BETWEEN us we’d travelled over a thousand miles to be here, on the very edge of Ireland as it slips into the Atlantic Ocean. A dozen people together on a lonely and wind-battered coastline as the sun descended under the waves. Like members of some strange cult, we sought darkness.
We were here to worship not a god, but a creature created by the gods, one so special it has attained many religious associations. The tiny storm petrel lives beyond our world in the deep oceans. It seeks out storms and is only occasionally spotted by sailors as it paddles with its webbed feet on the high waves to stir up microscopic plankton thrown up by the swell.
It reminded them of the miracle of St Peter walking on water, from which it gets its ‘petrel’ name (peadairín na stoirme or guairdeall in Irish).
This bird is purely of the sea, even sleeping on the air currents high above the waves. It would never visit land but for the need to lay its single white egg.
The storm petrel’s life when it touches land is equally remarkable. It eschews the Irish mainland – it’s just too dangerous with predators like rats, cats and people. And so it finds uninhabited islands, but only ones where people once lived. Because the storm petrel nests in old ruins left by our ancestors, deep inside holes between the bricks where thousands will breed within a stone’s throw of each other.
It takes massive effort to become a qualified ringer. To reach the highest A Category you have to ring 750 birds of 40 different species. It took Geordie 10 years to reach the top, while animal rescuer Debbie ‘Doolittle’ Nelson completed it this month in just a year – which is believed to be an Irish record.
Because it uses abandoned islands, its distribution was largely unknown. But thanks to the ringing exploits of this small band of birders, we now know there are up to 100,000 breeding birds around Ireland, an incredible 20 per cent of its world population.
Visiting these islands to study the storm petrel is a truly spiritual experience. West Belfast nature experts Aidan Crean and Geordie Hynes have both spent many nights ringing storm petrels on some of the remotest islands off Mayo and Donegal, sleeping under the stars next to the ruined abbeys and stone beehive homes of the monks of yesteryear. Geordie told Dúlra how the huts on one Donegal island still had the monks’ dishes inside, while erosion often led to the exposure of human bones from shallow island graves. After a week there, you’re impervious to horror movies for life.
The islands were off-limits this year for the birders, but storm petrels will skirt the mainland at night as they feed – they only fly in darkness near land because these sparrow-sized birds are easy pickings for all sorts of bigger seabirds, especially gulls. The birders had set up camp on the edge of the Mullet peninsula and Aidan led his team in putting up 10 mist nets against the backdrop of the raging Atlantic. When Dúlra arrived, darkness was falling and you could only make out the outlines of people, lit up by the occasional flash of the Eagle Island lighthouse far out to sea.
This exposed outcrop was the closest mainland point to the storm petrels’ main nesting colony on Inishglora, six miles away on the horizon. Inishglora isn’t just any island, it’s the holiest of them all. It was so famous and revered that it was to Inis Gluaire that the Children of Lir flew after their 900-year banishment to remote spots across the country. It was here that St Brendan finally returned them to their human form, but being 900 years old they immediately crumbled and died and are buried on the island. Today, among the crumbling ruins of St Brendan’s church and the graves of the Children of Lir, the storm petrels make their home.
Aidan and the birders attract storm petrels to the nets with a ‘call lure’ – a recording of their rhythmic chirping voice which was blasted into the darkness against the howling Atlantic wind. Dúlra took his position at the end of one of the 20-metre nets and waited. When our headlamps were turned off you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. At one point birder Andy Graham crept up behind Dúlra and touched the back of his head – the scream of terror Dúlra let out drowned out the petrels’ recorded screech. Your eyes soon become accustomed to the dark, and if you stayed low you could just about make out the net against the slightly less dark sky. And so we sat in silence, waiting.
Andy was the first to shout. A bird had hit his net. The expert birders ran to it, gently untangled it and took it to the gazebo base camp where it was weighed, sexed and ringed by people who handled birds like a jeweller handles diamonds.
It takes massive effort to become a qualified ringer. To reach the highest A Category you have to ring 750 birds of 40 different species. It took Geordie 10 years to reach the top, while animal rescuer Debbie ‘Doolittle’ Nelson completed it this month in just a year – which is believed to be an Irish record. The holy grail qualification turns A Category birdringers into trainers who can take ‘apprentices’ under their wing. Aidan and Geordie are both tutors and two birders – Emer Morrison from West Belfast and Hazel Brown from Scotland – made the journey to get hands-on experience of the storm petrel, which would be another species chalked off on their long journey to qualification.
Then a bird appeared near Dúlra’s net out of the darkness like an apparition. It was more like a bat than any bird he had ever seen, floating in the air with its long wings fluttering fast like a giant moth. It seemed to sense the fine mesh blowing in the wind and didn’t want to hit it, but the call lure did its job and it finally connected, instantly becoming trapped. The experts were summoned and Dúlra followed them back to camp.
Up close, the storm petrel is like no other bird. It is a stocky, even lopsided bird with a small hooked beak, tiny webbed feet and outsized wings. It is brown except for the white rump, rather like a house martin’s. It looks delicate but, as one of the more experienced ringers, Declan Clarke from Ardglass, said, it’s as tough as they come, evolved so it can fly through the fiercest waves the Atlantic can produce. “I’ve caught 1,500 of them, and not one ever got hurt,” he said.
The wonderful sound of a singing Storm Petrel deep inside a lichen-clad #Shetland drystone wall today. “Like a fairy being sick”, in the words of the late local naturalist Bobby Tulloch. pic.twitter.com/LPcvF7iSCI— Jon Dunn (@dunnjons) May 27, 2019
Dúlra returned to his station and it wasn’t long before another bird dropped from the black sky, hitting the net. By 3am we had caught 10 birds – not bad for such a stormy night when the recorded petrel calls were immediately dispersed on the wind, vanishing into the night.
Dúlra went with Debbie to the ocean’s edge to retrieve some of the nets. Debbie adores all of nature, not just birds.
“Have you looked at the ground yet?’ she asked Dúlra. He tilted his headlamp to the sea-soaked land and realised that it was covered in frogs! They were everywhere, marching in the darkness at the earth’s edge.
Between birds that walk on water and biblical numbers of frogs, Dúlra felt at that moment he knew what it was like to be a monk at one with God on an ancient, holy island.