Sunday, June 15, 2008

Landing Party

By way of rounding off a weekend of preparing a certain Mr. B to enter married life, I put to sea on a Sunday afternoon with a full crew - of my three brothers-in-law, plus Mr. B himself. Sailing in the lightest of airs, my crew made a neat job of tacking their way out the mouth of the inlet to open water, while I orbited them in Briongloid's dinghy, shouting helpful advice and snapping pictures.

With no particular object in mind, we wandered slowly out from the land... until a large rock - "Little Sovereign" - caught our collective imaginations. An excellence chance to demonstrate anchoring: the rode was flaked, the anchor laid, the sails dropped, and a landing party dispatched to claim the barren rock.

Three of us made a shore party: we picked a cove-in-miniature, then changed our minds at the last second when the suck and surge of the swell made our prospective landing spot seem more like a good place for a wrecking; instead, we chose a set of natural steps in the rock, as safe and easy a landing spot as any steep piece of rock covered in weeds and mussels could be. For all the times I've cursed the rowing characteristics of inflatables, sometimes it is very, very nice to have a hull that bounces instead of denting or splitting.

Briongloid lies at anchor, as seen from the summit of Little Sovereign

The island itself is shaped from a sedimentary rock with very well-defined planes. These are warped and bent from ancient pressures, and slope at about 30 degrees into the sea, so that the whole island, viewed end-on, appears to have developed a serious list. The summit lies on a dramatic ridge, with a very sheer drop to seaward, while the landward side is a little friendlier - a single uninterrupted sloping slab of smooth rock. I stood for a while at the summit precipice, drinking in the view - the dramatic cliffs of the mainland to my north, Briongloid toy-like at anchor below me, the great sweep of the open ocean to the south. Climbed carefully down again, back to the dinghy and my waiting friends, and tucked the memory away for safe-keeping.

We will return...

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Apodemus sylvaticus

Another day, another piece of natural history, courtesy of our resident furry psychopath (FP), who has been on something of a killing spree these last five days - catching two blackbirds (one male, one female), a "probable rat" (identification based on a single scrap of bloody fur and unusually large entrails), one robin, two tiny birds with yellow plumage (unidentified as yet), and, this morning, a fine specimen of Apodemus sylvaticus, ("Wood Mouse").

Apodemus sylvaticus

This gorgeous little animal lives an inoffensive life, eating mostly seeds and nuts, which it will often hoard, squirrel-like, against leaner days; its other trick for eking out a living during hard winters is to reduce its metabolic rate, allowing its body temperature to plummet and saving lots of calories. It is a successful little creature, with a range extending from Western Asia to Ireland, a country where it has been living for at least 7,000 years. According to my reference book, it enjoys the unfortunate distinction of being a "very important source of food" for all sorts of predators, from long-eared owls to domestic cats. To add insult to injury, it is often mistaken for the common house mouse - hence the Latin name Apo (not) demus (or domus, house) sylvaticus (of the woods) - "not house, wood (mouse".

Burial service this evening; no flowers, please.

Friday, June 06, 2008


Still bleary and slow with sleep, I had already served breakfast to our resident furry psychopath (FP) when I noticed the scatter of black feathers on the lawn - nearly a third of the grass being covered in down and flight feathers. The corpse of the victim, a female blackbird, lay upright, black eyes still bright and unclouded - a bit fresher than the maggot-ridden male blackbird that I had buried the previous evening.

On closer inspection, this little bird was still breathing, her sides heaving, but too exhausted to move - probably the only thing that kept her alive, since the FP will chase and rip at anything that moves (flies, dogs, laser beams). Her rump had been plucked almost completely bare, but she seemed otherwise intact. I scooped her up in a single (gloved) hand: she was very light, tiny beneath the bulk of her feathers, and trembling with fear. Could she could still fly, with only a single tail feather - or would it be kinder to give her a quick death? I couldn't bear to kill the terrified creature - especially since, having buried a male of the same species the previous night, I might be orphaning a nest-full of unfledged chicks, and even a small chance is better than none.

