The Call of the Corncrake and other Wild Adventures – Co Mayo

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Co Mayo (Mhaigh Eo) which means plain of the Yew trees in Irish,  is one of the wildest and most windswept counties of Ireland. Its exposure to the Atlantic gives it a jagged and rugged feel and when we spent two weeks exploring Achill Island and making a few road-trips around some of the most pristine beaches and nature  filled farmlands – it really captured my wild heart. It’s many rich habitats (beach, rocky shore, heathland, bog and woodland) were full of birds, invertebrates and wildflowers; I’ve got a few special memories though and I’d like to share them with you.

Achill Island, where we spent most of our time, is a really special place. The mountains surround you and you almost feel like you are being held by them; the land is like the palm of a hand, gently cradling and protecting until the coast is exposed and you feel the wind carrying you away from the mundane everyday. You feel free. Our campsite was a place alive with Redpoll, Linnets, Gulls and the journeying Ravens, which we watched coming and going everyday. Our view was of Slievemore, a towering peak of heath and scree. The waves of the Silver Strand beach at Duggort could be heard crashing against the shore; the sights and sounds were comforting and just what you need on holiday to refresh the mind. I had already spent a week camping with scouts and I was so tired as you work really hard at scout camp – as tired as I was, I felt the energy of the landscape coursing through my veins, inspiring me to explore with renewed vigour.

The site was full of Fuschia and Oxeye Daisy, swarming with butterflies and insects. It was a biodiversity heaven and behind us was a bog with Lapwing and Snipe. One evening when myself and Lorcan were climbing, we accidentally flushed a Snipe, it was right beside me; I couldn’t believe it! I could’ve touched it, it was that close – did I have my camera? No! We heard the glorious drumming as the sun was setting, it was completely magical.


This photo was taken by mum on her phone from the campsite – you can just about make us out if you look closely! It’s admittedly very grainy!


The last photograph shows the lower parts of a native Irish Honeybee. They are darker in colour as it allows them to thrive in colder climates – the dark colour absorbs heat better.

The freedom we had, to run around, explore, hide and be independent (running to the beach, exploring the dunes, hills and undergrowth) was so brilliant. I think we became feral and wild – perfect for us! Sometimes though, we were loaded into the car – black fingernails and all! We had a few pretty cool excursions! We drove further North to discover Ballymacroy National Park where we heard Golden Plover and discovered Sundew ( a carnivorous plant found in bog, fen and swamp thriving on acidic soils).


On another trip, in a field full of nettles in Belmullet we were treated to what was really, the absolute highlight of my trip. The sun blazed down and we were trying not to get our hopes up; Corncrakes are incredibly elusive and secretive. I couldn’t dare to hope but then it came. The crex of the corncrake pierced the air like a most welcome siren. So different from the cacophony of Linnet and Twite that tried to out compete the sound. The three beat call was followed by smaller, weaker calls, Craklings?! Then silence. It was almost like all the other birds stopped to  listen reverentially in hope to the ghostly evocation of what we have lost in our farmland. My heart swelled with joy and deflated with a bittersweet hollow. Corncrakes. In Ireland. So rare now. The older people I meet talk about how every field was full of Corncrakes, they were common! Now it’s mainly  Irish Islands such as Inisbofin, Inismeane and Tory where they are found, mainly due to less intensive agriculture and lack of predators for this precious ground nesting bird. I am so grateful to the farmer Fergal Ó Cuinneagáin who is managing the piece of land we heard the magic coming from. He is strategically managing it for Corncrakes and other wildlife. Almost every other field was cut early which greatly decreases the chance of the Corncrakes survival. If farmers and landowners cut late and not as often, this almost extinct bird would have half a chance of living on for for us all to see and hear. It is heart breaking beyond belief; that it could be prevented or reversed. With our hearts momentarily buoyed, the realisation that this isn’t the norm, blurred the moment a little. It rose to anger, frustration and helplessness. Can we bring the ghost back to the living it once knew? Who knows. 


    The day was not over though and we took our supplies to the beach where we made dinner against the blinding light. After a while we wandered along the shore line and the diversity of waders was wondrous! The Curlew, Oystercatcher, Ringed Plover, Dunlin and Turnstones were a joy to see. What a day! As the sun started to set we just stood and watched the vista before us, light filled and glorious. Then, out of the corner of my dad’s eye, a Hare. We saw it prance among the dunes and we were beside ourselves with the joy that nature brings. It just comes randomly and when it does, you feel this adrenaline rush, the right place at the right time. I only ever get this feeling with nature. Nothing else comes close.

    The days passed in a haze of midges, jellyfish, sand filled trainers, salty skin, late nights and risings to meet another day filled with nature and excitement.


    It was exhilarating. I was really excited to learn that on our penultimate day in Mayo, mum had caught up with my favourite Irish Wildlife presenter and had organised a meet up with Colin Satfford-Johnson!! I was so excited and so nervous! We met him in Westport for an afternoon stroll, ice-cream in hand along the Mall, watching Black headed Gulls and a lone Yellow Wagtail hyperactively twitching among the stones.

    Colin spoke of his wild adventures and we all spoke of our love for nature and a little lamenting at how nature is undervalued and underappreciated. Conversation was easy and relaxed – and I actually spoke, which is a bit rare for me!! It was really fantastic meeting Colin, it’s always comforting to know that there are people out there who are making a difference to views and attitudes towards wildlife and wild places. His documentaries are amazing and are really helping to bring nature alive to many people.  Thank you to Colin for taking the time out to spend time with us!

    We had our dinner in another beach and I could already feel a sense of loss that our holiday was nearly over. A couple more days spent on the beach, exploring around the campsite and reading (lots of reading) and then we were packing up to return to Fermanagh.


    It was really great to return home but it was so special to explore the land of my great granny Kate, who hailed from Bangor Erris. She sounded like an amazing lady and I felt like I could connect with the past. The landscape must have been so different when she was a child, the bogs were probably more intact and bare of the many houses we saw whilst travelling. It was a wonderful holiday and we’ll definitely be back next year!


    Thanks for reading

    Dara

    A couple of links, if you’re thinking of travelling to Mayo as I just couldn’t included all the amazing parts of this magical county!

    http://www.mayo-ireland.ie/en/welcome.html

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    17 Responses

    1. Wow! what a fun packed, nature filled holiday you all had. Made up that you had an encounter with a corncrake , snipe and many other creatures. What a lovely holiday in a beautiful place

    2. Thank you, Dara, for the chance to ‘see’ that beautiful part of Ireland and it’s wildlife. Have been enjoying Wild Alaska with Colin Satfford-Johnson. Hope we see more of him in our TV programmes.

        1. Oops, it’s not Wild Alaska, but the BBC1 morning prog Wild Uk that I meant! Sorry, yet another senior moment!

    3. Lovely Dara, you’ve taken me to Mayo with your blog!! Corncrakes calling and a hare – superb!

    4. Thank you for your evocative report from your holidays. The place sounds great, I’ve never been there, but I can imagine it well now. Hearing the corncrake must have been really special! I’ve never heard one, yet. I’d love to see a snipe as well! Your tale made me look forward even more to my own upcoming holidays, which will also involve a lot of nature – just what you need sometimes.

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