Back from the Brink is a one-hour programme that plans to celebrate the hard work, dedication, and commitment of conservationists who are striving to save endangered species from extinction. Here, Derek Mooney discusses this unique, pan-European natural history event.
I've been working in natural history broadcasting for over 30 years now. In that time, I’ve seen some truly wonderful sights, but I’ve also seen first-hand the problems that wildlife is facing, both in Ireland and around the globe. There has been a growing awareness amongst the general public, particularly in the last few years, of the threats to our environment and biodiversity.
In many ways, this has been long overdue, but I’m also aware that for a lot of people the current state of our planet can seem overwhelming, even depressing. We are increasingly bombarded by tales of doom and gloom. Issues like climate change and animal extinction are too often made to seem insurmountable, as though tragedy is a foregone conclusion, but that’s simply not true. It’s not too late to help nature.
We need to find a way to bring some much-needed optimism back into the conservation. That’s definitely what attracted me most to Back from the Brink. Through my work over the years on Mooney Goes Wild, in particular, I have met thousands of dedicated scientists and conservationists out there, fighting hard to save endangered species and working miracles. By telling some of their stories, I thought we could inspire people and show that there is every reason for hope.
Nature is resilient, and if given a chance it can recover from all sorts of abuse. It was once thought that the Red Kite, a stunning bird of prey, was lost forever from Irish skies, shot and poisoned to extinction. To see dozens of them now flying over the Co. Wicklow countryside again, all thanks to the dedication of people who simply weren’t prepared to give up, was a humbling and inspirational experience.
The same goes for the enormous efforts that I witnessed to safeguard the growing populations of Wolves in Italy, Brown Bears in Spain and Eurasian Beavers in The Netherlands, to give a few key examples from the programme. Perhaps the most sobering part for me personally was seeing the dramatic effects that climate change has wrought on the Swiss Alps, where glaciers are rapidly melting and high mountain habitats are disappearing, along with the unique animals that live there. Even then, against all the odds, people are fighting back.
Back from the Brink is not just a story about animals. At its core, it’s really a story about people. We, humans, have caused our planet’s problems, but people are also the key to fixing them. Literally every conservationist I interviewed for the programme spoke with such passion about their work, coupled with an unshakeable belief that what they were doing was utterly worthwhile, and I think that shines through on the screen. It must do because even the production crews, and there were many across Europe, not least our own team here in Ireland, headed by Colm Crowley from RTÉ Cork and scientific advisor Niall Hatch, were totally dedicated to this project.
We want to empower as many of those viewers as possible, and to reinforce the truth that every single one of us can play a role in saving endangered species and the wider environment. It’s not just about doing your bit – it takes much more than a bit, it takes a lot! – but about understanding that we need to accept fundamental changes to the way in which we live our lives. Having seen what can be achieved when the will is there, it will be well worth it, believe me.
Watch Back from the Brink at 6:30pm on Monday, 30th of December on RTÉ One.
Norwegian Broadcaster NRK Streams Island Seabird Colony
From June 10th to July 12th you can follow a live show from a bird cliff in the distant northeastern Norway. About 100,000 sea birds are nesting in the steep mountainside at Hornøya, near Vardø in Norway.
***CLICK HERE TO VIEW THE LIVE STREAM OF THIS SPECTACULAR PROJECT!***
You can follow this spectacular project 24-7 on the internet: www.nrk.no/fuglefjellet.
NRK Nature has 15 remote-controlled cameras on the cliff, in addition to a cineflex, a camera drone and 2 cameras with a large zoom to capture the everyday life and drama at the bird cliff Hornøya. By following life and death in the sea bird community, we will show the vulnerability of nature and learn more about an ecosystem in change.
During a few hectic summer months the sea birds will court, nest and hatch eggs. Their goal is to see a new generation of sea birds leaving the island in the fall. However, the most important task; the bird babies have to survive the summer. At Hornøya we will be following puffins, kittiwakes, guillemots, polar guillemots, razorbills, shags, white tailed eagles, theist, black-backed gulls, ravens and herring gulls.
Some of the birds that live on Hornøya; pictures by Trond Berg
The bird parents will not only be balancing eggs on narrow shelves on the bird cliff, but also make sure they find enough food for the kids and themselves. They must also get rid of annoying neighbors. Birds of prey like white tailed eagles, ravens, black-backed gulls and herring gulls are looking for dinner for themselves and their own kids.
