there are no words to say

There are times in life when words are not enough to tell the story. It would be too painful and difficult to write everything that has happened since my last post. So I won’t. We made an audio about it if you are interested to know the details. But to sum things up two major and rather unexpected events took place – we didn’t get a wild sparrowhawk and I had an emergency surgery for an ectopic pregnancy.

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The months of July and August were tough.

Surgery and loss of pregnancy left me with physical and emotional scars that are slow to heal. But I am lucky to have a loving husband and friends to help me through this darkness. Also there is a beautiful bird came swooping into our lives rather unexpectedly.

This is a male goshawk, Archie.

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Archie is about two months old and he will stay with us until December. I will write more about him and our experiences of training him soon.

x.

sparrowhawks have hatched

The big news is that sparrowhawk’s nest in the Sorrel Woods has chicks in it!

The reason we know this is because we’ve been watching the nest every day for the past weeks. We found a hiding spot behind a large sitka spruce far enough from the nest not to disturb the mother and yet with a good view of the nest.

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Every evening after work we revisited the “hide” and waited for ours looking through binoculars. The midges were always horrendous, but we saw some amazing stuff. We saw the female leave the nest, we’ve seen food passes, we’ve heard the musket call, but most importantly we’ve seen the female feed her young in the nest. The last time we could just make out two little fluffy white chick heads peaking from the depth of the nest.

There are also droppings, or mutes, under the tree. Chicks even when young back out towards the edge of the nest to defecate. Their tiny bums produce tiny white drops on the ground and leaves below and they look like whitewash.

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We think that chicks are under ten days old, but we are not certain. Everywhere in the woods sparrowhawks are having their young. Parents time the arrival of the young with availability of fledgling birds such as blue tits. I found this feather on the plucking post possibly belonging to a blue tit.

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And this is a paper-thin skull of a blue tit I found under an old nest nearby. And of course more bones.

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Sparrowhawks are really amazing. The more I watch them the more I realise how complex their lives are. For example they are very vocal and they talk to each other a lot. In fact every interaction is accompanied by much calling, screaming, and fuss. When male comes back with food, he does’t just drop it in the nest. He calls and flies around for a while attracting the female’s attention. When he lands in a tree nearby he makes loud calls to the female. And the female then shifts in the nest and calls back gently. She might fly straight out of the nest and pick up the food left by the male on a plucking post but we’ve also seen long flights away to a food pick up spot. Nothing is straightforward.

The other day after feeding her young the female left the nest carrying a carcass of a large bird in her feet. Perhaps she was trying to dispose of it somewhere where it is unlikely to attract predators to the nest, maybe she was just taking it as a snack to her mate? Who knows?

I’ve done a few practice tree climbs.

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Can you see Ed below?

It’s scary – sitkas are tall, they move around in the wind, I need to saw off branches or negotiate my way over them as I climb… Also I cannot fail. I cannot panic or get a vertigo, I have to move fast, I have to be efficient. When I get up there I have to be alert and identify the female among tiny fluffy chicks by the size of their legs. Females have larger feet and thicker legs. Then I have to put it gently in a bag and lower it down slowly. Then I have to descend the tree in one piece. This is all rather overwhelming, but I feel more confident now that I’ve done a few climbs.

And we think we might be getting a chick in the next few days. Yes, this soon. It’s all happening and I can’t believe it. I have so many worries like what if there are only two chicks in the nest? The wild take license allows us to take a chick only if there is a minimum of three chicks in the nest. And what if they are too young? Or too old to take?

So much uncertainties and worries just to hang out with this beauty.

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Stay tuned.

x.

sun sun sun sun sun sun sun

This blog has been silent for a while and I blame the weather here in Ireland. No, really, it’s been unbelievably hot and sunny EVERYDAY. We’ve had continuous rain-free epic weeks. The ground is so dry that I can kick dust with my summer shoes. I actually get to wear my sunglasses every day now. I am trying to spend every minute awake outside soaking up the rare Irish sun.

