'When the birds began nesting, it gave people the signal that life goes on'

BirdWatch Ireland usually has 450 events a year, but Covid affected these, though many still went online. But the group's website has been busier than ever, with people checking for what's in their garden
'When the birds began nesting, it gave people the signal that life goes on'

Niall Hatch at BirdWatch Ireland's nature reserve in Newcastle, Co Wicklow. Picture: Garry O'Neill

For me, it's been a strange time. I have been working from home, of course, and while a lot of my work is desk-based anyway I would tend to be out and about a lot more than I am now. The talks that I give around the country and internationally have disappeared but over the last number of months people have gotten into the habit of attending events online and they've become the new normal. We've started to see online events fill up the calendar and that's really gratifying.

It's been challenging for BirdWatch Ireland because, usually, we would have 450 events per year. While some of these events have come online, it's not quite the same as going out birdwatching. It's been touch and go with our bird surveys, too, because, depending on the restrictions, we haven't been able to get out and about to count the birds and lots of our volunteers have had to stay home.

Our seabird protection work was allowed to go ahead because that is deemed essential, so provided the proper social distancing and safety measures were put in place, we were able to carry on with that, which is good.

One of the biggest projects we had was on Rockabill Island off the coast of Co Dublin. It's home to Europe's largest colony of a very rare seabird called roseate terns. BirdWatch Ireland has been protecting them there on the island for 30 years or so now. We were really worried that our wardens wouldn't be able to get out on the island but we were able to come up with a system whereby they quarantined before they went out to the island. 

When they were there, they were basically marooned from the world for the summer — they were probably the safest people in the world from Covid.

When the first lockdown began, in the first days we started to see an immediate spike in traffic to the BirdWatch Ireland website and by the start of April, it was up over 500% on what it would normally be. It is ordinarily a very busy website anyway, so this was a big marked increase.

We were able to see what people were looking at, and the main thing people were looking at was garden birds — looking after them and identifying them. As we went from April into May we started to see an interest in birdsong. In a normal year, we would have had lots of dawn-chorus events taking place during the month of May, but obviously, they were put on hold. What we were able to do is take it online and we had loads of people recording birdsong to us on social media. People were saying that they had never heard the birds sing so clearly.

Niall Hatch: 'We are in the middle of our annual garden bird survey and we have never had so much interest. We won't know how many people have taken part until it comes to an end in February.' Picture: Garry O'Neill

Niall Hatch: 'We are in the middle of our annual garden bird survey and we have never had so much interest. We won't know how many people have taken part until it comes to an end in February.' Picture: Garry O'Neill

I think there were several things contributing to this. The first was that there was a reduction in traffic noise, so the song was carrying more than it normally would. Also, people were staying home more than they ordinarily would and were there to hear the birds who would have been singing anyway. During the lockdowns, people came to understand that there was more wildlife around them than they realised and I think they got a lot of solace and comfort from that.

When the birds began nesting, it gave people the signal that life goes on. The birds continue to do what they do and they are unaware of the troubles that we humans are experiencing.

We are in the middle of our annual garden bird survey and we have never had so much interest. We won't know how many people have taken part until it comes to an end in February, but based on the number of inquiries we are getting about garden birds, we are expecting it to be through the roof.

I'm not sure there are more birds now than before the arrival of Covid, but I think people are more aware of them. A lot would depend on how the nesting went this summer. I'd say some species will have benefited from the marked decrease in human activity during the breeding season. We got reports of buzzards and skylarks nesting closer to human footpaths and roads than they would have in the past. Normally they tend to be quite wary, they avoid areas where there would be a concentration of people. During the periods where there were no people around, birds very quickly re-colonised these habitats.

The decrease in traffic would have benefited the birds who were just out of the nest. In the first few weeks of life, they are pretty naive and don't know the dangers of the world, so they are more likely to be hit by cars. With traffic down the amount of roadkill would be down too.

Niall Hatch: 'The decrease in traffic would have benefited the birds who were just out of the nest. Picture: Garry O'Neill

Niall Hatch: 'The decrease in traffic would have benefited the birds who were just out of the nest. Picture: Garry O'Neill

Within the garden, I like the coaltit a lot. He is a very interesting bird. 

They tend not to get as much attention as the blue tit because it doesn't have any bright green or yellow or blue feathers — it's quite muted. 

There is something very charming about it. It is one of the few birds where there is a uniquely Irish form of it that is unique to this island. The species is found from Ireland in the west all the way across to Japan and Taiwan.

The ones here in Ireland are unique with a creamy colour in the cheek and have a slightly longer beak. It takes away food from the table and buries it literally for a rainy day. Its favourite food is caterpillars but when there is a lot of rain but when it's raining, it can't find them so they bury food from the bird table to have on days that they might find themselves hungry.

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