Party on, dazzling oystercatcher, with your beautiful but deadly beak

Some folkloric traditions place Brigid, Holy Lady of Kildare, abbess of holy reputation, as the goddess of the ancient spring festival of Imbolc, whose image was embodied in the great Christian revolution brought about by St Patrick and his monks in the 5th century.

The goddess Brigid, with Lugh and other deities, probably came with the people sailing up from Iberia in the late Bronze Age, leaving us with stone circles still standing.

Seán Ó Súilleabháin, im Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, wrote that Brigid’s festival season in February “seems to be a Christianization of one of the focal points of the agricultural year”. Fergus Kelly, in Early Irish Farming, says that the festival of Imbolc was associated with “a sublime earth goddess transformed into a saint by the early Christian church.”

Brigid’s name, saint or goddess, has also been associated with certain birds, notably the lark, linnet and oystercatcher – the first two are exciting harbingers of spring and now rare sights. The latter was once seen in large coastal shoals of black and white on the shores and bays of the west coast.

The Oystercatcher (Hematopus ostralegus) is called in the west Giolla Bríd – Page or messenger of Brigid. They were once a daily spectacle on the shores of Connacht during the winter months when thousands of birds from Scotland and Iceland settled along the estuaries. This is the time for them to disperse and return to their breeding grounds in Northern Europe.

They were super plentiful. As recently as the 1970s, 10,000 of them were officially killed in Burry Bay near Llanelli in Wales because mussel harvesters claimed their livelihoods were being affected.

Oystercatchers with their chisel-like beaks dug up about 500 cockles every day. Shell collectors didn’t complain, however, as the birds reduced density in clumps of shells, allowing for healthier growth.

oystercatcher (rollleach in Irish) is an American name for a wader that once fed on an abundance of oysters on the shores of the Chesapeake, Long Island Sound, and the New York waterfront.

In Ireland, when they can’t find cockles by digging or shells to snatch from rocks, they probe grasslands near the coast in search of worms.

The bird’s beak is remarkable, with a carrot-red to yellow, bony, part-hammer, part-chisel beak that can chop shells off rocks, but has bodies at the tip that can be sensed by touch.

They are loud, gregarious birds that throw fascinating whistling parties during courtship – small groups walk around with their heads bowed and shoulders raised, calling out “big glic, big glic” (be wise, be wise), following a Connacht tradition.
In some places they are called beach magpies and they make a dazzling flight pattern as they glide low over the waves.

There is a delightful folk tale that they once covered Saint Brigid in seaweed as she fled from pursuers.

The birds nest primarily in Norway and Belgium, and of the Scottish and Icelandic birds that call here, around 2,000 pairs may be left to lay eggs on nicks in the beach shingle. They can have a long lifespan – a ringed bird has been recorded for 35 years. Long may they whistle and celebrate. Party on, dazzling oystercatcher, with your beautiful but deadly beak

Fry Electronics Team

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