Thursday, 16 July 2015

Michael Cunningham

Trip to Tory 26.06.15 to 27.06.15
Magheroarty Pier
Corncrake Calling 5pm 26.06.15
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Auk? + Tern?
Black Guillemot
Common Gull
Corncrake Traonach
Black-headed Gull 3 Rock Pipit
South Lake on the western end of the island
Tufted Duck 5
Mute Swan 2 ad + 2 Juv
Mallard 4
Common Gull
Common Tern ~20 inner primaries translucent
Ring Plover
Starlings ~20
East end 27.06.15
Tree Sparrow 1
Shag ++++
Lapwing 3
Rock Pigeon
Raven 2
Rock Pipit
Gannet Shalladagh Scaladóir Razorbill
Cormorant +++
Shag Calliagh oow Dark Lady Cailleach Dhubh
Shag Vivign? Fulmar Shoak Mara Sea Hawk Seabhac Mara Black Guillemot
Lesser Black-backed Gull 20
Greater Black-backed Gull 1
Great Skua 3
Wheatear Hovering
Puffin 3-400
Herring Gull
Pied Wagtail
Manx Shearwater   Canog Dhugh Scréachóg Reilige Shrill voice bird:Grave
Great Northern Diver Lesser Black-backed Gull
Eider Duck 2 females in Harbour

A Scream from the Grave!
Southwest Donegal Bird Watchers

Tory Island is perhaps the most remote settlement on the far western edge of Europe. It is frequently cut-off from the mainland by severe winter storms... but it is a place of magic that has spawned its own unique culture and folklore. It is wild place of extreme beauty and friendly people that has drawn us back time and time again; we are already looking forward to our next visit!

As we arrived for the Friday evening ferry at Magheroarty Pier, a Corncrake was calling from a nearby field. A smile of recognition crossed the face of a few of those who were taking their luggage from the car park, as they listened to its mechanical tones. The increased in Corncrake numbers in recent years has been a bit of a good news story, but the population is still low compared to historical levels.

 The winds were light but there was a considerable swell, making the crossing uncomfortable for a few of the more sensitive souls onboard. On the crossing, we noticed Lesser Black-backed Gull, Fulmar, Black Guillemots, a variety of auks and a Tern of some description. The piping of an Oystercatcher, on the rocky shore of Tory, signalled the end of the ordeal for a few of the passengers who had turned a distinct shade of green!

Our arrival was greeted by the screams of Gulls, Terns and the rasp of the Corncrake. A Skylark attempted to make itself heard above the din but the Swallows, Rock Pipits and Wheatears got on with business without any such fuss.

Sadly I have to report that there was no camping this year. After my report on last year’s camping experience, nobody was willing to camp with me. I had to bow to intolerable pressure and sign into the hotel too... I hope my street-cred hasn’t been terminally damaged!

Once we got booked in, we headed for a walk around the ‘South Lough’ on the western side of the island. We noticed that the Common Gull, as its name suggests, was quite common on Tory; there was a fair number of Black-headed Gulls and Lesser Black-backed Gulls too. Back in 2013, I camped on the island of Roaninnish, which is essentially a Gull breeding colony, and I noticed that there was about 20 Greater Black-backed Gulls for every one Lesser Black-backed Gull; however on here Tory, that ratio seemed to be reversed, with the Lesser Black-backs in the majority.  This might have something to do with differences in behaviour or simply time of year.

On the lake itself there were Mallard, Tufted Duck and a pair of Mute Swans with 2 signets.

It’s a poor day that you don’t learn something new. As I have mentioned previously, Common and Arctic Terns are very hard to tell apart, so much so, that they collectively referred to as ‘Comic’ Terns (Common, Arctic... Com-ic). We learned that you can easily distinguish which is which, by the translucency of their wing feathers. If you imagine that your arms are the wings of a Tern, with feathers coming out the back of them; then if the feathers emerging from the elbow region are translucent, the species is Common Tern. If the feathers are translucent right out to the end of the ‘fingers’, the species is Arctic Tern. We noticed about 20 Common Tern.

On the way back to the hotel we noticed a Ringed Plover, a few Lapwing and a small flock of about 20 Starlings.

A sense of place is a funny thing... I remember as a child moving from England to a place called Meentinadea, that was 5km from Ardara. My parents had been raised in rural Donegal and now they were back among their own people, in their own culture, speaking their own dialect, surrounded by familiar things, and sights and sounds; they were at home. Us kids soon picked up on that sense of belonging and, as the years passed, the place just seemed to seep into us too. And it was with a sense of loss that we had to move from Meentinadea, first to Cronkeerin and then to Stormhill, where my father had bought a farm. Stormhill was only 2km from Ardara. I had a feeling it was far too close to those brash ‘Townies’... that was a bit rich coming from a kid who had lived in the centre of Birmingham city until he was 10! But by that stage I really did feel like I was a country kid.

A sense of place and belonging is strong in Donegal people but I think it is particularly strong in island communities. Arranmore and Tory are inhabited the whole year round but islands like Gola, Owey, Innishkeeragh, Innishfree, Rutland and Innishmeane, are  only inhabited in the summer. I’ve often spoken to islanders who winter on the mainland, and many of them cannot wait for the sea to settle in the springtime, so they can get back onto their island. It is as if the island has a part of them, and they are reunited with that missing part when they are back on their island; it is only then that they are whole!

