Off in their skeins, high in the sky

No sign of the geese yet. At least, not in this part of the world. I’ve been keeping an eye out for them, scanning the sky beyond the church steeple. But it’s a little early, I know.  Still, I can’t help glancing skywards, listening for their harsh rruk calls.

Plenty of geese up in Strangford Lough. Pale-bellied brent geese have been arriving in their thousands. Left Canada in August; stopped off in Greenland and Iceland. Now they’re in Northern Ireland, catching their breath before dispersing to the rest of the island. A good portion will spend the winter in Dublin, and I’ll watch them fly back and forth across the bay, measuring time and distance in rapid wingbeats.

There’s an old radio documentary that follows the brent geese on their 4000km journey from Bathurst Island in Arctic Canada to Dublin, Ireland. You can listen to it here.


Last year, I was lucky enough to meet Dermot Healy. Healy’s work includes A Fool’s Errand, a book-length poem about the annual migration of barnacle geese from their breeding grounds in Greenland to their wintering quarters in Sligo. His book captures his joy at the birds’ return, ‘….they come – from gaggle to skein – in beautiful stitches/along a thread.’ But there’s sadness too: the death of a friend, the passage of time. Healy’s subsequent death adds to the poignancy.

Then comes the day
they pass overhead unnoticed  —

a rich warm day.
You’re thinking of other things,

to get something done
right to the end, see
something finished and, in a break

from lifting stone, sit looking inland
where life goes on.
Then, just before dark,

they break overhead in thousands
with a marvellous

pouring of song
into the beyond.

I’m thinking of buying a bird feeder, but I’m not sure about the etiquette. My neighbour leaves out nuts and seeds for the birds once the weather turns cooler, and I’ve been benefitting from her thoughtfulness. Yesterday, two coal tits entertained me by attacking her feeder in well-marshalled turns, almost emptying it within the space of twenty minutes. (Coal tits are hoarders, I read, taking food when it’s plentiful and hiding it for later.)

Lots of birds visit our garden in summertime, thanks largely to a prolific raspberry bush. But the winter is quieter. A bird table would bring some welcome guests, but might it be the equivalent of opening a fancy restaurant beside the old neighbourhood café?


I’ve been thinking about where this interest in birds comes from. The people at Entropy Literary Magazine have made space for my musings. You can read my essay On Not Looking here.


6 thoughts on “Off in their skeins, high in the sky

  1. Such a lovely poem. I should pay more attention to the birds around me. They entertain me with their pretty chirping, so the least I could do is acknowledge them. 🙂

    1. Isn’t it lovely, Carrie? The whole book is wonderful,really. I’ve been absorbing it for a while now. And yes, the birds are entertaining. And beautiful. (I miss seeing the Ohio cardinals now that I’m back in Ireland. Our birds are less colourful.)

  2. Nice essay Aileen. Them Brent geese are fine but I wish the Irishtown Stadium crowd would join their mates out in Dublin Bay 🙂

    1. Lol. They come with (ahem) baggage. That’s for sure, Roy. 🙂

  3. I’m not a ‘birder,’ yet I LOVE watching the birds around our house and feeder. Yes, we have a feeder, because they’re so adorable to watch. Hummingbirds in the summer; now that feeder is replaced with suet, in which the woodpecker rules the world. Gorgeous colors. The suet hanger is near our bedroom window, and as I stand and stare, I swear he/she looks through the window and stares back. Not with a thank you, but with an acknowledgement of his/her beauty. 🙂

    1. We don’t have hummingbirds here in Ireland, Pam, but I remember them fondly from my time in the States. Imagine you could easily lose a whole morning just watching them at your feeder! And yes, they know they’re beautiful. Of course they do!(All that puffing of feathers and cocking of heads can’t just be for the benefit of other birds, right?):)

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