Every summer the Cliffs of Moher give rise to another generation of puffins, guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes and other birds who flock here for breeding season. I spend a day visiting the cliffs and here are my musings on the birds, the cliffs, eggs, conservation and bird flu. All that and The Princess Bride too!
Featured music: Kevin Keegan playing The High Reel
Featured photograph: Sarah Kilian Sarah Kilian (@rojekilian) | Unsplash Photo Community
See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.
[fade in music playing]
Welcome back to the Animal Friendly podcast. I’m flying solo today, and taking some time to visit the seabirds which spend their summers perched on the sheer vertical rockface that we call the Cliffs of Moher.
[fade out music playing]
The Cliffs of Moher mean different things to different people. To some the Cliffs are a world-renowned beauty spot, a breath-taking view to include in the portfolio of holiday snaps. To bird-lovers, the Cliffs are a mecca for breeding seabirds, with thousands congregating here every year. To Harry Potter fans, the Cliffs are the site of the rocky cave where Dumbledore takes Harry to find the Horcrux in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Not the actual cave, but the entrance to the cave, which appears for about 20 seconds in the film, but it is impressive.
But to a particular group of intelligent, sophisticated, good-looking people, the Cliffs of Moher mean only one thing.
[The Princess Bride clip – arriving at the Cliffs of Insanity]
Yes, this was the location of the famed Cliffs of Insanity, from that most epic film, The Princess Bride, where Fezzik, carrying Buttercup, Vizzini and Inigo Montoya attempted to scale the cliffs in order to escape the Dread Pirate Roberts; only to find him climbing up after them.
I don’t know if anyone has climbed the 700 foot cliffs in real life but I do know that 3 people have climbed An Branán Mór, the seastack located near the cliffs just below O’Brien’s Tower. In photographs Branán Mór is somewhat cute and endearing, being only about a third the height of the Cliffs. Another name for it is the Rook because some people compare it to a chess piece, standing alone on a watery chessboard. But when you are in a ferry underneath it, looking up and up and up, and you try to imagine someone reaching the summit using only the power of their own arms and legs, there’s only one word that springs to mind.
[Princess Bride audio clip - Inconcievable!]
The ferry goes out from Doolin village every hour in the summer afternoons. From the village, the ferry heads south along the cliffs – with a guide giving a live commentary pointing out interesting features and answering questions – and then it turns and heads north again, back to Doolin.
The cliffs themselves are magnificent of course but I went to see the birds.
During the summer, over 30,000 pairs of nesting seabirds can be seen on the cliffs of insanity.
[Princess Bride clip – Inconcievable! You keep using that word; I do not think it means what you think it means.]
Most of them are from a family of birds called Auks – that’s A U K S. These are bustling black and white seabirds with stubby necks. They have a whirring flight and their legs straddle outwards when they are about to land. Auks are easily recognisable. Birdwatch Ireland know this because they sometimes get calls from bewildered members of the public saying, uhm, I’m here on the beach in Galway, or Dublin, and, uhm, I think there’s a penguin here.
No, we don’t have penguins on the beaches here in Ireland but those people are not seeing things either – what they’re seeing is a type of Auk – probably a razorbill or guillemot.
The most recognisable type of Auk is the puffin. We all know what these look like in their flamboyant summer plumage of black and white bodies, orange legs and that distinctive, multicoloured bill. The Cliffs of Moher hold the largest mainland colony of Puffins in Ireland with about 1300 birds in residence.
Unlike some other birds, puffins don’t nest directly on the cliff-face but they do their breeding underground, in fact - in rabbit or shearwater burrows or in holes excavated in grassy summits.
Baby puffins are called pufflings…maybe this is what Benedict Cumberbatch was thinking of when he did voice over for a nature documentary about penguins:
[Clip of Benedict Cumberbatch doing voiceover for a nature documentary – pronouncing ‘penguin’ variably as pengwings, penwings and penglings]
Like penguins, puffins fly underwater, using their wings to propel themselves along with a flapping motion. Penguins and Auks are the only birds that do this, and even though they look similar, they are totally unrelated. Out of the water, penguins can’t fly, whereas Auks can.
A puffin was found this summer by a person out walking early on Tra Mor at Inverin - which is on the other side of Galway Bay from the Cliffs. The puffin was tangled up in seaweed and stranded on the beach. Wildlife rescuers (Galway and Claddagh Swan Rescue) brought it to the vet where it was examined and ticks removed from its face. After a good feed and a day’s rest the puffin was released at Barna beach to make his way back across the bay to the cliffs.
