A Great Black-backed Gull just stood there staring at me from its place on the top of the stone seawall. I sat on the next step below staring back at it. Less than three feet away from the gull with no offerings of food, it could have easily pecked at my nose, but it didn’t. The gull seemed to be accustomed to humans, waiting to pick up after them as they left crumbs from the meals enjoyed on the steps of the barrier on Howth’s western pier. From gulls I have watched at home they seem to be notorious for searching out easy meals on a daily basis.
Howth, Ireland is a small historic port city just north of Dublin. I had roamed the town, enjoying the salty sea breeze brush along my face, before encountering the first gull of my day. The afternoon was comfortable, though the sun beat down, as I waited for the ferry to take me over to Ireland’s Eye, about a mile off shore. The island has had various names throughout the ages, the most recent coming from the Old Norse words for Ireland, and island—Erin’s Ey. For hundreds of years the island has been uninhabited by humans. The flora and fauna must have flourished on the island uninhibited by man.
The time had arrived for me to see for myself. At the end of the boat launch was an old Irish man with a missing tooth in his big smile. He welcomed me and the other visitors aboard the Christmas Eve. She was a smaller boat than I was expecting, seating about 20 people.
It was a short jaunt to the island, by way of Ireland’s Eye Ferries. Taking advantage of the 15 minutes on the calm water, I scanned the sea surface hoping to glimpse some sort of life underneath. The seabirds were flying overhead, so silent they could have been missed had I not looked up. As we reached nearer the island, a dark grey seal popped its head above water in the distance, as if to say ‘hello’ or to see who was coming to visit.
The seal disappeared underwater as the Christmas Eve rounded the corner, and the boat landing came into view. It wasn’t much, no wooden platform, just the natural rocks that formed a slight stairway, with metal rods cemented to form a hand rail. After the initial rock steps, a small clear path of smooth rocks continued towards the bulk of the island. One side of the path was lined with boulders, and loose rocks, while the other side was carpeted by a type of dark brown seaweed which looked familiar to me, but a quick internet search revealed it as rock weed, or Fucus serratus.
A spotted, dove grey baby seal which looked as if covered in the finest velvet, dozed in the sun on the far side of the seaweed carpet. With its eyes slowing blinking as if straining to stay open, it was lying alone, unperturbed by the group of passengers coming on and off the island. It looked much like the seal pups I’d seen at home in the Pacific Northwest, and it was about half the size as the one who peeked above the water’s surface earlier.
The young ship hand aboard our vessel picked up a large rod with a metal hook on the end to grab the nearby rocks and expertly pulled us close to the path. We climbed out single file. The short path curved right to another set of natural stairs, again equipped with a makeshift handrail for safety. At the top of those stairs the scenery and sound changed. The soft chattering of people mixed with a chorus of birds, filled the quiet island. In front of me lay the sea with what seemed to be specks of glitter gleaming in the sunlight—to my left a well-worn dirt path set me on my journey. The path had a slight incline and I set my goal to reach the highest point, near what seemed like the center of the Ey. The higher I went the more forceful the winds became.
Along the way two chicks were being guarded by one parent seagull. It was curious how similar these birds were to the ones I watched along the Washington coast of the Pacific Ocean. One chick stood looking at the horizon and the other foraged on whatever treats it could find in the ground, bending its tiny head and pecking at the ground, I was unable to discern what it was pecking at. As a gust of wind came swooping in, one chick stretched its wings as if trying to take flight. The parent seemed to keep a wary eye on me as I crouched lower to snap some photos. How old were the gulls? They still had their fluffy grey spotted feathers, so they must still have been fledglings. At what age did they start to fly?
I later learned from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website that these birds were from the same species of Great Black-backed Gulls that I watch at home, and the chicks can start walking around 24 hours after hatching. They stay in the nesting area, with a parent or two, for around 40 days before taking flight.
The sea breeze continued to grow stronger as I climbed higher. At one vista, just below the peak, I was intrigued by the birds’ resilience to the wind. As I stood on the edge of the ridge it took my conscious mind to ensure my body stayed put in the heavy wind gusts. Yet, the birds sat there unmoving, sometimes shaking out their feathers as if they had gotten the chills. The birds were no bigger than a football—the wind barely tousled their feathers. Had my long hair been loose, it would have blown all around me. These birds had such strength, to glide into that powerful flurry and take flight as if they were as light as one of their own feathers.
There are no restrictions on who can explore the island, or when it can be explored. The Island is not a dedicated animal reserve, still I did notice various parts of the island roped off with signs asking visitors to stay on paths to not disturb the nesting grounds. For decades Ireland’s Eye has been a popular day trip for rock climbers and nature lovers. These birds were undaunted by me; have they gotten used to the daily visits of humans? Do they no longer see us as threats?
The birds sailed in the sky above like a kite on a perfectly windy day, as I waded through the tall bracken, a type of fern, on my last leg up the hill. The plants looked as though sword ferns, from my forested home, had mated with corn stalks. They reached, in some places, up beyond my head. The stalks’ circumference was no bigger than a small twig. A single bracken was not very sturdy – each plant only stood straight in the wind because they were like matted hair on a poodle who hasn’t been groomed for months. It was difficult at some points to make my way through the mass of interwoven ferns, and I was grateful for the visitors who had waded through before me.
At the end of the bracken jungle, careful to not slip on the smooth bedrock dotting the path for the last 20 feet of the climb, I had reached the peak. Slowly turning 360 degrees, all sides of the small island were visible. Various seabirds were mere dots in the never-ending sky, and the water looked as still as glass. I knew the sea was constantly moving with the tide, but from that vantage, it was just a picture beautifully illuminated by the clear blue sky.
As I finished my exploration of Ireland’s Eye, my thoughts went back to the birds who seemed to rule the island. I didn’t see many other creatures—only a few butterflies and a bee or two. Later research revealed that the small holes, leading to underground tunnels I spied along my walk, could belong to rabbits or even burrowing ducks, knows as Shelducks. Perhaps they were keeping cool from the unusually warm Irish summer. Maybe they didn’t feel as safe as the various gulls, who seemed to enjoy the warm weather and could fly out of reach at a moment’s notice. Most of the gulls I encountered just looked at me. Others flew off or squawked loudly when my steps drew near them. Gulls are known to be aggressive, and often live off the scraps or easy pickings of others. They are fascinating foragers, who will drop clams onto rocks to get a small meal, or dive for fish swimming close to the surface.
The baby seal was still at its post, as I boarded the ferry for the return to Howth Harbor. Slowly it started to move towards the water’s edge, as the boat inched away. Thinking a parent was returning after a successful hunt, I hoped to finally see an animal feeding. Not today there was no parent nearby. I did find it interesting that a little bird was sitting on the edge of the water, likely a Fulmar—it seemed greyer than the gulls I witnessed earlier, as if watching the little seal. As the seal slowly shifted to the water’s edge near the bird, the bird didn’t move. It just sat, like a sentinel, watching. As the Christmas Eve slowly backed away from Ireland’s Eye, I wanted to steal away the peace and keep it with me as I continued my way through life.
*All images taken by Maria Densley 2018