I was speaking with one of the islanders, called Anton Meehan, who has a great love of the beauty and wildlife of his island. Anton was saying that, when he was young, it was common for children to be given baby Puffins or Sea Gulls to be raised as pets. He had been given both as a child but found that Sea Gulls made better pets, as they would stay with you so long as they were provided with a ready supply of food. Puffins, on the other hand, would make off at the first opportunity - if they got into the sea, that would be the last you would see of them. He was also saying that in those days, it was common for the islanders to eat seabird’s eggs and Puffins. There were no Playstations or Sugar Coated Frosties in those days!

Anton joined us on our walk on Saturday as we headed towards the cliffs on the eastern side of the island. Along the way, we spotted a Tree Sparrow, 3 Lapwing, 3 Chough, a Raven, a Rock Pipit and a pair of Rock Pigeons. We noticed a Wheatear hovering over a meadow; a behaviour in this species that I had never seen before.

Up along the cliffs, we got to within a few meters of nesting Fulmars; a lot of them were tending young.  On the water below, there was a vast array of Razorbills, Puffins, Black Guillemots and a few Guillemots. On the smaller rocks were endless numbers of Shags and Cormorants. Away out at sea, Gannets scanned the waters for an unsuspecting fish upon which to pounce.  A group of Lesser Black-backed Gulls, Greater Black-backed Gulls, a few Common Gulls and a single Herring Gull, lazily basked on some stony ground near the cliff edge. Overhead 3 Great Skuas passed by; they always seem to have an air of menace about them. Their presence in the area is well established at this stage.

From here we went up to the ‘Wishing Stone’, a large block of quartzite, perched on the edge of a precipitous cliff. We kept throwing pebbles until we got three of them to land on the top of the stone – apparently you can then make a wish!

Just beyond the ‘Wishing Stone’ is a grassy slope that could be described as ‘Puffin Central’. My guidebook said that, in 2003, there were 1,400 puffins on Tory. Anton was saying that an accurate count hadn’t been done in years but my impression would be that there is at least that number. Last year, in late July, when all the adults and fledglings were out on the water prior to their departure, I got the impression that there were several thousands. Our boatman last year hadn’t seen as many in all his years.

The cliffs opposite ‘Puffin Central’ were crowded with Razorbills, Guillemots, Shags and Kittiwakes. Kittiwakes are quite similar in appearance to Common Gulls but they have sooty black legs and of course, they have their distinctive ‘Kit-ti-wak’ call.

Anton was saying that the Irish names of birds vary from place to place but he called the Gannet, ‘Scaladóir’, ‘Scala’ Translates as a ‘flash’ but ‘Dóir’ is uncertain, it might mean ‘Bull’. The Gannets dramatic dive are just like a flash, and it is the largest seabird we have, so perhaps it was referred to as a ‘Bull’ because of its size. The Corncrake is referred to as ‘Traonach’. In Irish, Traonaí refers to a sleepy person; I suppose you would be sleepy if you were kept awake by the incessant call of a Corncrake all night! The Fulmar was called ‘Seabhac Mara’, which means, ‘Sea Hawk’. The Shag was called ‘Cailleach Dhubh’, which has several possible translations ‘Black Girl, Black Hag or Black Nun’. Down on Arranmore, I hear someone refer to the Manx Shearwater as ‘Scréachóg Reilige’, which translates roughly as, ‘Scream of the Grave’. This is not surprising as they have the most eerie, blood-curdling cry, which they emit when they visit their nesting sites in the dead of the night.

On our way back to Magheroarty, we spotted several Manx Shearwaters, a Great Northern Diver, more Lesser Black-backed Gulls and a pair of female Eider Ducks in the Harbour.

In an attempt to try to do the island justice, we usually stay over-night on Tory; but the accommodation is so good, so reasonably priced and the proprietors so hospitable, that we are planning to stay for two nights next year.

On this outing we encountered 36 bird species, including, Black Guillemot, Black-headed Gull, Chough, Common Gull, Common Tern, Cormorant, Corncrake, Eider Duck, Fulmar, Gannet, Great Northern Diver, Great Skua, Greater Black-backed Gull, Guillemot, Herring Gull, Kittiwake, Lapwing, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Mallard, Manx Shearwater, Mute Swan, Oystercatcher, Pied Wagtail, Puffin, Raven, Razorbill, Ring Plover, Rock Pigeon, Rock Pipit, Shag, Skylark, Starlings, Swallow, Tree Sparrow, Tufted Duck and Wheatear.

Our next outing will be closer to home. On the 25th July we will visit St John’s Point. We will meet at the Dunkineely Community Centre (on the Inver side of the town) at 10am; we hope to see you there.

If you would like to join us, please bring warm clothing with a waterproof jacket, trousers, appropriate footwear and a packed lunch and flask. Bring binoculars if you have them. Telescopes and books are shared. For further information, contact us on (086)8058528 or (087)2770408 or at

All are welcome but you are reminded that we are an informal group without structure; each is responsible for their own wellbeing and safety.
Michael Cunningham

Puffin Count!
My guidebook said that, in 2003, there were 1,400 puffins on Tory.  Anton was saying that an accurate count hadn’t been done in years.  A photograph of ‘Puffin Central’ had 132 Puffins in view.  This did not take into consideration the birds in their burrows, those out at sea or those at other nesting sites. Last year, in late July, when all the adults and fledglings were out on the water prior to their departure, I got the impression that there were several thousands. Our boatman last year hadn’t seen as many in all his years.

Glenties / Fintown / Meenaroy / Chuchill / Gartan / Glenveigh / Falcarragh / Gortahork / Magheroarty