Yesterday I got sunburned after we spent six hours swimming in natural pools at the foothills of the Maumtrasna mountains. River Strahnalong cascades down the steep slopes into the valley below in a series of waterfalls that create very deep pools. The pools are fantastic for swimming and jumping into. Only one needs to “clear the rocks and clench buttcheeks” as one girl put it before she plunged from the highest point into a pool. This place is a gem off the beaten track and it’s where you can still see local lads journey to sample beer and talk about cars (my guess) in privacy after work.

Not sure if my phone camera captures how totally stupendous the views are, but here we go anyway.

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We’ve been back to the nest in Sorrel Woods several times and the female is still sitting on eggs. But now it won’t be long before the little sparrowhawks hatch and it will be time for our wild take! Because of this amazing hot early summer many of the passerines have hatched and even fledged and so the sparrowhawks’ diet is changing too – from old birds to fresh meat. Last time we visited the nest we found this. Can you guess what this is?

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It’s a wing from a fledgling that a musket snatched from a nest. It was left on one of the plucking posts and a slug was tucking in for its share of tender remains. Yum.

We’ve also been enjoying new foods in our diet – fresh summer salads from my veg patch!

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The long summer evenings are spent outdoors gardening, walking, swimming, foraging, bird watching, and frying things on fire with friends. This blog might be silent for a while, but soon, hopefully, I will post an update with photos of the wild sparrowhawk chick.

Happy summer frolicking!

x.

 

 

 

walking up a tree

The sparrowhawk nest we found a few weeks ago is about fifteen meters off the ground. It is a tightly woven conical shape structure made of sticks close to the trunk of a typical sitka spruce – the kind a tree surgeon friend calls a “pole”. The tree is so straight, so tall, and so covered in thin dead branches sticking out in all directions from the main trunk, that I just can’t get my head around how on earth I am going to climb it?

This is a rather blurry photo of me pointing my binoculars at the nest in horror.

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And this is what I can see through my binoculars – you can see clearly the nest is surrounded by lots and lots of sharp branches!

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Tree climbing isn’t on the list of my hobbies as I am terrified of heights to the point of panic, but for some reason we decided earlier on that it will be me climbing the tree to take a spar chick from the nest. I think we both thought it’ll be hilarious and will make good tape. Yes, I can just picture the drama – me hugging the tree paralysed with fear, unable to move up or down, in tears, terrified and begging to be rescued, and yet having to complete the mission.

But also deep inside I want to be the one climbing the tree and taking the chick. This is a good opportunity to step out of my comfort zone and face my phobia.

So yesterday I did a trial climb of a sitka spruce but in a different location to avoid disturbing the nesting spar. Our colleague and friend is a professional tree climber and has all the gear. He tried to talk me through the technical names but somehow it didn’t stick and all I can say is there is a harness, a rope, carabiners, and spikes for shoes.. But it is really amazing how few things one actually needs to climb a tree!

The idea is simple – you have spikes on your shoes and they help you grip to the tree but if you slip you won’t fall because you have a rope that wraps around the trunk and keeps you secure. You move the rope higher with your hands, then make small steps up the trunk with your feet and then move the rope higher again and so on.

Essentially you are slowly walking up a tree.

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So as I watched in slight panic and anticipation I had many disaster related thoughts, like what if a squirrel suddenly jumps out and startles me? What if I need to pee as I am half-way up?

But I’ve reached the point of no return, and unless I was prepared to face the shame of being another scared weakling, I just had to get on with it.

So here I was all geared up ready for that tree.

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Something amazing happened when I started my ascent – very quickly I fell in love with the process. It’s hard to describe how it feels to be so high off the ground, to be close to the mossy trunk, smelling resin in the moist folds of the tree. To be able to see the land and people below and to get that one long uninterrupted view from the height is just so precious. And I can see how tree climbing can become addictive.

My progress was slow, I didn’t climb very high, maybe only six meters. And I did have a few moments of doubt and fear, but they were quickly gone because I had to focus my thoughts on the immediate task of putting each foot higher and moving the rope.

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A very blurry photo of me smiling.

