Swallows in my pockets - an artist afloat

August and September are good months to birdwatch while sailing around the coast. It is quieter out on the water; the breeding season is over, the fledglings have grown, and the early birds have already left for warmer climes, but there is plenty to see. No more pufflings, but there will still be Gannets. One year ago today, I set sail from Scotland to Ireland to discover the coastal birdlife there.

Stranraer’s Loch Ryan is warm and calm. It can be very rough in here but this time it’s been a comfortable mooring and a good place for swimming. We depart Stranraer marina at dawn, watching Oystercatcher, Turnstone and Curlew already feeding at the water’s edge in good numbers. In the absence of rocks, the Shags prefer to utilise the man-made structures out near the oyster beds. The painting on the right is Stranraer Oystercatcher.

Calm waters of Loch Ryan

We manage to avoid the incoming Cairnryan ferry. The Loch Ryan seabirds will be the last birds we see for hours.

Wing drying

A warm, peaceful 20 nautical miles or so across the Irish Sea with glimpses of cetaceans and our destination is on the horizon. The sea is flat calm and there isn’t a breath of wind so we’re motoring with the mainsail.

South Cardinal Marker perch

A fogbank worthy of a B movie obscures Glenarm harbour approach. Above the fogbank, the sky is a cloudless blue, below it the water is glassy, clear and green. There is only one other boat out on the water. Still no birds.

Company on the water

Glenarm is a small village in County Antrim of only 600 or so inhabitants. It dates from the earliest centuries. The riversides are built up to allow the village to rise above it and to keep the shallow river flowing in place, covered in feeding birds, crossed by bridges, with grand walls to the castle and nature reserve grounds.

Behind the dramatic fogbank, the inlet is surrounded by vibrant green hills. The small harbour is silent and all boats are covered, but it is neat and the pontoons look safe. The green water is so clear I can see the seaweed waving below the hulls and the tiny flickering fish enjoying the new jungles. It is a reminder that reclamation doesn’t take long. One lockdown, no ‘liftout’ summer, and the sea life has appropriated everything left afloat. The Harbour Master comes down to warmly greet us, take our ropes and give us permission to stay.

We are surrounded by Swallows (Fáinleog in Irish). They are strung around the harbour on fairy lights and provide acrobatic displays very close by. We have found an Irish migration departure point for the birds.

For all-weather ornithological sketching, I like to use pre-cut, hand-sized squares of white mount board. They don’t need a support to lean on, and they can take a good soaking with watercolour washes or with rain. The surface sustains through much fast scrapy scribbling, rubbing back, the addition of more layers, small detail, or rain. It is important not to be precious with them so cutting them roughly is a visual reminder that these are for raw, responsive, immediate, in situ studies. I’m here to experience the birds in their environment.

The preening cave

Since wind also has to be taken into consideration and anything unattached or not in a pocket will go overboard, I recommend one small pencil case with wrist handle containing: Fine waterproof ink pen, fine soluble ink pen, H to B3 pencils and soft coloured pencils with a Staedler eraser and a pencil sharpener, one small tube of graphic white, and three small brushes plus a small set of watercolours that can fit in one hand. And fifty of these pre-cut stiff thick squares that I can bring up on deck about five at a time in my pocket along with my tiny moleskin sketchbooks.

The preening rock

The Port mark

Whatever a person’s usual art practice, this is field work, and that’s a whole other animal. The deck is not an environment for the charcoal, chalks or inks of my land sketching kit, nor the hefty boards, unfriendly paints and big brushes of my finished work, so I pick the best tools for the boat. My pocket sketch work will form references that can be returned to or worked up below or back on land. This is boat studio life.

Indoors/ outdoors: sketching in the rain

The Swallows are gathering along the coast to weave together their plans to head south to Africa. The near-silent edges of the land are covered in the birds – perching on everything from old telephone wires and strings of fairy lights to the roof ridges of old coastal agriculture or harbour buildings. They treat a boat as a bonus perch, unoccupied seating. This makes for excellent close-up viewing and an opportunity to sketch wild without moving from the boat, but also to be tolerated amongst them if I do go ashore.


