Songs in the key of life

By: John Smyth

Jun 14 2009

Category: "john smyth", aran islands, birds, cuckoo, galway, galway bay, inis mor, ireland, wren

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Cuckoo on a chimney on Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands.

Despite growing up on a farm, I never saw a cuckoo until May 2005, on my first visit to the Aran Islands. I heard them all the time, of course, but I could never see where the call was coming from – only once did a distant speck of a bird on a telephone wire seem to be the source of the cuckoo call.

On the other hand, Inismore is full of them. Whether it is because the warblers and pipits[who act as unwitting foster parents to the young cuckoos] are just more gullible on the islands, or maybe it is because the farming practices there have not undergone the same industrial transformation as the rest of Ireland. Small fields and wild, flower-filled meadows contrast with the large swathes of uniform grasslands cultivated for silage on the mainland.

Juvenile stonechat in the graveyard at Teaghlach Éinne on Inishmore.
In a daisy-filled field beside Teampeall Chiarain, skylarks flew to and fro gathering food for their young, which should be ready to fly at this time of year. Larks nest on the ground, so wild, undisturbed meadow is ideal. [When the Volvo Ocean Race boats were departing from Galway Bay two weeks ago,many people went to the tops of the hills at either Gentian Hill or Silver Strand. Both are covered in meadow, and I doubt if many people there noticed the larks flying about in alarm overhead as they inadvertently wandered near their nests. ]


Wild meadow on Inishmore – there were plenty of skylarks nesting in this field.

I was lucky to visit Inis Mor twice in the last fortnight, and both times were glorious sunny days. If you want to see birds, you’ll be in paradise. The small stone-walled fields and hedgerows are full of either fledglings preparing to leave the nest, or small birds trying to find their way in the world for the first time.

Lapwing on Inishmore – the grassland on the sand dunes was covered with trefoil (the small yellow flowers in the picture)

On the grass-covered dunes near the airstrip on Inis Mor, lapwings are rearing their young. They lay their eggs on the grass and if they perceive a threat, the adults attempt a diversion by first leading it away from the eggs (by squealing to attract attention) and if that fails, by flying directly overhead and making as much noise as possible. I stayed on the road beside the dunes [it is the way to the blow holes on the west of the island] but I was still treated to the diversionary tactics. There are also hundreds and hundreds of rabbits along the dunes [there probably aren’t many predators on the island but there is at least one].


This juvenile wren was fluttering between two stone walls, looking a bit confused.

With so many stone walls and briars, there are plenty of wrens and also stonechats [it was the same Inis Mor visit in 2005 when I really noticed stonechats for the fist time too]. Despite their size, both species can really fill the air with song.

Sing while you’re winning – a wren in full song on Inishmore.

Their young ones have either just left their nests or are just about to, so they are easy to spot. Ironically, having travelled to Carrick-on-Shannon the following day, I was in a kitchen having a cup of tea when, through the window,I noticed a wren coming and going to a point on the ivy-covered wall behind. So I set up a ‘wren-cam’ to capture the video below [link will be added later].

But it is the cuckoos that are the real novelty for me. At one point, while looking out the window of the Bed & Breakfast, I could hear one calling from somewhere behind the house as two other cuckoos flew right past the window.


I disturbed this sleeping pheasant early in the morning. He woke up and flew off with a squawk.

Birdsong is indeed the song of life – sung by the survivors of the daily struggle for existence, and which is played out in particularly sharp focusat this time of the year.


Female blackbird on Inishmore.

All pictures taken in the 24 hrs between Friday and Saturday morning on June 12th/13th with a Canon 40D and Canon 100-400mm zoom.

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