6 February 2006

Fulmars fulminate on the clifftops

By Damien Enright
EVEN here on the south-west coast, possibly the mildest part of Ireland, flowering celandines, the harbingers of spring, are still few and far between.

The ravens haven't so far laid a single new stick in the ruins of last year's nests; in fact, they are nowhere to be seen.

Walking along a cliff-top path, I watch six fulmar riding the wind, and they watch me. They seem to exult in the very air that supports them.

Stiff-winged, they glide out, high over the sea and, without a feather- flap or tail-twitch, come hurtling back at breakneck speed. They disappear from view under the cliff, then rise, like jack-in-the-box, on the other side of the ditch and sail effortlessly beside me, watching me out of the corner of an eye.

The first time it happened, it made me jump, the bird suddenly there, suspended over the abyss, 10 feet from my shoulder. That they were celebrating the joy of flight, there could be no doubt.

Back and forth they glided, diving and floating, rising and falling, requiring not a single wing-beat to stay aloft, letting the air do it all.

If you and I could ride the wind and glide out over the sea as effortlessly as skaters on ice how thrilling it would be! Nature never ceases to be replete with sights of beauty and wonder.

The other Sunday, as we walked alongside Cloheen Marsh, near Clonakilty, in West Cork, the yellow sun was low over the vast plain of flat land, sere and brown, over which horses grazed. The golden glow of the land, the misty distances, the horses fetlock-deep in the sward, the ponds shining like silver ingots might have been painted by Millet.

Sunlight glanced off the flanks of horses half a mile away and those nearer, between us and the sun, were surrounded in an aura of light; they were piebalds and skewbalds, long-haired horses untrimmed for winter, bright in their colours, beautiful to watch in their groups and communities, grazing the marsh.

The scattered ponds were hosts to teal and widgeon, black silhouettes against the water, and ranks of black-tailed godwit, long-beaked, long-legged waders, roosted in orderly rows along the edges, waiting for the night.

The marsh was sheltered. Out on the bay, on the opposite side of the causeway, the tide was full in, and the water choppy; it was not a warm day, but dry and crisp, with a fresh north wind blowing.

There, rafts of shelduck, dramatic in their bright white, black and chestnut colours against the pastel green sea, and widgeon in their hundreds, bobbed on the wavelets, facing into the wind.

Nature is not only supremely romantic in its beauty, but in its resilience too.

Down the lanes ahead of us always 100 yards ahead flew skeins of redwing thrushes, all the way from Scandinavia and Russia, where the winter is especially cruel this year. We saw that every hawthorn bush, but one, was stripped of berries. Nature provides.

For these birds, and their larger cousins, the elegant fieldfares, Ireland must be like a winter break on the Costas. Food, in terms of the effort to find it, is cheap, and accommodation in an Irish ivy bush, in comparison to a frozen forest in Russia, should be relatively cosy.

Woodpigeons flop about and feast among the ivy clothing an old hawthorn in our garden. The haws are gone, the last of them taken by a trio of blackcaps that spent two days with us, but the ivy berries are black and full. On sunny mornings, across the small stream and half leaning over it, an ivied stump under a big beech shines when the sun reaches it.

With the dry weather of the last week, the nights have been very clear and the sky full of stars.

Sometimes, Mars is the star we see nearest to the moon. It is a round ball like the moon, only much further away. All the other star-shaped lights are, as we know, spheres too, which we see only because they are reflecting light from our Sun.

Turning again to the beauty and romance of nature, it is hard to conceive that beyond our Sun is another sun with its millions of planets, and beyond that, another, all floating serenely in space, one behind the next, to infinity.