The Zoologist/4th series, vol 3 (1899)/Issue 701/Ornithological Notes from the North-West of Ireland, Howard
No. 701.—November, 1899.
ORNITHOLOGICAL NOTES FROM THE NORTH-WEST OF IRELAND.
By H.E. Howard.
Being on the north-west coast of Ireland during August, a few remarks about the bird-life there may be of interest to some of the readers of 'The Zoologist.' Not that they will find any new facts among them, but, by comparing them with notes from other districts, some conclusion may be arrived at as to the movement of birds at this time of year.
The district that I was in was perhaps as wild as any in Ireland, and the cliffs some of the finest in the British Islands. Only those who have seen the sea-birds on these cliffs during May, June, and July have any idea of the swarms that breed there. Of course, in August very few were left, those that were consisting chiefly of Kittiwakes, and the faces of the cliffs were lined in many places by the young birds, nearly all of which were ready to fly; some I did see with a good deal of down, but by far the majority were already commencing to take short flights. The old birds were very fearless, and would almost let you touch them before they would leave the rocks. Puffins I did not find with young on this occasion, although last year about the same time I saw the old birds entering burrows in inaccessible places with their bills full of fry. There were also plenty of young Shags sitting about the rocks, but all able to follow the parent birds. Razorbills and Guillemots had practically all left, though a few Black Guillemots were round one particular spot where they always breed.
About the 12th of the month very large flocks of Gulls were hovering over the sea, most probably after Mackerel-fry or Sand-eels. The fishermen here call these flocks "Gribbers," and are delighted to see them, as they generally denote the coming of Herrings; they know by the different way in which they fly whether they are after Herring-fry, the flock being then more scattered.
On some islands off the coast I found Stormy Petrels breeding in fair numbers; they were difficult to approach, being on a grassy slope at the top of a precipice. It is easy to find the holes they are in by the smell, which is very strong. The young were hatched about the beginning of the month, and looked like fluffy balls of down, their eyes not being open; they grow very slowly, but I cannot say the date at which they leave the nest. The old birds never attempted to fly away when taken off the nest, but uttered a little squeak, and ran straight back down the burrow. The slope I found them on faced due east. They are called "oil birds" by the natives, as most probably they are in other places. On the same island a few Great Black-backed Gulls breed, but for some reason they do not do so on the mainland.
A certain number of Choughs are always to be found; their numbers seem to vary very little year by year. In one or two places round the cliffs a pair always build, generally in a hole in an overhanging cliff at about fifty feet or so from the sea. There is one typical hole they build in, and from all accounts they have done so for years; it is almost impossible to get at, which is just as well, though the eggs are not often taken, except in one place, where the nest is occasionally robbed. As I said, they do not seem either to much increase or decrease. Why, I do not know. It cannot be because there are not enough suitable places for them to breed in, for the cliffs are at least six miles round, and vary in height up to six hundred feet. Some people seem to think it is on account of the great numbers of Jackdaws, which, they say, drive the Choughs away; but I do not think that accounts for it here. I have never seen more than four together, and when I saw those they were more inland among the mountains, about fifteen hundred feet up, feeding with a few Rooks on a grassy slope.
The Raven is another bird which never seems to increase much here, but I expect in this case the young birds are driven away by the old ones. A good many Ravens are trapped yearly by the farmers, as they seem to think they do considerable harm; they will also tell you that if they trap a Raven the surviving one will get another mate in a few days. It is impossible here, even with a rope, to get at the nest, which is always built in an overhanging part of the cliff; the young birds leave this nest about the end of March. I only saw three pairs during August, but they seem to wander a good deal at this time of year.
There are always a good number of Peregrines to be seen, and Kestrels are plentiful enough; they were by far the most common of the Hawks; there were often four or five together, and they seemed to annoy the Choughs very much, as they were continually chasing them. I only saw two or three Sparrow-hawks, and there was one Brown Owl round the house; one pair of the latter generally nest here. I could not find out where the Eagles bred this year; as a rule a pair breedamong the mountains. For the last two years I have known where the nest was, and am glad to say they are well looked after.