Have you ever heard a puffin? Listen to this:
[Clip of puffins calling]
Wow. Razorbills are another type of Auk and they are named because their bills look like old-fashioned cut-throat razors – well, they say that, I can’t see it myself – but anyway, their call is a more revved-up version of the puffin.
[Clip of razorbills calling]
Razorbills nest directly on narrow ledges on the cliff face. Razorbill numbers seem to have increased at the cliffs, which makes this a site of international importance for this species.
So, we have 1300 puffins, and then seven and a half thousand razorbills and then guillemots top the charts with almost 20,000 individuals.
Guillemots pack themselves tightly along the cliffs, nesting shoulder to shoulder. Each female lays a single egg and once the chick is three weeks old, the father encourages it to dive off the cliff and plunge hundreds of feet down into the water. It then goes off with the father who will teach it to fish and fend for itself.
Guillemot eggs are a gorgeous greeny-blue colour and they’re also pyriform in shape – that is round at one end and pointed at the other.
It was thought that these eggs were pointed in order to stop them rolling off the narrow ledges where they incubate. If you try to roll a guillemot egg, it will roll around in a circle.
Tim Birkhead – renowned bird enthusiast and author – writes about the various attempts to prove and disprove this theory by scientists over the span of decades. In an article pleasingly titled – The Point of Guillemot Eggs – he says that the pyriform shape has little to do with rolling and more to do with protection and staying clean.
As mentioned, guillemot colonies are busy places with birds fighting, landing on each other and pushing each other around. There’s an awful lot of muck as well and yes, I am talking about guano.
Because of their shape, pyriform eggs are less likely to break as they are pushed about on the busy ledges. As well as this, the pointed end tends to lie along the ledge and leave the rounded end sticking up out of the muck, thus allowing a clear flow of gases in and out of the shell, which keeps the developing embryo inside nice and healthy.
Birkhead has written a book all about eggs and he points out the interesting contradiction that all eggs must be strong enough to withstand the weight of a parent bird sitting on them, but fragile enough to allow a tiny baby chick to break through in order to hatch. His book is called The Most Perfect Thing.
Birds have brood patches - or incubation patches – on their undersides. This is a special area of bare skin that rests against the egg and allows for heat transfer from the bird to the egg. Different birds have their brood patches located in different places on their bellies. The guillemot’s single patch is very low down; a herring gull has three patches to accommodate three eggs and a kittiwake has two patches, even though it will only have one egg, because two patches allows the bird to incubate the egg on either side, depending on how it wants to sit on the cliff edge.
Kittiwakes – another summer resident at the cliffs - are not Auks, they belong to the gull family. They are grey and white in colour but have solid black wing-tips, as if they were dipped in ink. Breeding time is the only opportunity for most of us to see kittiwakes, as they spend the remainder of the year bobbing around in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean.
Fulmars are also found at the cliffs and these are categorised as seabirds, a family which also includes Petrels, Shearwaters and Gannets.
Gannets are dramatic looking birds with ice-white plumage, a blush of pink across their heads, blue eyeliner and gothic black stripes along their beaks and faces.
I was lucky enough to see a gannet up close once – at a wildlife rescue sanctuary. As pelagic seabirds that rarely interact with humans, gannets generally don’t do well in rescue situations. They become stressed and they don’t want to eat. Wildlife rehabilitators are also taught to be extremely careful around gannets and I can think of no better description than that given by Ricky Whelan of Birdwatch Ireland, taken from their excellent podcast, In Your Nature.
[Clip from In Your Nature podcast with Ricky Whelan describing gannet beaks as ‘basically a muscular ice-pick stabbing straight for your head”]
Gannets have a wingspan of six feet and when they dive for fish, they fold those magnificent wings tight into their body and plunge straight into the water like a heavy arrow moving at 60 kilometres an hour.
There are 6 gannetries in Ireland but the Cliffs of Moher is not one of them so, despite my obvious adoration of these birds, let’s move on.
[Fade in sound of wind and bird-cries from cliffs]
So we have puffins, razorbills, guillemots, kittiwakes and fulmars – as well as colonies of herring gulls, great black-backed gulls, shags and choughs….
There’s lots to see, whether you’re looking from the top or the base of the cliffs.
