Damien Enright: The harrowing tale of redwing thrushes’ quest for food

In West Cork, it was as warm as the Canary Islands if one was in a sheltered corner or a stoutly built conservatory.

Damien Enright: The harrowing tale of redwing thrushes’ quest for food

In West Cork, it was as warm as the Canary Islands if one was in a sheltered corner or a stoutly built conservatory. writes Damien Enright.

Outside, in the bright Siberian light, there was certainly a sharp wind blew. However, things were improving, and this pet day last week (which I hoped would become “days”) could hardly have been bettered.

The light was crystal clear and the green of the fields and the vast blue swathe of the sea was breathtaking when I came out of the woods and walked down the sloping fields to the cliff to see if the ravens were, indeed, nesting, as I’d been told.

I was back home from La Gomera, the smaller island south of Tenerife, to be guest of honour at the St Patrick’s Day parade. There wasn’t a big crowd; the weather that day was Arctic. Icy winds ripped down our single street (which edges the sea) like the heart-stopping gusts that cut the concrete canyons of Manhattan Island in the deep of winter.

I appreciated the honour, although there can’t have been more than 30 stalwart citizens to witness it (and I don’t blame those that stayed home: on a committee member’s advice, I stayed warm in the pub across the road until the last minute) while the Patrick’s paraders largely drove the route rather than walked. What I liked about the “award” was that it assures me I’m no longer a blow-in. Hurá!

The ravens have nested — very late this year, as I mentioned last week — but, as yet, appear to have laid no eggs. One bird was sitting on it as I approached, so they are clearly expectant of rapid developments. Meanwhile, when he/she vacated, I noticed that the interior was lined with what looked like greyish, cotton-wool balls, sheep’s wool perhaps, but there are few sheep husbanded here on the Seven Heads. Anyway, the nursery is sited on the usual ledge above the sea, and it’s to be hoped that the worst is over, weather wise, with spring to come.

There are already signs: the celandine grows on the grass verges, not yet as enthusiastically as usual, but making a showing and opening like small buttercups when the sun is out. Also, the dandelions, and a few bee-like hoverflies to start the pollinating.

Down on the beach, a group of Leaving Cert geography students from St Brogan’s School in Bandon were studying longshore drift and cliff erosion under the guidance of their teachers. It’s interesting and simple, how longshore drift is measured. You throw a short log of wood into the sea beyond the surf break and stick a pole, or two poles, in the sand onshore. Then, using the poles as the fixed point, you note the direction and the speed at which the log is carried past by the current. If there’s drift, you then know the whole story by experience and, on this theme, you’ll get honours in your exam.

I visited Peter Wolstenholme, potter and a doyen of local birdwatchers. He told me that Cork birders had seen an estimated 100,000 redwing thrushes flying over Great Island in Cork, desperately heading onward on their quest for food, a harrowing tale indeed.

They had fled ahead of the phenomenal snows in Russia and Scandinavia, to England, as cohorts do every year when the world about them whitens and the last berry is gone. They arrived there to find all possible sustenance buried beneath a white blanket.

They flew on to Ireland, now days in the air, with no nourishment en route. But Ireland was white too. Not a berry, hardly a berry bush protruding above the white mantle.

Some cultures symbolise death as white, not black. White is death for migrating birds, redwings and fieldfares are an example.

From Ireland, they headed west, out over the Atlantic, hoping to find land. No land. They turned, somewhere out over the ocean, and came back to our shores where, feather light, no more than bone or empty shells, papier-mâché spirits with nothing but a heart to sustain them, they died in their thousands. Peter said he saw a field littered with so many bodies that they looked like mice that had died on a corner where blizzard winds had blown off the snow.

Dead on the beach at Barley Cove, lay hundreds of redwing, lapwing, golden plover, and fieldfare. Peter had watched the flocks flying west through the glass roof of his conservatory. There was nothing he could do. His own garden was the open graveyard of dozen of birds.

But they’ll survive as a species. They’ll recover. Spring — and summer — will come!

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