Now you may think this morbid task is a bit out of the ordinary (and to be fair it is to an extent) but it's for science, you see a researcher is doing her PhD to assess the impact of marine litter on seabirds up in GMIT (where I am currently in second year of the colleges applied freshwater and marine biology course). This project requires dead seabird specimens as the researcher does a necropsy (animal autopsy) on the bird specifically checking it's stomach contents and intestinal track for any man made refuse the bird may have mistakenly have viewed as food and ingested. If the bird swallows a piece of plastic, it will likely remain within it for the rest of it's life as it will not be broken down and if the worst comes to the worse, the bird may die either by it;s stomach eventually becoming full of refuse where there is no longer any room for real food resulting in starvation or the bird may choke while swallowing a piece of litter.
The North Atlantic is loaded with human waste be it deliberately dumped into the environment or that it managed to get to sea by accident our actions on land have dire consequences for the species living off our waters, this project is a great means of evaluating just how much of an impact our marine litter has on our birds.
Back to yesterday, I arrived a Inch strand, one of the counties finest stretches of sand joined to the mainland on the Dingle peninsula, it juts southward dividing the shallow mudflats of Castlemaine harbour and the deeper, more open water of Dingle bay almost touching Rossbeigh strand on the opposite side of the bay.
I haven't walked this beach in a long time, probably because my dog died back in May suddenly, he loved Inch and it's never ending scents revealing spots worth marking his territory on!
It's dry, sometimes sunny with a slight wind wisping in from the Atlantic. The smell of the coast hits me immediately and my nostrils feel as though they have been filled with sand as various wafts from the spit hit me at once. I begin my search to the right of the car park (where no cars are allowed) I have often found cetacean remains literally where the sand bank gives way having being eroded by many visitors opting to traverse it rather than going around it's perimeter. No sign of cetaceans. I follow the mounds of seaweed cast ashore and intricately scan them for any signs of an unfortunate bird: feathers, beaks, legs, wings, anything. The drying remains of bladderack and kelp are inundated with various forms of man made material, as if we as a species were marking our territory just like my dog did. Fishing line, rope fragments and salmon tag from Scotland all piled in amongst the natural debris that the North Atlantic had thrown up during the last hide tide.
Then I spot something feathered, as I approach (beleaguered holidaymakers on the nearby rocks watching on) it becomes apparent that it is indeed a bird but it looks to be half buried, I don't have my gloves on me so I vow to return later for a more detailed look.
I returned to the car to continue the search a lazier way (by driving). After leaving the mini village of beach users cars, abandoned while their owners strolled the sand or splashed in the surf, I renewed my search.
I have to say it's not easy to maintain complete and utter attention while critiquing ever white object or flickering piece of material but that's exactly what I did all the while moving along the strand slowly.
It didn't take long before I spotted something peculiar, I got out of the car to discover it was the almost skeletal remains of a fulmar, part of the tubenose family which includes the much larger and iconic albatrosses. This bird was crow size, it's left eye socket was clearly visible and it still retained some ragged feathers, a strand of rope was also visible tapering away from its body (possibly impairing it in life?). It looked like a worthy candidate for the project as it's chest appeared to be intact, no doubt its contents still remained, so I marked its location by grabbing the closest, sturdy stick and stabbed int into the sand to resemble an awkward flagpole for the return visit.
Continuing the search I spotted a white object towards the spits dunes, half buried it was a gannet, our largest seabird with a six foot wingspan. It too looked like a good candidate for collection so I made a mental note of the nearby landmarks, a warped piece of black netting that'll do. I found a second gannet up the strand before we turned around to begin the collection process.
The first birds white feathers were speckled with the black bodies of the flies attracted to the opportunistic feast facilitated by the sea. Donning the green gloves supplied by the researcher and ditching the clear resealable plastic bags also supplied for the much larger black plastic bags I keep on hand for bigger jobs, I had my doubts about actually taking this bird. I moved it to assess it's condition, flicking sand out of the way in the process I was hit by a rank musky smell, the flies flew skyward. The birds body was intact and I was able to maneuver its wings as they were not stiff however somewhat peculiarly, its head was missing, never the less the bird was quickly placed in a black plastic bag and tied tightly. Job done, onto the next one.
The second gannet was in a much worse condition than the last one as it's vertebrae was clearly visible where it's tail feathers would have been, after lifting the carcass it became clear that the bird was a no-go as it's rib cage emerged from the sand there was no chance of it's stomach still being intact so I let the bird be. On the way back to the fulmar I spotted another gannet I had previously missed but it too was in the same condition as the last bird.
Arriving back at the fulamr after carefully scanning the sand for the low standing stick I had propped up, we successfully found the bird but a couple of walkers had decided to spark up a conversation just feet away from it, so I waited a minute or two until they moved on and got to work. This time the clear plastic bags supplied to me were more than suitable. After picking up the bird I carefully brought it's wings up against it's body and craned it's neck back tight against it's chest for it to fit comfortably into the waiting bag. it went it without a hitch and the resealable top was duly closed.
Finally I returned to the feathered remains I had spotted before setting off in the car. In two seconds with a gloved hand I discovered it was only a birds wing, the body had departed from it some time ago, I think it was an Manx shearwaters left wing because of its pointed tip, jet black colouration on top and white contrasting colour underneath. I did consider taking it away with me but I just placed it back where I had found it.
|Both birds ready to go.|
And that was that, I went to Inch with the sole purpose of finding and recovering and salvageable seabirds and that task was more than achieved, it's not everyday that such plans actually work out especially when your depending heavily on many factors in the natural world, but it did for me yesterday. It will be interesting to see if anything abnormal is found within the fulmar and gannet and I will endeavor to find out the results but right now I am scheming a way to smuggle a gannet and a frozen fulmar from Limerick to Galway in my buses undercarriage later on this evening, but one things for sure, the hard work is done and these birds will get up to Galway tonight!