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In a few days I will try climbing higher and hopefully will take better photos of how magical Irish woodland looks from above.

x

 

a female in the nest

One thing I love about living in Ireland is how everything turns green almost overnight. One day trees look bare and wet and the next day they are covered in greenest new leaves that scream “Summer!”. Everything changes so suddenly that it’s hard to recognise the woods we’ve roamed in search of nests.

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A few weeks ago I wrote that we have found three sparrowhawk nesting sites. We called them the Garden, Sorrel Woods, and Mossy Woods. Finding actual nests is really exciting. All those hours of searching for signs and clues on the ground have paid off and this is a big landmark in our Wild Take adventure.

This means that I can now stop focusing on the feathers under my feet and put all my attention towards the tree tops – towards where sparrowhawks nest. So a few days ago we revisited the Sorrel Woods hoping to see sparrowhawks coming and leaving the nest.

Sorrel Woods is one I like the most because it’s just gorgeous. The nicely spaced trees allow sunlight to trickle down to illuminate velvety leaves of wood sorrel that covers the ground. This woodland is so clean, and it feels enchanted and just lovely.

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The other reason I like this spot is because we came across is randomly – by following a musket who swiftly flew in front of our bicycles as we were on our way elsewhere. It felt almost as if this little male lead us towards this place and the nest.

We brought our bivvy bags, oatcakes, and binoculars in preparation for a long stakeout. We found a tree to rest against with a good view of the nest and waited. The midges were horrific. They are vicious little flies that won’t leave you in peace until you move location.

This is Ed waiting patiently but what you can’t see on this photo is that he is being eaten alive by midges.

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After a few moments of looking through my binoculars and fidgeting as more and more tiny jaws tucked into my thigh I could no longer stand the midges and decided to walk around to see what I can find. At one point I directed my binoculars upwards towards the canopy. Then I stopped and gasped – there was another nest! How did we miss it last time? I don’t know. But it was a solid built thing about 15 meters up high. It looked new too.

Here is a photo I took through my binoculars.

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Almost immediately I noticed that something was sticking out form the nest. It was a tail – a sparrowhawk was right there in the nest!

On this photograph Ed took through binoculars you will see a roundish clump of twigs and just to the right from the middle of this clump there is an upright oval/rectangular shape – this is the tail.

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The photographs do not do justice but the tail had barring and it was unmistakably her sitting in the nest. Whether she was on eggs of not we couldn’t tell. She sat very still for a long time and then suddenly she called in a very faint voice. She shifted, got up and starred directly at us. It’s amazing to be starring in the eyes of such a wild thing. But she didn’t fly away maybe because she was incubating eggs or maybe because she was heavy and was about to lay. Once she called, her partner came out of nowhere and darted past us in panic making it clear we were intruding on their privacy. It was time to leave them in peace.

We will return sometime in the next few weeks to check on this nest discretely. Meanwhile here are some treasures we found in the Mossy Woods on the same day.

A molted feather of a sparrowhawk. It looked very healthy with no hunger marks or signs of damage.

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Plucked bird – feathers in sheaths.

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Gorgeous feathers from multiple recent kills.

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A rat skull?

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x.

 

wild food: beware of hemlock

We camped out on an island on Lough Corrib the other day. There is a myth that Lough Corrib has 365 islands – one for each day of the year, but in reality there are probably over 1000 islands. Some are homes to huge heronries in spring and if you are lucky you might see something like this peaking at you from a nest:

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This is a young black-crowned night heron from the BBC Wildlife magazine spring issue. Ireland has grey herons but they look just as scary as babies.

Islands are magical places especially on a rain-free spring evening.

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While on this island I quickly tried to identify plants around me. I found nettles and water mint and then another plant that looked and smelled like celery or parsley. I had my Food for Free guide and I identified it as Alexanders – an edible herb similar to parsley. I was very close to tasting it, but then decided to research more. When we got home the following day I did a quick search and discovered that in fact I was close to eating the deadliest plant in Ireland -Hemlock Water Dropwort. A tiny amount can kill you in a few hours.