Pre-programmed to migrate, with a mechanism for navigation to Africa and back that is not nearly understood, we now observe that Swallows also seem to have agency in deciding when to go, where to go, and even in stopping early in the Mediterranean if the site or temperature is right. Each year, some don’t leave at all if it is a mild winter, while some that used to leave in September now head off in November.

Each Fáinleog has come from its own nest to this coastal preparation site. They won’t all leave together, or travel along the same route, or leave at the same time as they did on previous years. Some might head for Wales or the South of England before embarking on their long haul flight. Along the way they risk dying from starvation, exhaustion, exposure, collision, illegal hunting, predation, poisoning, heatstroke, but if they survive and return, it will be to their own nests right here in Ireland. Their tiny bodies are powerhouses but their brains are even more incredible than first suspected.

Gangs of Swallows are buzzing between the ropes and stays of all the yachts. In the low gold afternoon sunshine they bustle around the boats, parking themselves along the edges of sail bags, dangling off ropes that formed the warp and weave of the harbour then launching themselves into another acrobatic circuit of the small harbour. There is energy and purpose, but no sense of urgency. This is the gathering and not the departure.

Three Swallows on a boat

We are due to be hit by a named Atlantic storm from the South, so no more sailing is safe or possible. A yacht arrives at speed to take refuge alongside while it has the chance, and the RNLI rope up their rib ready. We few hail from boat to boat, a healthy social distance. All care must be taken in protecting our hosts, so we assume we are restricted to the harbour. Turns out that we’re allowed on land after all, so we don masks and sanitise to go ashore for fresh fruit and a swim from the attractive black and white pebble beach on the other side of the river. There’s an assortment of sea birds out on the sandbank too distant to study or draw, and too far to swim to.

Night seas: number 5 of 10

I am still mesmerised by the boat-shaped nature reserves in this translucent emerald sea water. The seaweeds, lush and plentiful everywhere there is an attachment point, are bright purple, bright yellow and bright orange, all varieties new to me. The purple variety is purported to be edible, nutritious and even tasty. Later, a local man gives us a snack of dried purple seaweed as a gift.

Today, melodramatic cloud formations build, tower, and approach at a steady speed, covering the blue sky and darkening the daylight. We are sheltered from the howling wind here, but the boat is bucking as the tumultuous waves out there ripple in to swell and froth up the harbour. I think of the Swallows. When they take flight there will be no sheltering from storms, not over the sea nor over the desert.

S/Y Maverick out west

We sail 40 nautical miles or so up the coast to Ballycastle. Next named storm is already forecast, can you believe it, so skipper passage-plans accordingly and sticks to coast-hopping. A longer journey, further out to sea, or South, would all be most unwise, no matter how nice the weather seems now. Weather reminds us of our place in the world. We could easily have been in the South, where boats there have been destroyed by the severity of the storms, so we’re fortunate.

To find the harbour entrance at Ballycastle, head directly for the broad golden beach then turn sharply to starboard. This breakwater is a substantial barrier of piled boulders decorated with a huge white coating of gulls. On entering, approaching another apparent dead end of wall, turn sharply to port to find the harbour entrance. On land it would be called a hairpin bend. It provides several moments of deep concentration in completely unknown terrain, so is not the time for gull identification, alas.

Inside the spacious harbour, fully kitted out as a marina and packed with dormant boats and pricey ribs, there are no gulls at all. Occasionally a gull head peeks over the top of the quayside rocks, but they stay out there, on the wall fittings, and around boats out there. I won’t see them in harbour until the next storm approaches.

We don’t share harbour fittings here

The race to a sailbag snack

Most of the boats moored here are empty and covered. The sole occupants of the marina are the Jackdaws, who appear to have taken ownership of the yachts.

Jackdaw on the ropes

I observe that when one Jackdaw finds a particularly good mast top toy, they call out to a couple of others, which come to join in. Together they closely inspect the moving parts of the wind instruments, reaching out to test or try to catch each movement by foot, or letting it flick flick flick them as it goes round, then test-biting it. If their experimentation goes well, another wind sensor or transmitter could be abbreviated. This expensive behaviour is strongly discouraged by sailors, but these clever, inquisitive birds are not to be thwarted by being yelled at, and they’ve already enjoyed an unprecedented freedom of yacht play during the human-free lockdown.

