The call of the red-throated diver

An Irishman’s Diary: On the trail of our rarest breeding bird species

“It is as invincible as any naval ship. Everything in its design is built for offshore life. It is dense-boned to enable it to withstand the crashing waves; its legs are set so far back on its body that on the surface it travels like a Mississippi-steamer while during underwater dives it propels itself like a submarine.”

“It is as invincible as any naval ship. Everything in its design is built for offshore life. It is dense-boned to enable it to withstand the crashing waves; its legs are set so far back on its body that on the surface it travels like a Mississippi-steamer while during underwater dives it propels itself like a submarine.”

Wed, Jan 8, 2014, 01:01

After a treacherous walk over terrain that oozed water at every footstep, we came upon a mound with a distant view of a tiny peat pool or “dubh lochan”. There, a pair of red-throated divers glided gracefully across the sparkling water surface like “synchronised sevens” in perfect ballet-like formation; each bill proudly tipped upward from pure horizontal. We had uncovered real treasure within that vast tract of desolate bogland. This was Scotland, where this bird is known as the “Rain Goose”. One of them began calling the sky down with its plaintiff cries: one call and I could see heaven and earth join together on the horizon; another had the rain-front advancing toward us; one more call and frozen droplets spat against us. I continued my observations as long as I could, peering through the curtain of rain. I had waited years to witness this.

Since 1884, a tiny population of some five pairs have nested in the most remote parts of Co Donegal. It is our rarest breeding bird species; at its most southerly summer outpost in the world. In contrast, in winter, many birds that have nested in countries further north visit and are distributed in small number around all our coasts.

I live in Cork, where for most of my life I have known this bird only as one that spends its time at sea off rocky headlands. It keeps distant; its grey winter colours appearing monochrome set against the slate grey winter sky. Day and night it keeps deep diving and catching flatfish and crabs. In mountainous seas, it continually bobs to the rhythm of the waves or carves them in two like an ice-breaker.

It takes everything that the sea can throw at it. It is as invincible as any naval ship. Everything in its design is built for offshore life. It is dense-boned to enable it to withstand the crashing waves; its legs are set so far back on its body that on the surface it travels like a Mississippi-steamer while during underwater dives it propels itself like a submarine.

But there is one hard truth that this sea-king must accept: the ocean cannot provide it with a place to nest or rear its young. So in late May it retraces its flight path to the lonely dubh lochan where it was born. Like a mermaid, its features so suited to life at sea prove clumsy inland. Heavy bones and legs set far back are useless for walking, so it pushes itself out of water with its knees knocking off each other and pointing inwards like those of a frog. Like a whale out of sea, it beaches itself at its waterside nest site. During these months, the diver trades complete invincibility for utter vulnerability. To survive, it hides in vast areas of blanket bog. Foxes ignore these prey-poor places where the ground wobbles like jelly.

In one terrifying Shetland-moment, I encountered the diver’s unlikely ally. Here it often nests close to skuas. The skua’s territory embraces a mound which the off-duty bird uses as a lookout point. This leads to a real-life bogland “beauty and the beast” drama. The angelic-like defenceless diver is protected unwittingly by the bold, bull-chested, mighty, macho, meaty-headed skua as it repeatedly stuka dive-bombs anything that approaches.

Too many times, I felt the skua’s menacing momentum just above my head; I had no choice but to peer too closely into its rapidly approaching angry yellow eyes and let its raven-darkness terrify me . . . I had to run away.

During summer, the diver is beautifully coloured: its grey winter eye grows fiery red and its red throat reflects the low-angled morning sunlight of the northern territories. Once, I noticed how its lower mandible is slightly hooked, like the lower jaw of a leaping salmon. The peat pools have no fish, so the birds feed in nearby coastal waters. The sight and sound of the hunch-backed diver arrowing overhead on narrow, swiftly beating wings, calling as it commutes between nesting and feeding areas, are truly evocative. This summer, I fulfilled a childhood dream after observing this rare and beautiful bird in its remote Donegal outpost.

The first day I saw the summertime divers I felt these envoys from the sea were calling me to another world. I do not know how God planned creation but sometimes I think he made frogs, the salmon and the diver on the same day he made water and the rain. If I had just one more morning to live, I would spend at least part of it dreaming of them, their plaintiff cries and the lonely spirit of the north. In my mind’s eye, these birds would dance again their courtship choreography; call and make their music to help give my spirit wings!

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