Apparently this plant was used in the ritual killings of elderly in the Phoenician Sardinia. People who were too old and could no longer take care of themselves “were intoxicated with the sardonic herb and then killed by dropping from a high rock or by beating to death”. Fun fun fun. The plant is called “sardonic” because one of its side effect is so-called “sardonic grin” as it paralises face muscles. Oh dear…

And this case study describes how eight young adults on holiday in Scotland cooked a curry that included water dropwort roots. Of course it was all party time after a few hours when one in the group experienced a “grand mal seizure”, whatever that felt like. Pure evil. 

So for now, I will stick to wild garlic and water mint because they are easy to identify.

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I’ve also gathered a lot of nettles to make nettle wine.

I used store-bought yeast this time, but wild fermentation works really well too if you want things to progress more naturally. One of my favourite books Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz is fantastic if you feel creative and would like to experiment a bit, make unusual but tasty food and rewild your gut.

At the moment I have mead, blackberry/apple, and banana/coffee wines during various stages of fermentation.

 

Safe foraging to you!

 

x

more nests more bones

We found two more sparrowhawk nests since my last post!

The first one we discovered accidentally by following a sparrowhawk who flew across a woodland track in front of our bicycles. The woods there are absolutely stunning – nicely spaced sitka spruce, moss, and wood sorrel everywhere.

We called this Sorrel Woods.

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We heard sparrowhawks calling almost immediately after entering the woods and also it didn’t take long to find several plucking posts.

Some contained fresh fathers.

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The Sorrel Woods Spars liked rodents too! Sparrowhawks do not frequently eat ground mammals, but in this woodland we found a plucked vole and even its fresh guts on a mossy stump. Very exciting indeed.

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We found woodcock bones and feathers which were clearly broken or pulled off. Perhaps it was a fox, or perhaps it was a female sparrowhawk?

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And of course we found multiple old tiny skulls and bones – possibly a blue tit?

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The nest itself is nicely built, perhaps you can spot it on this photo. Draw a straight line down from X towards the middle of the photograph. You will see a small round mass to the right of the line and almost in the middle of the photo.

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It’s is a little higher than the nest in The Garden and will require climbing gear, which will be an adventure! We have not seen any activity there, but we are planning to revisit this spot early in the morning soon. Females will be laying eggs in May and we might see a tail sticking out of the nest or a male flying in with food.

The other nest is located in the Mossy Woods – everything here is padded with greenest moss.

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A few weeks ago we found feathers of a tree creeper.

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Then we were told that a sparrowhawk was heard calling and so we revisited and this time we found a foot of a freshly killed blackbird.

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And most amazingly we found a half-plucked and eaten thrush! Something must have spooked the sparrowhawk to leave so much meat behind.

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We also found an old egg shell belonging to a medium size bird. A sparrohawk perhaps?

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I didn’t take a photo of this last nest but it’s a solid platform made of small sticks two-thirds way up a tall pine, close to the trunk, and partially hidden by ivy – similar kind of structure as the other two nests we found.

We will revisit The Garden, Sorrel Woods, and Mossy Woods soon and will hopefully spot a female on eggs!

x.

 

 

 

we found a nest!

The big news is that we found an active sparrowhawks’ nest.

It’s in a small pine woodland near a house and two people we know took a wild sparrowhawk chick from this very spot sixteen years ago under a license. On our previous visit there weeks ago we found feathers from many recent kills. Sparrowhawks who occupied the woods had a varied diet – magpies, water rail, smaller garden birds, and we even found feathers belonging to a long-eared owl! We knew we were going to return to this spot.

In the most recent episode of the Wild Take podcast Ed and I mention this particular spot which we call The Garden.

So two days ago we revisited The Garden to see if we can hear sparrowhawks. And we did pretty much as soon as we stepped out of the car. Their high pitch call stood out against the chorus of garden birds. When sparrowhawks call you know its not a blue tit or a black bird having a screaming match. A musket, a male spar, might call when he returns with food for his mate. He will scream a little and the female might call back indicating that she understands he’s got treats for her – the usual couply interactions. The calls can mean that the nest isn’t far.

