Giant's Causeway, Northern Ireland

Beyond the Castles

Mark Brazil|December 30, 2011|Blog Post

Naturalist Mark Brazil has been leading trips for Zegrahm Expeditions for over 10 years. His explorations range from seeking out India’s rare Bengal tigers to photographing Japan’s white-naped cranes.

“Remote” and the “British Isles” are words that are not often combined in the same sentence. After all, the islands, geographically encompassing both Ireland and the UK, have been settled for millennia, are rich in archaeology, history, folklore and custom, and support a sizeable human population. What’s “remote” about that? When we think remote, we tend to think of islands in the Russian Far East, Indonesia, New Zealand, Alaska, or Antarctica, yet scattered around the fringes of the British Isles, in dramatically scenic settings, are islands that are as remote as one can imagine: Ailsa Craig, the Saltees, and the Skellig Islands, all of which we visit on our Ireland & the British Isles voyage. The region through which we travel is perhaps best known for its lively pubs, its imposing castles and country homes, and its ancient archaeological sites, but voyaging by sea around the southwest of England, the south and west of Ireland, and through southwest Scotland we see not only historical Britain, but also wild Britain.

Despite reveling in the history and culture of my own part of the world (I was born in England), as a naturalist it is the wildlife that makes our varied voyage around the British Isles so exciting for me. This year, the draw for me is the wealth of seabirds that we will encounter, and the hope that while watching them together we may well encounter marine mammals such as seals and dolphins near our home-away-from-home, the Clipper Odyssey. The ease with which the northern fulmars slide past, their wings locked into a seemingly endless glide, is inspiring. Manx shearwaters, bold in their contrasting black above and white below plumage, careen across the sea, flittering skyward in wheeling arcs of motion. At dramatic seabird cliffs we visit crowded colonies of common murre and razorbill—living relatives of the original penguin, the now extinct great auk. Dapper in their form fitting feather coats, the razorbills are Europe’s most elegant auk, but when we approach Atlantic puffin colonies, such as those on Great Saltee and Skellig Michael, we are more than likely to lose track of time as we admire the puffins’ colorful adornments and watch their comical antics. Even as a trained ornithologist, it is hard to take puffins seriously: their permanently surprised expression, their proud portly demeanor, their whirring, blurring wing-beats, that multicolored bill and their fascinating behavior, all serve to make them irresistible to watch.

At sea, but especially around Little Skellig and Ailsa Craig, we will see and admire the largest of Europe’s coastal breeding seabirds, the northern gannet. These enormous birds, nearly three feet from bill to tail and nearly six feet across the wings, are inspirational in their command of air and water. Few things are more spectacular than watching a squadron of gannets flying effortlessly along above the waves, transform, with barely a flick of their wings, into a honed predatory dart plunging, down beneath the water to catch their piscine prey. This is a pointed bird—beak, tail and wings—all sharp and elongated, pointed in all directions. Its long, creamy white wings are smartly tipped with black, and it wears a creamy, golden-yellow cowl. Individually they are gorgeous, but en masse, in thousands at their colonies, they are spectacular—the din can be deafening, the aroma is distinctive, and the sight is unforgettable.

Our trip is by no means all about seabirds however as we enjoy visits to Dartmoor in the south-west of England; quaint Tresco in the Isles of Scilly; cultured Cork, scenic Killarney, the Dingle Peninsula, and charming Donegal in Ireland; the fabled Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland; and famous whisky-producing Islay. Yet everywhere we go, whether to castle, country home, lively pub, or distillery, the common birds of these western isles are with us. Birds of poetry, the European blackbird and European robin, are typical of British gardens and will delight us with their vibrant songs. Common wood pigeons coo their mournful and methodical “two coos sookie” chant from castle walls and woodland tops, while overhead insectivorous common swifts scream and chase at high speed as if hell-bent on tearing the fabric of time. We will listen and watch for the arriving spring warblers such as chiffchaff, willow warbler and sedge warbler, and look for scarce residents such as the red-billed chough, we’ll keep a watchful eye out for butterflies, and all this against the backdrop of early summer blossoms. I can hardly wait; I know it is going to be fun.

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