LAST weekend I had, nestling in my hand, one of prettiest birds I’ve ever seen, a storm petrel.
It had flown into the lighted window of the house of a friend who lives in an extremely remote and beautiful place on the west Cork coast.
When the bird struck the glass, he and his partner heard it, and rushed out into the storm to rescue it. It is well named indeed, a storm petrel.
Large numbers of rare Maderian petrels and Wilson’s petrels were seen passing the Old Head of Kinsale on those storm-bound days, driven inshore by the tempest. The tiniest of all the family, the little storm petrel, smaller than a swallow, is our only native species.
It nests on islands far offshore, coming to land only during the mating season, and then only at night. A bird of the open ocean, rarely seen and having no contact with our species, it is quite unafraid of man and happily sat in my wife’s hand while we took photographs.
Mother Carey’s chicken is the old sea dog’s name for petrels: they literally dance on the waves, seeming to peck plankton from the ocean surface like chickens picking feed in a yard. “Petrel” comes from Peter, for walking on water: Mother Carey from Mater Cara, the Virgin Mary, because they were said to foretell storms.
Bird ringers, attempting to count them, stand mist nets in front of scree slopes – and stone walls where there are any – on islands like the Blaskets and the Skellig Rocks. They ply their expertise at night, in the nesting season, especially when there is little moonlight. Shearwaters also arrive, another oceanic species, but much larger. Just as swifts come to earth only to nest, petrels and shearwaters come to land only to lay their eggs in crevices under rocks or in rabbit burrows. Indeed, the storm petrel’s black scythe-like wings are very similar to those of a swift, long and narrow, reaching to the end of its tail.
The petrel was the loveliest of creatures, all the more because it was so tame and unafraid. On its short black legs and webbed feet, it hobbled around the dark red carpet of the dining room. It wasn’t good at walking: shearwaters are, perhaps, even worse. Both have webbed feet, designed for riding the roughest seas. No wonder they rarely meet us. The open ocean is their element. They ride out whatever the weather brings, perhaps a thousand miles from shore.
The shiny hooked beak, with breathing tubes or nostrils mounted above, the jet black, downy plumage and the striking white band above the tail, contrasted vividly with the carpet. The bird made no attempt to scuttle away or hide. Placed on a shelf , it seemed as at home there as a pigeon in a dove cote.
A Manx shearwater was another local arrival out of the night, drawn in by the strobe lights that, at weekends, pierce the darkness of the sky, attracting visitors to the delights and amenities of our village. Walking home from the pub, I met a man in the street carrying it. Shearwaters, also a tubenose species, are also very attractive birds, but not to be messed with. It had drawn blood from the hand of its rescuer’s young companion and it shortly set about nipping me.
It is not unusual for shearwaters to fly into lights, but the Manx shearwaters off our coasts seem to be smarter than their cousins, the Cory shearwaters, which regularly crash into the harbour lights at the small village of Las Vueltas in La Gomera, Canary Islands. So often does it happen that a shearwater rescue service supplies boxes to contain them until they recover and can be released. The rescuers wear gloves.
Shearwaters skim the waves on epic oceanic flights, like mini-albatrosses. However, they aren’t small; Manx shearwaters have wingspans of almost 3 feet. While the petrels dance on the waves, the shearwaters skim them.
Both our nocturnal visitors were released as soon as they seemed recovered – the petrels in the dark of night, for fear the gulls would attack and eat it, the shearwater, the following morning.
Those who released them tell me it was wonderful to watch them fly out to sea, the far horizon their destination, their encounter with man unique.
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