So I went into the woods towards the area where we heard them in hope of sighting a nest. The ground was so dry and a wren angrily alarm called as I clumsily stumbled past her home in the bushes. Wrens are tiny birds but are terrifying when angry, no wonder they are called the King of Birds. The air was so still, I could hear my own heart beat.

Suddenly a sparrowhawk called and another replied as they came in to land very close. I was under a pine tree that had a nest we had spotted on our last visit. The nest didn’t impress us as being particularly “sparrowhawky” as it was only about ten meters off the ground and rather small.

But several seconds after the calls, and to my complete surprise and shock, a female sparrowhawk flew right above my head and landed in the nest. This was the most unexpected thing. I decided to lie down under the tree to get a good view of the nest and wait. This is the view, it’s difficult to see the nest itself but it’s a dark mass of twigs slightly below the centre of the photo.

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And this one is a close up, not as good quality but gives you an idea of what it looks like.

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I called Ed for advice but was too afraid to move so not to spook the bird who kept silent. Then about ten minutes later I heard another high pitch “ke-ke-ke-ke” call coming from a different tree nearby and a few seconds later I heard the sparrowhawk stir in the nest above. Perhaps the call was her mate saying he caught a tasty something for her, perhaps it as to let her know it was safe to fly, I really don’t know. But a second later I witnessed something very special.

The sparrowhawk jumped to the edge of the nest, spread her wings wide and then she simply glided down and away in a swift silent movement.

The words are not enough to say how it felt and what it meant. It was like being in the presence of a goddess. I cried, I wept actually. My tears were like a river bursting through a dam in a rush of emotions and happiness, completely uncontrollable and disarming.

I replay the image of her flying above my head in my mind trying to recall and memorise every little detail – her twig-thin feet as they gave her a powerful push from the nest, her light colour and barring under the wings and tail, her perfect feathers as they spread wide against the sky. I wish I could relive this moment over and over again.

I felt so peaceful afterwards, it was the most amazing moment ever.

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x.

 

 

 

 

 

feather obsessed

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There is something very satisfying in finding feathers. Perhaps like foraging the practice of finding and making sense of an object appeals to my inner hunter-gatherer. Feathers are also beautiful and they smell lovely of everything old and comforting.

My husband Ed has been collecting feathers for years from various trips and countries we visited. When we began our search for sparrowhawk nests our collection has expanded to include some amazing examples. Hopefully the photos below convey how incredibly beautiful and fresh the feathers were when we found them.

Blue tit, most likely plucked by a musket, a male sparrowhawk:

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Water rail beak and feathers, most likely plucked by a female sparrowhawk. These were so fresh with bits of sinew still attached to the beak:

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Tree creeper, most likely plucked by a musket:

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Long-eared owl, maybe plucked by a female sparrowhawk:

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Magpie, possibly plucked by a female sparrowhawk (note broken ends):

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We don’t always take feathers with us, sometimes they are better left behind. But we always take feathers that we can’t identify. There is one particular book we use which is amazing if you would like to become a wildlife detective:

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Ever wondered which animal poops on the path where you walk your dog? Or wanted to identify a feather or wild tracks? This book is full of information and photographs to guide you.

Many birds will start their molt this time of year – a process when they shed old feathers and replace them with shiny new ones. It takes place over spring and summer months when food availability and daylight are at their optimum. This means that when you are in the woods you are bound to find feathers, even if it’s just pigeon fluff.

Look for mossy stumps in mixed woodland too and you might even find feathers of a sparrowhawk kill. It looks something like this:

But I have to warn you that finding feathers is addictive! Once you start you will never be able to walk in the woods without constantly looking under your feet for new finds.

I admire people who know trees and plants and especially who can identify birds and their different songs. To me it’s like being fluent in a language that most people cannot understand.

Our survival does not depend on being able to know the birds or on being able to read the landscape. On our way to work we don’t have to identify signs and landmarks to find our way back. We don’t need songlines to guide us. But I think it’s great to know who we share our gardens with and what they are up to.

x.

