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Birdman of Bravo

This article originally appeared in Ireland's Own magazine

New technology, wherever it appears, too often takes scant notice of nature’s prior claim to our planet. Consequently, it can come as a bit of a shock for Man to discover that sometimes he, too, can stand in the way of progress.

North Sea oil has been a mixed blessing in many ways, but to our migrating bird population it must have seemed heaven sent. Countless generations have beaten their way across that bleak grey water, guided by an instinct that defies analysis even today. They’ve battled against snow, storm and freezing fog, with nowhere to rest but the pitiless sea and the dangers lurking there.

Then overnight it seems, these giant birdtables appeared, some even bearing large familiar signs saying Cormorant, Fulmar, Tern and Brent, to make them feel more at home. A comfort station for feathered friends, where they could lay up for a while before moving on. It was almost biblical in its symbolism – this flare stack with its plume of smoke by day and pillar of flame by night.

Unfortunately, the methane gas that burned continuously like an Olympic flame could not adjust its powers of attraction to suit migrating conditions. What must have appeared at first as warmth and security to exhausted fulmars, shearwaters and kittiwakes soon took on the aspect of a bellowing monster that threatened to consume them all.

I must confess I probably would never have known such drama went on in the darkness above me while I slept had it not been for Ronnie Macallister. Ronnie was dumped on me as cabin partner with an administrative cheerfulness that should have made me suspicious. A soft spoken West Highlander, he had an unruly ginger beard and a gurgling briar pipe that seemed to defy ignition. It was obvious he loved birds, for within minutes our shared space resembled an aviary as he proceeded to plaster the walls with their pictures and dangle bird mobiles from the ceiling.

Luckily I didn’t mind. What I did object to was the bedraggled shearwater regarding me warily from what used to be our hand basin. Ronnie arrived just in time to make the proper introductions but that was the start. Every spare moment of his time would be spent up on deck with his binoculars and notebook, tracking and recording their movements and – whenever possible – rendering first aid. I was pressed into service – reluctantly at first – learning how to hold without trepidation those worn-out wayfarers, marvelling at their survival instinct as they still tried half-heartedly to peck my fingers. From an ignoramus who couldn’t tell a sparrow from a finch I became an enthusiastic birdwatcher. Together we chuckled over the goldcrest’s frustration as it searched the safety netting for non-existent insects and starlings drilling the helideck with fearsome futility.

For a birdlover it must have seemed like some ornithological manna. Grey heron, whinchat, turtle dove, swallow, siskin…stand there long enough and they all dropped in! The highlight – quite literally – came one autumn morning at 2 a.m., when I was luxuriating in a mildly disturbing dream, involving birds of a rather different stripe.

“Ge’ up, Shaun,” he whispered, in a fever of excitement. “They’re here!”

For a brief moment fantasy and reality merged. My eyes snapped open.

“They’re migratin’, Thoosands o’ them.”

I groaned and followed him up top. It was bitterly cold and foggy with it. He dragged me protesting up the steps of the giant flare boom, jutting out over the sea. The roaring bright flame held a peculiar fascination up close and ronnie had to punch my arm to get me to put the dark glasses on, protection against infra-red radiation. Above the flare noise I began to make out other sounds, strange at first, till I could discriminate.

There must have been – as he’d said – thousands, mainly redwings and fieldfares, twittering to each other as they circled the stack, swooping and rising. Knowing they were all around us but not being able to penetrate the thick fog made it a little eerie. I quickly retraced my steps, this time pulling at Ronnie, reminding him that this was all forbidden territory anyway – even in daylight.

Morning dispelled all the fog and some of the birds, but there were still enough redwings – with a sprinkling of thrushes and starlings – to make it an absorbing spectacle. But it was obvious that whatever uplift of spirit the heat and light gave, for some it was journey’s end. Exhausted redwings and stormy petrels flopped about in the choppy sea all around the rig. Some, gaining strength from their rest, would flutter aloft again but others seemed too beaten to care, quickly falling victim to a prowling herring gull, who put them out of their misery with a few sharp jabs from his beak. Natural selection at its most brutal. Ronnie turned away, the anguish plain in his eyes.

Anyway, the episode seemed to affect Ronnie, for he was pretty subdued the rest of that week. I went home for seven days and when I returned he’d vanished, leaving no trace that he’d ever been – bare walls, clean sink. I must confess I furtively retrieved my feather pillow with some measure of relief.

I asked around but nobody seemed to know, or care. One brawny rigger spat over the side.

“Who knows wi’ him?” he growled. “Nobody saw him leave.”

He glanced up wistfully as one more crew change helicopter lifted off without him.

“Happen he just flew away.”

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