Shear beauty, and sheer hell on a desert island at night

AT NIGHT, here on the island of La Gomera in the Canaries, we hear the pardelas — Cory’s Shearwaters — mewling as they cruise high above the lights of the harbour; their calls echoing against the sheer rock face that rises 1,000m directly above the port beach.

Shear beauty, and sheer hell on a desert island at night

I am reminded of the line “From inch and rock, the sea mews cry”, remembered from a tragic poem by Sir Walter Scott learned when I was in primary school. The first verse ended, “Soft is the note and sad the lay that mourns the lovely Rosabelle”: the plaintive cries of these birds do call to mind a keening.

Their voice is often compared to that of an infant in distress. Some years ago, a friend, on his first night on La Gomera, heard them from the balcony of the remote house he had rented. Believing there was a child lost on the mountain, he called out neighbours to begin a search. He had no Spanish, and it took him some time to understand that they were simply birds performing a nightly ritual. Sometimes, the pardelas crash into the lights. If hurt, they are taken to a sanctuary so that they may recover sufficiently to be released, if this is possible.

Cory’s Shearwaters are seen off Ireland’s southwest coast in early autumn, distinguished from our ‘resident’ Manx Shearwaters by their larger size — wingspans of 1.25metres, against 0.85m. Also, while the black upperparts and white bellies of Manx are alternatively vivid as they ‘shear’ low over the water, the contrast is not as dramatic in the Cory’s, whose upperparts are grey-brown. The wings are long, broad and slightly rounded and the long bill is stout and hooked at the tip. Skimming the ocean surface, rising and falling with the swells, they rarely beat their wings in flight. Fish, pellagic molluscs and offal from fishing boats is their fare; they can dive as deep as 15m in search of prey.

Like their Manx cousins, they come to land only to breed, nesting on open ground amongst rock debris, or in burrows. Nests are visited only at night, to avoid discovery by predatory gulls. The racket at a breeding colony of Cory’s Shearwaters has to be heard to be believed.

Years ago, we arranged to be marooned on a Gomera beach, miles from habitation, a camping adventure for the children. We didn’t know it was a shearwater colony until night fell, and that the inhabitants would party until dawn. Their terrifying screams, shrieks and chatter kept us awake until sunrise. We sought shade beneath the walls of a ruined tomato packing station and tried to sleep amongst the basking lizards in the heat of the day.

My children, back then in the 1980s, did not know the diversionary joys of lizard-catching, a craft at which my grand-nephews, 10-year-old twins, Bruno and Emelia Enright from Seville, are experts. Guests at my youngest son’s recent La Gomera wedding, they taught my seven-year-old grandson, Luca Enright from the Czech Republic, their skills.

It’s not difficult, they explained. If one is marooned on a lizard-colonised desert island, one need not be deprived of nutritious protein if one has a banana and a plastic bucket to hand. The bucket is placed beneath a wall and the lizards, scenting the peeled fruit, jump in, but cannot climb out. After sunset, when the air becomes colder, they become torpid, and can be easily handled. To their credit, the children put them back in the wall whence they came, and the lizards seemed none the worse for their ‘adventure’.

Needless-to-say, they did not capture any of the Gomero Giant Lizards, long thought to be extinct, six of which were found on a narrow ledge 700m above the Valle Gran Rey by Spanish biologists in 1999. The survivors’ location was inaccessible to rats (which would eat their eggs) and feral cats, and so they had survived.

After five years, a captive breeding programmed resulted in 90 individuals being returned to the wild on two inaccessible cliffs in the Parque Rural de Valle Gran Rey, while 44 individuals were kept for breeding purposes. La Gomera’s ‘common’ lizard is endemic. Called Boettger’s lizard, Gallotia caesaris gomerae, the female is brown with yellow stripes, and the male black, with blue facial markings. The Canaries archipelago was created by volcanic eruptions 19 million years ago. In the intervening aeons, it is hardly surprising that unique and distinctive flora and fauna evolved on the different islands, miniature forums for the evolutions encountered by Darwin in the Galapagos.

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