In the middle of a little fresh-water lake there is a small island, upon which numbers of Terns breed annually. The island is round, and not more than ten yards in diameter; it is completely overgrown with nettles, except round the edge, where there is nothing but loose stones. I am sorry to say I was too late to see much of the Terns; there were a few Common Terns about, and I feel sure I saw some Arctic Terns flying round. I was also told on fairly good authority that a very little Tern bred there; also that eggs which were supposed to have been those of the Roseate Tern were taken there this year. I give these statements for what they are worth, not being able to corroborate them from my own observation. I intend to visit the island earlier another year. A few Black-headed Gulls also build on the same island; they are quite the most common of all the Gulls I saw during August.
Coming to the smaller birds, Wheatears could be seen everywhere, the highest point I found them at being two thousand feet. The majority of them were in very good plumage, but there were a few not long out of the nest. They would allow you to get quite close to them without showing any sign of fear; as a rule, my experience is rather the opposite in England. The earliest date I have seen them in these parts is March 27th. I could not find any Meadow Pipits' nests, although I have watched old birds with their bills full of insects, evidently waiting to feed their young. There were a few young about; and these, as well as the old birds, seem to me to be darker than they are in other places. In a few cases they had begun to flock, but not more than a dozen were together, and always on the grassy slopes at the edge of the cliffs. Stonechats were common enough, and the young, though fully fledged, were still being fed by the old birds. Some of the old males were in very fine plumage, but the majority were not. A few Ring-Ouzels were to be seen, generally on the face of the cliffs covered with vegetation, the only other inhabitants of which were Wrens; and they always seem plentiful in the wildest and most inaccessible parts of the cliffs.
Of Wagtails, Pied were common, but Grey not very. I only saw a few solitary ones, and the fact of these being single is curious, as I have almost invariably found them in pairs in autumn and winter.
Twites were generally in flocks of from five to twenty, feeding on seeds of various plants. I saw one Cuckoo, evidently a young bird. Swallows were beginning to flock, but Sand Martins were still breeding; in most cases the young were fully fledged, but I found one nest with eggs hard-set—this was on the 17th of the month. A few Swifts were flying about the top of one of the mountains, two thousand feet high—that was the only place I saw them; it was on the 11th of the month.
On the 23rd Flycatchers and Whitethroats were still about, and on the 29th I heard a Chiffchaff; these were the only two Warblers that I noticed. Curlews were more plentiful than they have been for some years, and were in fairly big flocks. Oystercatchers were also flocking; I counted one hundred and fifty in one flock. A few Sanderlings and Dunlins were about towards the end of the month, but only in very small flocks of four or five.
There is a point in connection with the song of birds which I have not seen mentioned, although it must have been noticed by many who are interested in ornithology; it is the differences in the note, or rather in the tone of the note, of a bird, in different parts of the United Kingdom. I have observed a great difference in this way in the North of Scotland as compared with Worcestershire, and again between the birds here and in Worcestershire. The difference seems to exist more among the birds that are resident during the year, but of this I cannot be quite sure, as I have not been in the district during the time of year when the Warblers were singing. The difference is most noticeable in the note of the Chaffinch, Greenfinch, Hedge-Sparrow, and Wren. I say note, because it is more in the call-note than in the song, and, I think, more in the Chaffinch than in any of the others; but in all of them the note seemed to be pitched lower. Probably it is the climate that has some effect, the same way as it does on the human voice; but it is a point that will take a great deal of clearing up, and I shall be glad to learn the opinion of more observant naturalists than myself.
Before concluding this article I should like to mention the wholesale destruction of sea-birds that goes on round the north coast of Ireland.
There is a certain class of people, who come chiefly from the large towns in the north, and who call themselves sportsmen, and whose only idea of sport is to shoot as many sea-birds as possible, and leave the bodies lying with their legs cut off; the legs, I presume, are kept as trophies. The slaughter is indiscriminate; even bodies of Black Guillemots have been picked up floating about minus their legs.
I was told by a native that the destruction of Cormorants had done him a great deal of damage, by the number of sheep he lost over the cliffs. His farm is situated close by a breeding haunt of the Cormorants, and while they breed there the smell is so strong that the sheep will not go down the cliffs. Now this breeding place is destroyed, and, there being no longer any odour, the sheep wander down after food, and are often lost.
I mention this slaughter in the hope that it may catch the eye of some one who may be able to exert his influence on behalf of the sea-birds.