The birds at Hornøya are accustomed to seeing humans, the bird watchers have been there for more than 30 years, and their presence does not seem to affect the birds notably and hence it is possible to film them up close.
Five weeks and multiple transmissions
On the net: NRK will be streaming from the bird cliff 24-7 during the five weeks of the project. You can choose between eight different video streams; 7 nesting sites and 1 mix with all the different cameras. You can also chat with other viewers, and ask questions about the birds.
TV: Once a week you can watch highlights and reports from the last week at NRK1, in primetime, and at NRK2 you can watch "slow-TV" 5 days a week, late at night (9PM GMT to 11PM). These transmissions will also be streamed at nrk.no/fuglefjellet. On demand from june 15. https://tv.nrk.no/programmer/natur
Love, life and death
The bird cliff might seem chaotic, but it is like a village where everyone has his own place. Throughout the nesting season our cameras will be following the bird parents from when they lay their eggs, until the baby birds are hatched. Each species has its special characteristics:the egg of the guillemot has a shape that makes it roll in circles, and hence avoid falling off the shelf. The puffin will only lay one egg, but the parents must catch fish that is rich in protein for the one baby to grow up. The kittiwake might have to fly all the way to Svalbard to find food.
But it is a long journey, and leaving their babies all alone may be hazardous. All these birds, the guillemot, the puffin and the kittiwake have enemies that also live on the cliff; predators such as black-backed gulls and ravens. Also the white tailed eagle will come visiting unexpectedly at any time.
NRK and the bird watchers at Norwegian Institute of Nature research (NINA) want to use Hornøya as an example to learn more about the serious decline in the population of the sea birds all over the North Atlantic. The scientists are not sure why this is happening, but both the climatic changes and human activity are mentioned as possible causes.
Finnmark, the Barents Sea and the island of Hornøya, by Dr. Richard Collins
Finnmark: The coastline of Finnmark, Norway’s most northerly region, swings eastward towards the border with Russia. This part of Lapland is over half the size of Ireland but, with only 75,000 inhabitants, it has the lowest population density in Europe. Most of the area is wildness, where wolves and wolverines prowl and Sami people graze vast herds of reindeer. The ‘green’ coastal strip, thanks the warmth of the Gulf Stream, has a relatively mild climate. Elsewhere, conditions are austere; temperatures can fall to -50?C in winter.
In mid-summer, the sun never sets on this landscape of ‘desolate infinity’. In the depths of winter it doesn’t rise at all.
Vardø, on the Varangar Penninsula 450km beyond the Arctic Circle, is further to the east than St. Petersburg or Istanbul. Situated on a large island, connected to the mainland by a 3km long tunnel, this lonely fishing port has a population of 2,300. Vardø Fortress is the most northerly building of its kind in the world. In the 17th Century, 90 women were accused of witchcraft and burned to death.
The Barents Sea: Vardø is on the shore of what Russians call the ‘Sea of Murmans’ (‘Norwegians’). It’s known in the West as Barents’ Sea, after the Dutch navigator, William Barents, who explored it in the 16th Century.
During World War II, 1,400 ships, escorted by corvettes and destroyers, sailed through these waters, bringing vital supplies to Archangel and Murmansk. Eighty-five merchant vessels and 16 naval ones were sunk. The German Kriegsmarine lost a battleship, several destroyers and over 30 U-boats. In Cold War days, the Barents Sea was the haunt of soviet submarines. Nuclear contamination from their defunct reactors remains an environmental problem to this day.
Seabird Colonies by Niall Hatch, Development Officer with BirdWatch Ireland
Ireland is home to some of the world’s most impressive and important seabird colonies: cliffs, sea-stacks and islands where, during the summer months, thousands of oceanic birds congregate to mate, lay their eggs and rear their chicks. Some of these breeding seabirds, such as the Puffin, are very well known, while others, such as the Guillemot and the Razorbill, are less famous but actually much more common and widespread in our waters.
Most birds tend to shun other members of their own species during the nesting season, and often establish large territories which they fervently defend against intruders. Why, therefore, are the nesting habits of our seabirds so very different? After all, they seem happy to gather together in vast numbers and nest within just a few centimetres of their nearest neighbours. How has this behaviour arisen?
