IT was a job we could only do at low tide, so it meant that by the time we’d finished on Sunday, the thin crescent moon was high in the sky and the lights of Belfast were twinkling on the horizon. But after 90 minutes of solid work, the new nest platform for a pair of cormorants or shags was up and fixed so firmly and expertly that not even a force 12 Irish Sea hurricane would ever budge it.
The job was slightly more complicated than putting up a nestbox in your garden. But fellow birder Andy Graham has had a lifetime of experience working as a joiner on oil rigs, so he had the whole thing worked out right down to the last screw. And, as with most things in life, preparation was the key.
We’d chosen this old post because every time we walked past it, there had been a cormorant or shag sitting on it like a stone eagle on a gate post. It had been sunk deep into the floor of Belfast Lough, not far from the shore in order to gauge the tide: faint depth measurements remain on one side.
Every time we passed it – normally it’s deep in water – we thought, wouldn’t it be great if that bird was actually able to build a nest there, on its favourite perching spot?
And so Andy set to work. He downloaded the perfect nest dimensions for a shag or cormorant and went about gathering the material. And what better way to get it than to comb the shoreline for washed-up items? You’d be killing two birds with one stone, so to speak – building a nest and using nature’s bounty.
And so he found planks that had floated ashore, nailed them together in a perfect square and gave them a good coat of fence paint to help protect them from the elements.
“I’d some stainless steel screws I picked out of an old boat wreck that had been washed up in Scotland years ago, I kept them in the hope they’d come in useful some day,” said Andy. “This was that day.”
Dúlra – the appointed apprentice for the day – found himself doing all the toughest jobs, and Andy assured him that that was an apprentice’s sorry lot. And so late on Sunday, Dúlra shouldered the ladders down to the shoreline while Andy carried the (lighter) nesting platform.
The problem was that it could only be done at low tide so we could walk to the post. And low tide on Sunday was at 5.30pm, just as the sun was going down. An hour and a half later – as you can see in this picture of Dúlra on the ladders checking out the finished product – it was almost totally dark. Above Dúlra’s silhouettes head the brightening moon waxed; in the giant black-and-white Belfast Harbour studios off to the right, the Game of Thrones sets lay silent and sleeping. Fans will hope that’s only for now.
After we’d finished, the platform was fixed so solidly that you could swing from it. Andy started with a single bolt through the middle of it down into the centre of the post, then followed it up with four more of the stainless steel bolts into metal brackets at each side. Then, just to be doubly sure, wooden support arms were screwed into each side as well.
When you’re dealing with the moody Irish Sea, you can’t be too careful.
Andy nodded his head in satisfaction. “This will be here long after I’m gone.”
It’s a long shot that a cormorant – broigheall in Irish – will build its huge nest of twigs on top of the new platform. These birds like to breed with mates, with at least 10 nests in a colony. Shags – seaga in Irish – which are just as dinosaur-looking as the cormorant but totally black without the cormorant’s white chin, also nest in groups.
Most birds, not just cormorants and shags, will have already had eyes on a potential nest spot, so it would be surprising if they’d take a chance on a platform that suddenly appeared in the middle of the water in March. But Dúlra has hope. He’d guess that rarely if ever has any cormorant or shag set eyes on such a designer, made-to-measure ideal home.
As Austin Powers might say, it’s shagalicious!
If you’ve seen or photographed anything interesting, or have any nature questions, you can text Dúlra on 07801 414804.