 

 

 

a trip to the coast

We live in Ireland’s Lake District near two enormous bodies of water – Lough Mask and Lough Corrib. There is also Lough Coolin a short hike from our house up Mount Gable. The mountain itself is a soggy giant covered in bell heather and bog. There is so much fresh water around, above and below and so little land to absorb it it seems.

But even though we are literally surrounded by water, there are days when I long to see the Ocean, the craggy and dramatic Atlantic coast.

Yesterday we went to my favourite village of Roundstone. It’s one of those places that has the best of everything. My favourite pub, O’Dowd’s, serves the best lobster and mussels I’ve ever tried. These come fresh from the tiny cute harbour opposite, which itself is a treat for the eye with its colourful nets, ropes, lobster pots, and electric pink sea boyes. 

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Errisbeg hill towers above the village and stunning beaches of Gorteen and Dog’s Bay. 

The beaches are pure white sand punctuated by turquoise ocean on one side and muirbheach or machair, a smooth carpet of grass kept trimmed by grazing, based on densely compacted sand, on the other.

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As you walk on the beach you are unaware that you are strolling the length of a vast necropolis of dead organisms. Tim Robinson in Connemara describes that the sand at Gorteen and Dog’s Bay consists of shards of mollusc shells and exoskeletons of the single-celled sea-creatures called foraminifera.

Foraminifera, or forams, when alive build a unique shell and under the microscope they look just amazing. Of course forams are only visible under a microscope, but each one would have had its own life-history, defined by its DNA. 

West of Ireland has so many types of sand. A few weeks ago we went to Corral beach near a small settlement of An Cheathrú Rua to the west of Galway city. Here the beach was covered in tiny multicoloured coral fragments. When picked up they felt like bones or something entirely edible like a crunchy breakfast cereal.

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The wind-swept Gorteen beach was dramatic and wild. The waves made amazing patterns in the sand that looked like stepping stones above tiny rivers that hurried back to the ocean. 

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There were some unexpected finds too.

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After our walk we ate scones with butter and drank orange juice at a picnic table in the carpark. I wasn’t thinking about it at the time, but later I recalled reading in Connemara about “soot blackened ‘soil horizons’” in the sand banks above the beach. What Tim Robinson refers to are blackish layers of coal and shell middens – periwinkles, dogwhelks, mussels and limpets in the dunes above the beach. These are remains of meals from Neolithic people who gathered here to enjoy fruits of the sea together, a veritable “kitchen refuse” as he calls it in the book.

It really is amazing, I think, that there we were sitting, eating our scones enjoying the views, unaware that thousand of years ago humans just like us did exactly the same, only their lunches were more interesting, something Bear Grylls would have loved to sample.

These layers in the dunes above Gorteen beach have sadly eroded from winter storms and constant stream of beach goers like myself, but I still remember them being visible during our last visit in the summer of 2015.

Tim Robinson also writes that there is evidence that in Ireland dogwhelk (Nucella lapillus) were used as a source of dye similar to the way Murex shell was a source of famous Tyrian purple in the past. Large concentrations of dogwhelk shell found in dune systems in the west of Ireland may suggest a whole dogwhelk dye industry in the early Christian times. This is what the tiny things look like:

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Of course it would be unimaginable to sacrifice thousands of dogwhelks for a drop of dye these days. But molluscs are not the only source of colour on the coast. There is also colourful plastic items and some blend in rather well, they almost look beautiful.

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Groteen is anglicised for Irish Goirtín, meaning ‘small field’, which perhaps refers to the original use of machair near the ocean as grazing commonage and for growing potatoes. You can still see potato ridges from pre-famine Ireland.

As I walked on the beach it was easy to forget the past, all these thousands of years of human impact on this short stretch of coast were buried or will be buried eventually under the sand. Rain swept across sandunes and wind drove tiny sanderlings away from water, the whole scene felt untamed and unaffected by our presence. This is probably why I love coming here – to clear my head and to refocus my attention on what is under my feet.

x.