Well, the first thing to realise when pondering the existence of seabird colonies is that most seabirds hate being out of the water. They are completely at home in the open ocean, and only leave it when they have absolutely no other choice. Such is the case when it comes to breeding: they obviously can’t lay their eggs in the ocean, and so have no option but to find a suitable nesting spot on dry land, usually as close to the sea as possible.
The bodies of most seabird species are highly adapted to allow them to swim very efficiently. For example, the legs are set much further back on the body than is the case with birds that have evolved mainly to live on land, allowing for very efficient propulsion and steering when swimming: this is the same reason that the propeller and rudder are positioned at the rear of a boat.
However, this evolutionary advantage comes with a downside: as their legs are right at the back of their bodies, these birds are forced to stand with a very upright, unbalanced posture. This means that they are extremely awkward on land and find it very hard to walk in any way other than a slow waddle. This makes them very vulnerable to land-based predators, such as foxes and cats.
To compensate for this, seabirds therefore seek out the most remote, difficult-to-access nesting locations possible: the extremely narrow ledges found on the faces of sheer cliffs and, for other species such as the Puffin, underground burrows atop cliffs and high islands.
Such perfect locations are few and far between, and so the birds have little choice: they all gather together en masse at the same traditional locations year after year, simply because there are no other places where they can go. The scarcity of real estate has forced them to come together in large breeding groups, and in summer their favoured cliffs become vast multi-storey seabird apartment blocks. Competition for the best ledges is fierce, and territorial boundaries are still zealously enforced: it’s just that the territory claimed by each pair may amount to no more than a few square centimetres.
If you happen to be clumsy and vulnerable on land, there are advantages to nesting in large groups. You may be safe from foxes and other mammalian predators on your cliff ledge, but you might still be picked off by a bird of prey; Peregrine Falcons, for example, often specialise in hunting nesting seabirds. In a large colony, more pairs of eyes looking out for danger means that an approaching threat is much more likely to be spotted.
Also, if a predator does attack the colony, the odds are that it is much more likely to single out one of your neighbours rather than you or your chick. If you were nesting alone in such an exposed location, you would be the only potential target, and your odds of being killed would be much greater. For ungainly seabirds, there truly is safety in numbers.
There is a very important consideration when it comes to the locations of seabird colonies: they need to be sufficiently close to areas of sea that are rich in the small fish that the parents must catch to feed their chicks. The fishing requirements are not the same for each species: Kittiwakes and Fulmars, for example, mainly catch fish that are close to the surface of the water, while auks will dive down100 metres or more to catch fish that dwell at much lower depths.
These fish are generally found in areas where their own food is in greatest abundance. That food is plankton, and plankton generally prefer areas of cooler water, which are richer in oxygen than warmer water. Climate change has been having a devastating effect on sea temperatures, and as Europe’s coastal waters have begin to grow warmer, so the plankton have steadily headed ever further north in search of colder temperatures. Consequently, the shoals of small fish have been moving north to follow them.
This has caused untold problems for Europe’s seabird populations, and especially those that nest in the North Sea. As the fish have moved north, it has taken them out of the range of the nesting colonies. This has resulted in a food shortage that has lead to the starvation of many chicks. In some cases, the adult birds would have to travel so far from the breeding cliffs to find food that there is no point in them even trying to nest in the first place: their chicks would never survive with such infrequent meals. Many colonies in Scotland and Norway in particular appear to be in serious decline, though the majority of our Irish colonies are continuing to thrive.
Black Guillemot (Foracha dhubh)
Black Guillemot (Photo by Laura Glenister / BirdWatch Ireland)
This smartly-plumaged black and white seabird is found around much of the Irish coastline. At about 30 cm in length, it is not a large bird, and it will usually dive underwater when disturbed. A member of the auk family, which includes the ever-popular Puffin, it is one of a group of birds that take over the role of penguins in the northern hemisphere.
