by Paul Cormacain
I HAVE long advocated the glories of Rathlin Island, a lovely island off the north coast where the natives are friendly. The native sea bards congregate in late spring and early summer, spend a few months breeding along the coast. The sights along the sea cliffs are particularly enchanting, with huge numbers of birds wheeling and diving, feeding and being fed, screaming and communicating. The native humans are also friendly, in fact, they are particularly friendly.
One of the glories of Rathlin is the puffin. Most of us have seen this bird, or at least know what it looks like. During the breeding season especially the puffin stands out. 'The bill is the prominent feature, looking its best during the breeding season, a large bill, a colourful bill, an unmistakable bill. It is coloured blue, yellow and red, and quite unlike any other bill. Some folk see the bill and laugh, and consider the bird a bit of a comic, but there is more to fun in the bill.
The puffin uses its bill as a digging tool. The bird nests in a hole on the sloping side of a sea landscape, will sometimes acquire the deserted burrow of a rabbit, or perhaps a shearwater. Or it may dig a hole for the family, and what does it use as a tool, why nothing other than the bill. If the bird exposes his bill to an other bird it could mean "look out", or "you are trespassing", or "do you want a fight?"
If a puffin is feeling amorous, or lonely, he will expose his bill at a
lady puffin, and this is an invitation to get together, and to see about
increasing the world's population of puffins having the ornithological
a candlelight dinner, the puffin will sometimes hide the bill, as a non-threatening sign. Or the male and female bill will be rubbed together in a romantic way to strengthen the relationship.
The bill is the most easily observed part of the bird for identification purposes. The bill is the reason for some folk to see the bird as `comical'. Yet starting about this time of the year the bill will start to lose its horny sheath, and with it will go the bright colours. Soon it will be mainly yellow in colour. Once folk accept that the puffin is a funny bird, they start to look at the bird's shape, and get away from the bill, and then they realise that the shape is also funny.
The head and bill of the puffin are much too large for its body. The "comical" bill has an odd shape as well as odd colouring. It is shaped like a triangle! It is laterally compressed, it is situated very high in the body, and has a number of deep furrows. At this time, the body is black and white, the throat and the chin are grey, and the sides of the face are white. A black band surrounds the throat, and the legs and feet are webbed and coral-red. "Comical" bird indeed!
Soon the colours will change. I told you about the bill, but the feet will turn to a yellow colour in next few months. The other colours on the body will all dull down for the winter season.
Before it loses all its superb colours, and before the birds all depart, someone had the good idea of broadcasting the birds departure, and the call went out for folk to go and see the birds before the breeding season was over. The RSPB came off with this brilliant idea, proclaimed it far and wide, and extolled the advantages of a Rathlin trip at this time of the year. You may remember seeing it mentioned in this column!
This writer had family commitments, and could not attend this fantastic event. I have been to Rathlin in the past, and will doubtless go many times in the future, but I am somewhat sorry that this trip was a "no" for me.
Luckily it was a big "yes" for more than six hundred visitors, who all ended up at the very good vantage point of the West Light, at perhaps the best viewing time of the year. The humans enjoyed all the birds, and the birds enjoyed watching all these crazy humans!
Did you know that the publicity was almost worldwide, as Alison McFaul, the information warden, told me? Media from some European countries turned up to witness, and to bear witness, to the event. Such countries as Germany, Belgium and France were represented by their press, and no doubt there were good reports to be read in the newspapers of these countries.
The whole affair was well thought out, and certainly I have not heard of any complaints. In fact, all the visitors were delighted. It was an unusual, unique experience for them all. It brought people and nature a bit closer, it brought more realisation to the humans even if the birds did not quite understand it all!
By now the puffins will have mostly departed, but if you want a wee excuse to take a trip to Rathlin, here it is. The kittiwakes are still there, and they are bringing up their young, so there is much activity in that department. The fulmars are still there, and they also are feeding young, and all are well worth a visit. As autumn approaches, the hills of Rathlin will be a blaze of colour, with yellows and purples dominant. Does it sound worth a visit?
Saturday August 15-Butterfly Walk at Rostrevor, 11:00, with Trevor Boyd, who will happily give more details, 028 9185 2276
Monday 16 to Friday August 20 - Children's' Wildlife Hour, at 14:30, at Oxford Island, who can tell you more, 028 3822 2205
August 17-20 - Environmental Summer Scheme at the Quoile Countryside Centre, and more from the Environmental folk at 028 4461 5520
Saturday August 21 - Summer Fair at Dunluce Castle, 12:00 to 17:00, details From 028 2073 1938
Saturday August 28 - Butterfly Outing from Cnocagh Monument east
Antrim at 1030 with Adrian Kernohan, who will tell you more on 028 9335
Bird Fayre at Tannaghmor Gardens further information from Oxford Island on 028 3823 2205