So I slipped her into the handiest container (a cat box!), then released her to the (relative) safety of An Undisclosed Location. The little bird hopped into the best available ground cover, then cowered and froze. Back in the garden, the FP had left his breakfast bowl and was scouring every nook and cranny for his reluctant playmate - but I told him nothing.

In the evening, she was gone, leaving no more feathers behind; and no fresh carcass appeared in the garden. I think perhaps she did survive - so will be keeping watch for a blackbird with a bald rump and a single tail feather. The moral dilemmas of the cat owner...

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Through the Head

We slipped our mooring early on a foggy Saturday, motoring on a sea as slick and smooth as silk. Outside the cove, we steered into blank fog, trusting to GPS. We were not the first to sea, however - the surface was thick with birds a-fishing, and I glimpsed the fin of a hunting dolphin. A long line of tall masts loomed out of the murk: yachts in a line, racing in slow-motion, inching out to open water in the slackest conceivable wind. By the time we dropped anchor in the great cliff-lined bight of Holeopen Bay, our inflatable canoes were rigged and ready to launch. Festooned with torches, light-sticks and cameras, we abandoned Briongloid. Soon, a little flotilla of two canoes and a dinghy paddled off to the foot of the mighty sea-cliffs which define Holeopen Bay.

Beneath the Old Head of Kinsale

Using an ancient ruined tower on the cliff-tops as a guide, we soon found what we were looking for: the entrance to tunnels which pass clear through the Old Head of Kinsale, running east-west from Holeopen Bay to Courtmacsherry Bay. The first tunnel was a little narrow, but the second had a large and welcoming entrance. Inside the cave - surprisingly well lit - we soon began to feel the up/down motion of the swell, amplified by the funnel-shape of the entrance. Progress along the narrowing tunnel was good, until the last fifteen or so metres, when Mr T ran the lead canoe hard aground on a barely-submerged boulder. No sooner was the problem announced, when a roar from behind me announced the solution - and a breaking wave lifted me well above Mr T before launching me forward into his back and blasting us both well clear of the obstruction.

A second wave followed the first, and soon we were both capsized, grabbing in the darkness for boats and paddles, and bracing for the next breaker. Turning, I saw Mr. J approaching in Briongloid's dinghy, the tunnel so narrow that he had to paddle with a single oar. I shouted a warning just as he ran aground. Just then, the next breaker reared behind him, before breaking over the dinghy. A good time to send the dinghy back... I waited in the blackness and the crashing of the waves until the dinghy was safely on its way.

Choosing a tunnel

My swimming fins being already on my feet, I turned my face to the light, and covered the last few metres into Courtmacsherry Bay as a swimmer, pushing my kayak and paddle before me. The western side of the headland was just as dramatic as I remembered - even taller and steeper cliffs, and a huge sea-stack covered in nesting birds. Big grins from me and Mr. T - a long time since we'ld first attempted the transit, and great to be finally through. We found a second tunnel - much wider - and a little hairy paddling later, were safely back in Holeopen Bay, and boarding Briongloid, ready for our lunch.

By now, the sun had burnt the fog from the water and a gentle breeze had got up; we weighed anchor under sail and tacked out around the Old Head of Kinsale under a perfect summer sky. Angler's boats dotted the water, and helicopters circled the lighthouse on the headland - a really spectacular backdrop. Tacking gently southward with main and genoa, we moved out to sea, hoping for a sighting of a Minke whale, or perhaps a Basking Shark. We spent the rest of the afternoon on a single tack, moving gently on the clear blue water of the open ocean as the coast behind us diminished to a smudge on the horizon. Dinner was served about 19:00, by which point we were about 19km almost due south of Oysterhaven - within a mile or two of the grave of the Lusitania; time to jibe for home, and work north as the summer sun sank slowly towards the land. Picking up our mooring just after sunset, our distance for the day was 54km aboard Briongloid under power and sail, and perhaps another 2km in canoes and dinghies.