Auks spend practically all their lives at sea, coming to land only to lay their eggs and raise their chicks, when they nest in sea caves and crevices and holes in harbour walls and breakwaters. They are predominantly dark above (camouflaging them against the dark sea when viewed from overhead and thus protecting them from aerial predators) and light below (camouflaging them against the light sky when viewed by underwater predators looking upwards). They use their wings to ‘fly’ underwater to catch fish, whereas most other waterbirds keep their wings folded and use their feet to propel them when diving.
In summer the Black Guillemot is instantly identified by its jet black plumage, broken only by the broad white patches on its wings. In winter it looks like a completely different bird, reverting to the dark above/light below pattern of the other auks, with a much paler head and face than in summer. The striking white wing patches remain very prominent, however, enabling easy identification. At all times of the year the legs and the inside of the mouth are bright red; this latter feature is actually easier to notice than one might expect.
Fulmar (Photo by Colum Clarke / BirdWatch Ireland)
The Fulmar is quite a recent arrival to Irish shores, relatively speaking. For centuries confined to more northerly breeding grounds in and around the Arctic Circle, a sudden range expansion saw it begin to nest in Ireland in 1911. In the intervening years numbers here have increased dramatically, and now it is a common breeding bird on sea-cliffs all along the Irish coastline.
Although it looks very much like a gull, the Fulmar is completely unrelated and in fact belongs to the same group as the albatrosses and shearwaters, known as tubenoses. At around 45 cm in length they are also in the same size range as many gull species.
Despite their initial similarities, however, Fulmars can readily be separated from gulls by their highly distinctive stiff-winged flight; a gull would typically show a lot more bend in the wing. Fulmars’ wings also look relatively plain, lacking the black and/or white tips shown by gulls. Their wings also tend to look very narrow compared to those of gulls. The most striking difference however, though it is one that is really apparent only on close-up viewing, is the bill. A Fulmar’s bill is very stocky, and is made up of a number of hard plates with two tube-like nostrils placed prominently on top. This bill shape is shared by the other members of the ‘tubenose’ group such as the albatrosses, but is totally absent in gulls. These tubes help the Fulmars to excrete salt, allowing them to drink seawater, and are also used to squirt out a noxious-smelling oily liquid to deter predators – the bane of many a seabird researcher’s existence! Aside from smelling extremely unpleasant, this liquid will also foul up the feathers of any other birds that attempt to attack the Fulmar, and are an effective defence even against formidable adversaries such as eagles.
Ringing studies have shown that Fulmars are remarkably long-lived for birds, some living for as long as perhaps 60 years. Pairs generally mate for life, only taking a new mate if their partner dies. They nest on inaccessible sea cliffs and, increasingly, on ledges and in gaps on buildings close to the sea. Irish breeding populations are currently doing well, but recent dramatic declines in breeding success have been noted in North Sea colonies and give cause for concern.
Common Guillemot (Foracha)
Common Guillemot (Photo by Shay Connolly / BirdWatch Ireland)
The Common Guillemot is the most numerous member of the auk family in Ireland. In summer, large breeding colonies congregate at sea cliffs around the Irish coast: the colony at the Cliffs of Moher in Co. Clare is particularly famous. They don’t make any nest; rather, the females each lay a single egg directly onto a narrow rock ledge, often with barely enough room for her to stand. This egg has a far more elongated shape than that of most other birds, making it easier for the parents to fit it against their narrow bellies during incubation, a task which is carried out by both the male and the female. It may also be an adaptation to prevent the egg from rolling off the narrow nest ledge: if knocked or jostled, it tends to roll in a tight circle rather than over the edge. When a Guillemot chick is ready to leave its nest, before it can even fly, it jumps into the sea and is then cared for by its father alone until it can fend for itself.
At around 40cm in length, the Guillemot is a medium-sized seabird, when swimming somewhat resembling a pointy-billed duck. On land, it posture is very different: like other members of the auk family, its feet are set so far back on its body that it must stand very upright: reports of small “penguins” being spotted around the Irish coast usually turn out to refer to this bird. In summer, its head and upperparts are dark brown, contrasting sharply with its white breast and belly; in winter it looks very similar, but with a white throat and cheeks.
Like most other auks, Guillemots only come to land to breed, spending most of their lives out on the open ocean. They specialise in feeding on small fish, and to catch these they dive to extraordinary depths, regularly descending more than 100 metres before shooting back up to the surface. Due to such feeding methods, they are unfortunately at risk of becoming entangled in fishing nets that have been lost or discarded at sea, and they are also frequent victims of oil pollution.
