Bird Race is a sure way to kickstart the feelgood factor

The chance of seeing a fieldfare is one of the delights available at the Bird Race, writes Damien Enright

The herons are well advanced in their nesting and territorial squabbles

This evening, January 11, at fall of light, a neighbour, Kevin Hanly, phoned to tell me that he’d seen and heard almighty skirmishes and squawkings at herons’ nests in treetops 200 metres below our homes.

This explains the regular, recent absences of the heron, sometimes called Ron, that we reared from fledgling-hood and, now, six years later, still frequents our yard for free lunches. Love in the air, and territorial imperatives.

As I set off to take a look before dark, my wife told me she’d heard them from our garden, and it sounded like a battle royal. Three minutes later, I was looking up at five new nests against the cobalt sky. A heron stood guard over one, and when another approached, it raised its wings and lunged with its dagger beak. The usurper decided against landing and flew off. To see the nests so progressed so early in the year surprised me. I’ll report more next week.

Walking, we know, is not only good for the health but also releases endorphins which may explain why some jolly walkers look half-stoned (as in mild cannabis intoxication, as opposed to half-cut — as on booze — when walking would be best avoided.) Endorphins relieve pain and stress, and engender over-all feelings of wellbeing in the walkers; happy wanderers, indeed. It takes only 30 minutes of reasonably-paced perambulation for the endorphins to kick in, and the exercise not only lightens the spirits but the waistlines. I extrapolate from birds to walking because on January 29 there’s an opportunity to combine both, when the West Cork BirdWatch group extends an invitation to the public to join them on their Annual Bird Race. Bird-spotting on the hoof will be the raison d’etre and for amateur twitchers, nature lovers or the merely curious, a West Cork stroll with a bevy of experienced birders will be a light-hearted and educational experience.

Guests are fitted into teams of four, each including experienced members. Walking through varied habitat, each teams will compete to achieve the longest list of species viewed. Prizes will be awarded for best scores in various categories. The ‘race’ begins and ends in Clonakilty, starting at 8.30am sharp in Scally’s Supervalue Car Park and finishing at 5.30 sharp at O’Donovan’s Hotel where refreshments, bird banter, list-reviewing and prize-giving will proceed.

To join the walk, guests should register before 8.30am at the start point or, better still, online at secretary@birdwatchirelandwestcork.ie. The event is called a ‘race’ because it is a genuine competition to tick off as many species as possible in the time allowed. Three team members must see the bird before it can be recorded. A short car journey is involved and teams may wander off in whatever direction they please within the precincts of the designated area which stretches from Ring Pier on the east side of the bay from Clonakilty town, along the N71 to Rosscarbery, and south to Rosscarbery pier on the western side of Rosscarbery Bay. Habitats include copse, hedge, beach, dunes, estuary, lake, reedbed, mudflat, sandbank, rocky shore and open ocean, to name but a few! The ‘race’ will provide a useful update of the species present.

The list should be in excess of 100 species. That’s a lot of birds to see, especially if one is not a full-time, card-carrying member of BirdWatch Ireland (although, after the outing one might want to become one). The birds will include small brown jobs (SBJs) like shore larks on the rocks, siskins in alders and wrens in hedges, and the possibility of Big Brown Jobs (BBJs?) like buzzards (now regulars in west Cork) being spotted too. There will be the pretty white egrets, herons in gorgeous breeding colours, many species of wader and gull, and perhaps the chance to sort out, under expert tutelage, say, a fieldfare from a mistle thrush, or a song thrush from a redwing: such arcane insights should give the novice a nice, hot flush.

I know from past expeditions that few outdoor experiences are more thrilling than when a rare bird sends the experienced birders twittering, and everybody tiptoes about. The frisson is contagious. One nudges into the queue to get one’s eye to the telescope.

There it is, a feathered thing one has never seen before, that one never dreamt inhabited the same country or locality, as oneself. It’s an ‘eye-opener’, indeed, to find that it should share one’s habitat and yet one has never seen it (or seen it for what it is) before! The excitement of encountering attractive and unfamiliar creatures is good for the blood flow — and there are also, of course, the endorphins.

If you enjoyed this you may like Peter Dowdall's visit to the garden of Hester Forde in Glounthaune, Cork, where he looks at growth in the garden and plants such as snowdrops, Daphne and the Winter aconite.



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