That blob on the cliff: is it a bird, a plane, a peppermint?

Click to follow
The Independent Online
MANY of you who go on seaside holidays tell me that you find great difficulty in distinguishing different kinds of sea bird, especially those which persist in nesting on inaccessible cliffs. Those of you who have consulted my pioneering work Nature Made Ridiculously Simple (Penguin, available at all good second-hand bookshops) will remember that anything in nature can be identified if it is reduced to a few basic types, so as a supplement to that nature guide I am today bringing you the eight basic British cliff-dwelling birds.

1. The National Trust bird. This large, white, cliff-loving bird lives in colonies of up to a million and spends most of its time trying to find where it lives - many NT birds, in fact, never leave their nests for fear of not being able to find their way back. Through some homing instinct which we do not yet understand, this bird can tell the difference between those parts of the coast belonging to the National Trust, where it always lives, and other parts, which it never visits. They produce an average of four eggs a year, though they are just as happy sitting on white pebbles, golf balls or large peppermints.

2. The Starfighter Bird. This large, white, cliff-loving bird can be identified by the fact that it never actually manages to land on the cliffs it so much loves but overshoots them at about 200mph. It spends its life in the air, flashing past overhead at a cruising speed of up to 300mph - the fastest speed ever recorded was 506mph, though this was never accepted as a world record as there was a following wind of 480mph. It is the only known bird that migrates to North Africa and back the same day, every day. If you ever find yourself saying: 'Oh, look, there's a - oh, it's gone . . .', it was almost certainly a Starfighter bird.

3. The Land Gull. All gulls gave up the sea as a bad job a long time ago and moved inland to sewage works, municipal dumps, rubbish tips, landfill sites and other insalubrious places, thus losing all their maritime skills. If you see a gull-like bird at the seaside, it is almost certainly a land-based gull which has drifted back to the seaside and now finds it is incapable of fishing, or even swimming, which is why it has taken to hanging round on street corners or mooching along the promenade.

4. The Shag. This is a large, black, cliff-loving bird. Its distinguishing feature is an abiding bitterness at being given a coarse Anglo-Saxon double entendre as a name. It is not the only bird with a coarse name, but most of the others have been made genteel (as, for instance, the 'whitearse' which became the more polite 'wheatear') and the shag is bitterly resentful of not getting the same treatment. If you pass a dark bird which openly sneers at you, that is what it is.

5. The Stormy British Petrel. This large, black-and-white, cliff-dwelling bird has the unique gift of being able to divert possible invaders and trespassers of its nest by pretending that it has got oil on its wings. As soon as a threatening figure comes near, the bird's wings actually go dark and it lies on its side, uttering piteous cries. When the newcomer rushes off to fetch help, detergents, film units from the BBC, etc, the stormy British petrel uses the time to move house completely and is gone when you get back.

6. The Cliffhanger. This large, white, cliff-loving bird occupies large stone precipices that rise 500 feet sheer out of the sea, and entirely covers the cliff face with its own droppings. From a distance the cliff seems to be entirely white, and from close to it does as well - the cliffhanger sits on its rocky perch all day long, moving only to waddle to the edge and deposit more white droppings down the face of the cliff. Its expression seems to suggest that this is an artistic activity comparable to painting murals or wrapping the whole of Orkney in white gift paper, and that it deserves a whacking great art subsidy, but do not be deceived.

7. The Cessna Sea Bird. Many aeroplanes have been named after things that fly - dove, piper, heron, mosquito, tiger moth and so on - but this is the only bird named after a plane. It is a large, white, cliff-loving bird that flies around on Sunday afternoons just when you are trying to get some peace and quiet, and pretends to run out of energy and be on the point of crashing.

8. The Fringe Comedian bird. A large, grey, cliff-loving bird which suffers from a hangover all morning, then suddenly gets up and squawks non-stop for an hour, after which it is surrounded by other identical birds telling it how good it was, after which they say rude things about other Fringe Comedian birds, not present. A seasonal summer visitor to Scotland.