The ferry trip took an hour and everywhere you look there are breath-taking, fabulous, monumental views. As I watched the birds crowded along the cliff edges and wheeling overhead I couldn’t help sparing a thought for our bird-loving friends across the Irish Sea.
[Fade out sound of wind and bird-cries from cliffs]
When I planned this episode I had nothing in my head except thoughts of fun and enjoyment but as it turns out, I made my Cliffs of Moher trip at a historically important time, for all the wrong reasons.
At the time of recording – the 3rd of August 2022 – HVAI (highly virulent avian influenza) is sweeping through British seabird colonies and causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of birds.
To give you an example: the biggest population of gannets on the whole planet is found at St Abb’s Head in Scotland – and right now they’ve lost half of those birds. One ornithologist says that thousands of birds will also have died on remote islands where the monitoring isn’t as good.
A Guardian article describes conservationists swapping their binoculars for hazmat suits as they gather and examine the bodies of dead birds.
This is now considered to be the worst ever bird flu outbreak in the UK – notable for the large area it has affected but also the high levels of chick mortality. Because of course it’s breeding season – that’s the reason so many birds are all gathering together in huge crowds - which we know very well by now enables the spread of any virus. So, they are not only losing their adult birds, but future generations as well.
Birdwatch Ireland are extremely worried that we’ll soon see it here. They are shocked at the speed of the spread, saying: We are witnessing the potential decimation of seabird populations on a scale that has not been seen before in our lifetimes. They report that no cases have been positively identified in seabirds in the Republic of Ireland yet but casual sightings indicate that the disease is probably present in our wild birds already.
Ireland’s seabirds are of national importance. We hold the biggest European colonies of some species.
For example Eighty percent of Europe’s roseate terns reside on Rockabill island. This has been the site of a massively successful conservation effort that has taken place over many years resulting in a dramatic increase in numbers of these charming birds. You can imagine the fear and anxiety among all the wardens and volunteers who have been involved over the years as they now watch this virus blaze through the seabird colonies just across the Irish sea.
Avian Influenza originated in intensively managed poultry flocks and then infected wild birds. Professor Diana Bell, a conservation biologist at the University of East Anglia, says that the international poultry trade is the main driver of the virus. Taking about the origin and transmission of the virus she says: “Originally it was poultry to wild birds. It was not wild birds which were spreading it. We’ve got to get it out of our heads that the wild birds are the bad guys here.”
It’s very important to say that the public are being warned to keep their distance from any sick or dead birds. At the moment, the virus doesn’t appear to be infecting humans but previous strains of the virus have. The public are also being asked not to bring any sick birds to wildlife shelters because they could infect all the other birds there. I’ll put a link in the shownotes of how to report any sightings of sick or injured birds.
If we are lucky, maybe it will be late enough in the season for the young birds to have begun flying and fishing for themselves, leaving the nesting sites and avoiding the crowded conditions that characterise their first few weeks of life.
[Fade in sound of wind and bird-cries from cliffs]
Well, that’s all been quite distressing so let’s take a time-out and listen again to the sounds of the cliffs of Moher, recorded on the walking trail at the top, from a spot that looks south out over O’Brien’s Tower, An Branán Mór and Hag’s Head.
I hope this episode has brought you in spirit to the Cliffs of Moher and perhaps encouraged you to make a visit in real life.
I followed the walking trail in the morning – this goes all the way from Doolin to the Moher Tower at Hag’s Head. I went about half way – taking my time and doing plenty of birdwatching and sea-watching. Then I was delighted to relax in the ferry in the afternoon, for the effortless journey along the length of the cliffs again, this time at their base.
We’ll finish where we started, with The Princess Bride.
If you haven’t seen this cult classic, do treat yourself. The William Goldman script is a work of genius, packed with quotable quotes and unforgettable scenes.
Rrom the sword fight:
[Clip from The Princess Bride – “You seem a decent fellow, I hate to kill you; You seem a decent fellow, I hate to die”.]
Or the battle of wits between Vizzini and the Dread Pirate Roberts:
[Clip from The Princess Bride – Vizzini and Dread Pirate Roberts discussing which goblet might hold the poison and who will drink which one]
Or the most swash-buckling hero of all time:
[Clip from The Princess Bride – “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”]
And for those of you who are wishing that this episode would wrap up soon, I have only three words for you.
[Clip from The Princess Bride – “As you wish.”]
Thanks for listening, see you next time.
[Irish music playing, fades out]