Thursday 27 October 2016

The perpetual prospector with a chisel beak

Joe Kennedy

Published 07/02/2016 | 02:30

Wading in: Oystercatchers know where to find a ready meal
Wading in: Oystercatchers know where to find a ready meal

There were three wise-looking crinkled old rooks poking about where hard sunlight had softened the ground.

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A green space was a small oasis at a road junction where traffic waited patiently in lines. The corvids were joined by a handful, of starlings, once prolific urban busybodies, now a scarce sight. These started work immediately at the grassy place, sinking beaks with vigour.

The crows shuffled about, hoping to find something in the detritus left by weather and motor tyres. As the traffic moved so did they, bored by the futility of searching. One would wonder about their survival, patiently scavenging, finding little to eat. But they are resourceful birds for all their world-worn looks. Patience sometimes pays off. The starlings had attacked the green patch like carpet-beaters, finding invertebrates in the softening loam. They never give up.

At the seashore by a coastal town to where I had been bound, I was immediately reminded of St Brigid, a pious abbess of Kildare in early Christian times, tradition holds, because of a fine flock of a different bird species covering an area of football pitch size.

The calm sea stretched before us, the Mourne's sharp shadows of grey to the north. There was not a sail in sight. The oystercatchers knew, like the starlings, where to find a ready meal. Years before I had once tried to explain their name to a small boy, now an adult, at this place: "They don't catch oysters."

Time passes, birds seem the same but of course are not. The pattern of behaviour remains. Man's presence did not deter these busy feeders. Oystercatcher is an American name for this bird which, when it cannot find cockles by digging or mussels to rip in rock pools, will plunge for earthworms in the nearest field. It has a remarkable beak, a bone-strengthened bill, part hammer, part chisel which can chop shell-fish from rocks but which also at the tip has corpuscles that enable it to sense by touch so that it can forage after dark. That carrot-red to yellow bill enables the bird to be a perpetual prospector, altering its use from mussel blade to worm teaser.

The Saint Brigid connection is from the bird's old West of Ireland name, Giolla Brid, or Brigid's page or messenger. Monday last was her feast day, once widely remembered ceremoniously in an older Ireland.

Giolla Brid was the name given to the bird as great flocks which wintered along the Connacht coastline began to thin out as January ran its course. This was a sign, people said, that the saint's day was drawing near. It is the beginning of Imbolc, the Celtic marking of spring's arrival, from pre-Christian times and, some sources say, an original Brigid was an earth goddess who was "transformed into a saint by the early Christian Church" (Fergus Kelly in "Early Irish Farming" - School of Celtic Studies).

Oystercatchers are portly with sturdy pink legs, head and breast glossy black, underparts white.

Large white bars on broad black wings make a dazzling flight pattern.

They can be seen year round skimming over the waves. Winter flocks arrive from Scotland and Iceland. Main nesting sites are in Norway and Belgium although an estimated 4,000 pairs remain to breed here. The nest is a simple scrape on sandy shorelines.

Sunday Independent

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