Autumn lays out its stall

ON a showery autumn morning, with the sun still climbing the far side of the mountain, the seaward sky is all shining mother-…

ON a showery autumn morning, with the sun still climbing the far side of the mountain, the seaward sky is all shining mother-of-pearl. Cloud-reflections in the strand make it hard to be sure, from my window, where water ends and sand begins.

Add to this a bit of a flood in the river, and a spring tide's push right up the channel to the stepping stones (redundant for a whole generation as any means of stepping anywhere), and the general swirl and confusion of water at the end of the boreen is well sketched in.

I stood there, exhilarated but abashed, unable to reach either wing of the strand without filling my wellingtons. To cycle back up the hill again would break faith entirely with new resolutions about daily and dogged inspections of nature.

As I dithered, a rhythmic, keening chorus in the air pulled my head round: a squadron of five swans banking in above the marsh. I got them in the glasses never bored with swans flying (the way the motion ripples through them, beak to tail). But more than that, their flight calls and the wedges of yellow on their bills marked them out as whoopers - perhaps the very first arrivals from Iceland.


I tracked them all the way, gleaming against the grey veil of a shower over Connemara until they tilted down beneath the cliffs of the far lake. That decided it. Boots off, socks off, trousers rolled up, I advanced into the Hood.

There can be dreary days on the shore: days of grey and brooding familiarity with every sand-swollen plastic bag and broken fish-box. And there are others when anything could happen, when the feeling of imminence is so enjoyable that it doesn't matter if nothing actually transpires.

A bit of wind and choppy water helps, and the theatre of showers trailing in between the islands. The right sound-track, too a descant of complaint from the curlews on the grassy point, a skitter of alarm from little flights of turnstones and ringed plovers. Autumn brings the strand to life again.

And yes, there were more nice surprises.

First, just beyond the surf, where the terns fish in summer, a dozen dramatically big birds doing just the same, slamming into the water like flung axes, diving again and again in gouts of spray. Gannets are so much birds of the offshore deeps, plummeting from a height to seize mackerel or pollack, that to find them fishing in the shallows - inshore, even, of the cormorant's rock - was a bit like meeting eagles in one's garden.

I have seen this once before, but in mid-August, and wondered then if the gannets an assortment of dazzling white adults and totally sooty juveniles - were "locals" from the new colony at a rock off Clare Island.

But last week's group, of similar mix, was undoubtedly on leisurely passage south. In October many gannets migrate to the waters off west Africa and the western Mediterranean, and the juveniles often stay there for two winters or more. October is also the time when huge flocks of gannets - 1,000 birds at once - can be seen fishing off our south-west coast.

A goose - one goose, that is, all by itself - is also a rare enough sight in the air above the strand, but there it was, a brent goose, flying the "wrong" way, north.

This is the time when large flocks of brent arrive from Arctic Canada and Greenland, gathering by the thousand at Strangford Lough and the west Kerry bays. On the Connacht coast, numbers are much smaller, and spread out from the big bays and estuaries to little corners of coves and strands. A dozen Brent geese, which is how I usually bump into them, have an intimate character that gets lost in the major congregations.

AS if to lay out autumn's stall for me all at once, the next offering was a peregrine falcon, classically discomfiting a flock of golden plover. The waders were gathered at the sandy fringe of the first lake and I was counting them (I don't know for whom exactly, but it gets to be a habit), when the whole 170-something flashed white underwings and lifted like starlings or like golden plovers, one of which spots a falcon overhead.

It can't have been hungry, since it and the flock of waders went quite separate ways. I watched it round the sky, flying without hurry, scissor-winged, and every bird it passed seemed to know it wasn't hunting. Body-language, I suppose.

And then, to cap it all, another flight of whoopers came in from the north, swerving a little as they saw me on the duach, but deciding to set down anyway. They were a family party, with four grey cygnets.

Already in possession of the lake, as I knew, was the resident pair of mute swans with no fewer than eight ash-brown cygnets: a most striking flotilla to watch from the cliff-top. Last autumn, with just five young, they had put up a spirited defence of their end of the lake, arching their wings against a throng of whoopers and interloping mules.

When the Iceland swans first fly in, they are often nervous and excitable. I came to the lake in a roundabout way and used the cover of a hillock, topped with the ruins of a stone cashel. Crouching there, I found the resident swan family at the far end, the "first five" whoopers happily up-ending after weed beneath the cliffs, and the new arrivals straight below me.

There was a lot of neck-bobbing going on between them, a communication concerned, very often, just with family togetherness and reassurance. But sometimes it can mean: "Let's get out of here". Had they seen me taking up my perch among the rocks? Had I worried them? Anyway, they flew, pattering down the lake and lifting, abreast, above the creggans towards Killary. I waited a long while, but they didn't circle back.

Michael Viney

Michael Viney

The late Michael Viney was an Times contributor, broadcaster, film-maker and natural-history author