Another Life: Airy as spindrift, sharp as knives – and at risk from warmer seas

Five species of tern make Ireland their summer breeding home and nursery. But only intensive management and protection can stave off their inevitable decline

Wicklow beaches: nesting terns have to be fenced off. Illustration: Michael Viney

Wicklow beaches: nesting terns have to be fenced off. Illustration: Michael Viney

Sat, Jun 8, 2013, 01:00

Airy as spindrift, sharp as knives, they flicker beyond the third wave in flashes of white light, plunge-diving for sand eels. Their courtship is an aerial ballet and the nuptial fish-waggling at the nesting ground a comedy of seduction. Five species of tern, the most bewitching of seabirds, make Ireland their summer breeding home and nursery. Dublin Bay, a staging post in early autumn, has gathered the biggest flocks seen in these islands.

Half a century ago, fresh from the company of terns along the Devon coast, David Cabot moved to Ireland and set about a pioneering survey of the most beautiful species, the pink-flushed, streamer-tailed roseate tern. He ringed all the chicks he could at the scattered coastal colonies – chiefly on the little lighthouse island of Rockabill, off Co Dublin – and one of these, in 1991, turned up as an adult at the edge of a colony on the US Atlantic coast. Here its number was read by Ian Nisbet, a British ornithologist, who made the connection with Rockabill.

Cabot and Nisbet launched a lifelong collaboration, and they now have produced the definitive book, mostly about the established terns of these islands but also including odd wanderers from more of the world’s 39 Sternidae species. The latest volume in Collins’s prestigious and collectable New Naturalist series, with rich illustration and another classic cover from Robert Gillmor, the 460-page Terns is not cheap at £55; it is one for the enthusiast.

Along with fascinating new research – into, for example, the zigzag progress of the Arctic tern on its prodigious, 40,000km migration between the two polar regions – the book distils the chastening truth that, once the birds make landfall to breed in Ireland and Britain, only intensive management and protection can stave off their inevitable decline.

On pebbly Wicklow beaches, nesting little terns (in my painting) have to be fenced off from predatory foxes, rats and dogs. The roseates of Rockabill need guardianship from casual visitors. At Lady’s Island Lake, in Wexford, where roseates were once devastated by rats, protection of four species (common and sandwich terns among them) warrants complex control – not merely of predators and people but also of water levels and vegetation. On the west coast, mink are the latest menace to successful nesting. By the authors’ reckoning, however, climate change may be the ultimate threat, as the food supply from warming oceans fails to match the terns’ breeding patterns.

Books from Cork University Press tend to be big and beautiful, and the one produced to partner the accomplished RTÉ television series Secrets of the Irish Landscape is both a prime candidate for the family bookshelf and well within general reach at €29. It is edited by Matthew Jebb, director of the National Botanic Gardens, who was the programmes’ leading consultant, and Colm Crowley, their producer and director.

The joint venture reflects an exceptional collaboration with the latest scientific movers and shakers in Ireland’s current natural-history research while rooting their work, appropriately, in the pioneering footsteps of the great Robert Lloyd Praeger.

This has produced dramatic fieldwork for the camera and an absorbing and revelatory book. It collects the latest understanding, some of it very new indeed, of how the Irish landscape and its ecosystems have been shaped by natural and human events.

Its chapters come from a wide variety of experts and range inspirationally from glaciers, forests and turloughs to medieval plant foods and power struggles, from the new explorations of Ireland’s ocean to the landscape paintings of Jack Yeats. All this has been given superlative illustration, including some memorable images from the time of Praeger and the field clubs. By some oversight, however, the authors are left without their context, whether in universities north and south, the research institutes, or as authors of milestone studies.

From years of patrolling our fields, walls, waysides and hedgerows, botanists are still producing important new floras of the counties of Ireland. In recent years they include those of Dublin, Cork, Waterford, Wexford, Offaly, Cavan, Tyrone and Fermanagh. Now there’s the first Flora of County Limerick, fruit of some 25 years of fieldwork by Sylvia Reynolds, already the author of a catalogue of Ireland’s alien plants.

Her new work covers about 1,160 native and alien flowering plants and ferns, growing in the wild from Limerick’s 70km of Shannon Estuary to the Galty Mountains. It has no plant illustrations but does have clear distribution maps and photographs of some of the county’s 50 different habitats. Despite all the changes in the landscape and the spread of Limerick city, the author found surprisingly few losses among the native plants recorded since the 19th century.

You can order Flora of County Limerick from the botanic gardens for €22.50 plus €7.50 postage. See

Sign In

Forgot Password?

Sign Up

The name that will appear beside your comments.

Have an account? Sign In

Forgot Password?

Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In or Sign Up

Thank you

You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.

Hello, .

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

Thank you for registering. Please check your email to verify your account.

We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.