Mast head Jackdaw

I feel for the mangled boats, and I did my best to scare the Jackdaws off the one next to us, but since they ignore me and stay put they have become a wonderful sketching opportunity. They wisely avoid our boat mast. I couldn’t have allowed them to ruin our wind instruments for the sake of art, not least because the skipper would have thrown me overboard.

Jackdaws of the wind instruments

In Glenarm, the corvids were along the harbour carpark in large numbers, perched on roof ridges then taking refuge into derelict roofs with the Swallows, but they didn’t venture down onto the boats while I was there. In fact, they didn’t even go near the water’s edge. The wind instruments I could see there seemed to be intact. I went up to study them for a while, discovering that they too had Pied Wagtails with them, but I still don’t know what they were up to.

Alert in rain

The Ballycastle Swallows appear, settling into a late afternoon of perching and resting, boat-swapping, flying in circles and diving as their own prelude to migration. Perhaps the best morning insects are all on land. The air is so warm, the sunlight so golden, the crowds on land so tanned and relaxed that it feels like high summer. Except that the Swallows are weaving autumn right in front of us.

A lone Swallow on the safety rails

Behavioural observation is to be done with care. If I can’t tell whether they are supping water or gulping down surface insects, I must describe only the movement at the surface that I witnessed. I knew Swallows mouth-dipped into fresh water but I hadn’t expected to see it in salt water like this.

Something happened that gave me a lightbulb moment into understanding some of the Swallow folklore of the past. I could never understand why a certain era believed (or was said to believe) that Swallows overwintered in the mud of rivers and ponds, until I watched a group of Swallows take turns to dive into the water and completely submerge themselves, exiting at speed a moment later a body length away, and repeating that same behaviour all afternoon: Deliberate diving, full submersion, no sight of the bird, then bursting up again. If I’d glanced away, I wouldn’t have known that they’d ever emerged from the water. I am intrigued by these submariner Swallows, and all the more for them doing this in salty water, which surely leaves a build-up of salt residue on the feathers. The pattern on this particular day is that most stay seated while one dives, and that same bird dives over and over again. Three out of the fifteen take these dips and the others do not.

Three evening Swallows on a rope

Two Swallows from that particular yacht go over to sit on the warm stones of the quayside, bickering and squabbling with a Pied Wagtail already sunbathing there. Neither side backs down so when the noise and flapping calms, they all stay.

On shore, fenced off from the harbour-marina, seaside streets and parks are heaving with happy holiday-makers enjoying the sunshine, so a great deal of crusts, cones, and fish and chips are left around the park benches and bins near the water. From the regularity of the Jackdaws’ feeding forays across to these park benches, it seems likely that no leftover food goes to waste. I’m accustomed to gulls patrolling the picnic areas near my usual beaches and harbours, or actually wrestling food out of a person’s mouth at that, but here the seaside park also belongs to the Jackdaws, keeping watch from their masts.

Jackdaw on high

The next day, the golden light, balmy air and cloudless bright blue skies give way to clouds, more incredible build-ups of incoming formations along the green hills that soon accumulate to blacken the day. The wind whips up the sea, the rain is monsoon-like, the river overflows, and the clear green seawater becomes thick chocolate filled with tree branches - and then the trees themselves appear. A danger to shipping, but nobody is out there. The water churns and rises and bubbles at the water’s edge below the Marchese Marconi monument, where Jackdaws and Pied wagtails run down to pick through the remnants of frothing woodlands for delicacies.

From this causeway coast, we head five nautical miles due north of the Irish mainland to the beautiful Rathlin Island. There, the RSPB West Light Seabird Centre and reserve trails are currently closed but fortunately nobody told the birds. This is where our Irish adventure ends as we keep due north to Islay and Jura.

Gannets skim the waves alongside

The end.

Images ©  Morag Edward. Morag is a marine artist who is happiest in, on, under or at least next to the sea. Any sea will do. Her work is exhibited around Scotland and in private collections, and she writes and illustrates for various magazines and blogs. Follow her Instagram @moragedwardartist or Twitter @VelocityM until her art website is back up.