Friday, January 26, 2024

Extracts from a lighthouse diary


The roseate terns for which Rockabill was famous. Evidently they weren't there in the early 1900s

I came across this piece recently in the Irish Naturalist Vol 18 No.3 (1909), which I heartily recommend for a spot of light reading unless, like me, you keep getting confused by Naturalists and Naturists. The piece is prefaced by a person called R.H. Scovell who was the type of scientist who probably liked to keep his (or her) clothes on. R.H. was interested in bird migration and came across our old friend Benjamin Robert Jeffers, a lightkeeper and Open Brethren, who, with his dog, saved a bunch of people from drowning off Straw Island six years later.
Benjamin, who was the keeper at Rockabill at the time, offered to copy out extracts from his journal that mentioned birds on the 'Bill and these extracts were published in the Irish Naturalist, once B.R. had established it wasn't a nudie mag. I reproduce them in full.
Nov 10, 1906 - Our larder was replenished last night to the tune of a brace of Woodcock, a pair of lady Blackbirds, a couple of Fieldfare, a Thrush and a Starling.
Nov 14 - 19 Blackbirds, 4 Thrushes, 2 Redwing, 4 Starling and a few Larks came to grief last night.
Dec 24 - Early part of the morning, a lot of birds about Lantern, 5 Blackbirds and 6 Thrushes, also one carrier Pigeon (No. 102, Louviere, ringed in 1906, very nicely marked) came to grief. They will make a nice pie for Xmas whilst our comrade enjoys a turkey or goose ashore.

B.R. Jeffers, lightkeeper and pie-man

Feb 8, 1907 - We had rain last night, and snow and rain during the small hours of the morning: a few Redwing and Thrushes paid their respects to the light about 3am
March 15 - A number of Starling, Redwing and Blackbirds about light from 7 to 9pm.
April 14 - Over a score of birds killed last night.
April 25 - A Redstart, Goldfinch , Willow Wren and Wren caught.
May 6 - A lot of birds struck during night. 10 Corncrakes killed and a number alive on Rock during day; 9 Willow-wrens and several other birds killed also.
May 9 - A great number of birds struck during night, many were caught and let go in the morning, amongst them were a Swift and Whinchat, Wheatears &c; the following were killed:- 8 Corncrakes, 28 Whitethroats, 1 Garden Warbler, 146 Warblers (assorted), 4 Wheatears, 1 Blackstart, 1 Whinchart, about 200 killed altogether. There were a lot of crakes about the Rock during day, also a couple of Redstarts; 1 was caught... Corncrakes make very good soup and also look well when stuffed.
May 9 - Eleven Corncrakes have been stuffed by keepers during past few days.
June 12 - A Spotted Flycatcher (?) got ... and a Manx Shearwater on Friday night.
August 19 - Hawk attacked Charlie and Dick (the Goldfinches) in their cage. Dick was stretched but came to after the Hawk was driven off.
Oct 5 - Some Blackbirds and Thrushes were killed during night.
Oct 8 - Some Blackbirds, Thrushes and Larks struck lantern this morning.
Oct 9 - Blackbirds, thrushes and Larks killed during the night
Oct 10 - A few Blackbirds, Thrushes, Redwing and Larks, also a Missel Thrush and Ring Ouzel killed during the night.
Oct 15 - A large number of birds, chiefly Blackbirds, struck lantern during the night, over a score being killed, including a Missel Thrush, a few Thrushes and Redwing, and several Larks. Wind, north, 5 to 6, showery.
Oct 18 - A great number of Blackbirds flew against the lantern last night - or rather this morning from 12 to 5, also a few Thrushes, a Missel Thrush and some Starlings.Only about a dozen birds were killed by striking.
Oct 29 - Plucked a number of birds and had a grand dinner; 261 all told killed at lantern last night, including 3 Woodcock, 2 Lapwing, 84 Blackbirds, 58 Fieldfare, 11 Chaffinches and 103 Redwing and apparently a few rare ones, 1 Black Redstart.
Nov 1 - A number of birds striking but carried away by the storm; 1 Woodcock found turned inside out.
Nov 2 - About 285 birds killed at lantern last night; 1 Woodcock, 2 Lapwing, the remainder Blackbirds, Redwing, Thrushes and Fieldfare

Jan 1 1908 - A couple of Blackbirds, three Thrushes, a Starling and a Snipe came to grief last night.
March 13 - Kittiwakes arrived this morning.
April 24 - Two handsome Duck or Geese flew around the Rock several times and landed on the 'Bill,' then flew straight for the islands. Probably they are tame - black head and neck with a dark red band around breast and back, back white, tips of wings black and bill red. Sheldrake probably.
May 3 - A number of small birds struck during the night but only a few were killed - 3 Corncrakes on Rock, 2 Redstarts
May 4 - A male Redstart caught in the gas house but died in the afternoon. A Spotted Flycatcher also found disabled.
May 5 - A Turtle Dove paid us a visit today, occasionally finding his way into the garden.
May 6 - The Turtle Dove still cruises around the Rock, together with a carrier and another Pigeon.
B.R. Jeffers,
Rockabill Lighthouse, co. Dublin

R.H. Scovell makes the point that the number of blackbirds killed during migration must be quite enormous, as those killed at Rockabill must necessarily be but a tiny proportion.
A couple of other questions come to mind :-
  • What became of the corncrake stuffing industry?
  • Is this the origin of the four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie?
  • When he says corncrakes make very good soup, is he praising their culinary skills?
  • How did the woodcock get turned inside-out and did anybody think to take a photograph?


  1. 261 killed in one night! That's quite an amount. There's only so much game pie a man can eat! I'm surprised more lighthouses didn't employ nets.
    Fab illustration of the birds crowding around the lantern by the way!

    1. Thanks Roger, yes, I suppose fresh meat was a luxury and, controversially these days, probably meant a more balanced diet for the keepers. Congratulations on the book, Roger. I'll be featuring it here shortly. Great stuff!

  2. Came across an interesting piece in Liam Ryan's On The Hook parish annual a few years back Pete, where lighthouse keepers kept recordings , must dig it out for ya. A