Puffin (Photo by Kevin Murphy / BirdWatch Ireland)
Of all Ireland’s birds, perhaps the most photogenic is the Puffin. A member of the auk family, the Puffin breeds in colonies around much of the Irish coast. They nest in underground burrows, usually at the top of sea cliffs, and are generally only seen here during the summer and early autumn; they spend the rest of the year far out on the Atlantic Ocean.
Like the penguins of the southern hemisphere, Puffins and other auks use their wings to “fly” underwater; unlike penguins, however, Puffins can fly through the air too, with rapid whirring wingbeats. They feed almost exclusively on small fish, especially sand-eels, which they pursue with surprising speed under the surface. They are most often seen either perched on cliff-tops or ledges or bobbing about on the surface of the sea like black and white corks.
When seen well (try the Cliffs of Moher, the Skelligs or Great Saltee Island), Puffins are unmistakable. Just 28 cm tall, they appear predominantly black, with white underparts and faces and bright orange legs. Their most striking feature, however, is of course their oversized red, blue and yellow bill which, coupled with the red skin and small black triangle around each eye, gives them their famous clown-like appearance. The colourful bill is used for courtship, and its size enables the birds to hold large numbers of fish at a time, meaning that they need to make fewer trips to bring food back to their chicks.
Razorbill (Photo by Michael Finn / BirdWatch Ireland)
The most distinctive feature of the Razorbill is its remarkable beak: broad, striped and very sharp, it resembles an old-fashioned barber’s razor, hence the bird’s name. Other than that, this bird looks quite similar to the Guillemot, one of its fellow members of the auk family, and indeed it very often nests alongside that species on precarious sea cliff ledges. It is blacker on the head and back that the dark-brown Guillemot, however, and at around 38cm in length is also ever so slightly smaller.
Like the Guillemot, the Razorbill can be seen in Irish waters year-round, and it too dives to great depths in order to find fish. Their large bills allow them to carry several fish at a time so that they can bring them back to their chicks, just like their close relative, the Puffin.
Cormorant (Broigheall) & Shag (Seaga)
Phalacrocorax carbo & Phalacrocorax arisotelis
Cormorant (Photo by Shay Connolly / BirdWatch Ireland)
The Cormorant is the size of a large goose, standing about a metre high with a long thick neck and a powerful bill. The Shag is a scaled-down version, about 20% smaller overall. Both are largely black: the Cormorant sports a white thigh patch and white about the face, while the Shag has smart crest and yellow around the base of the bill.
Shag (Photo by Jerry Cassidy / BirdWatch Ireland)
Cormorants nest in loose coastal colonies amongst boulders and cliffs but also inland along waterways, in tall trees. Shags are more exclusively marine, nesting in colonies around our coasts. Both birds have the distinctive habit of standing upright on rocks with their wings outstretched to dry out. Their favoured prey is fish, including flatfish, sprat, herring and sand-eels and, in the case of Cormorants, trout and salmon in inland waters.
Ringing recoveries indicate life expectancy of up to 30 years for these species.
Kittiwake (Photo by Laura Glenister / BirdWatch Ireland)
Though perhaps not familiar to many people, the Kittiwake is a common breeder on cliffs all around the Irish coast: around 50,000 pairs nest here. A member of the gull family, it occurs in both the North Atlantic and North Pacific, and it is by far the most numerous species of gull in the world.
The Kittiwake is more marine than our other breeding gull species, and outside the breeding season most individuals are to be found far out on the open ocean, though some do remain around our coasts.
One of our smaller gulls, at 38cm in length, the Kittiwake closely resembles many of our white-headed, grey-winged gull species, but can easily be identified given close views by its combination of a small yellow bill, dark eye, all-black wingtips and, unique amongst Irish breeding gulls, its black legs. Juvenile birds look quite different, showing a highly distinctive black “W” pattern on the wings in flight.
Interestingly, Kittiwakes only have three toes on each foot, whereas our other gulls all have four: its scientific name translates as “three-toed gull”. The English name of the species is derived from its raucous call, uttered on the breeding grounds: a high-pitched “ki-ti-waark”, frequently repeated.