Spot-on guide for shorebird spotters

I WAS impressed with The Shorebirds of Ireland, recently published by The Collins Press, a beautifully-produced treasury of well-written, informative text by Jim Wilson, with a gallery of wonderful bird photographs by Mark Carmody.

I cannot think of any book that presents the world of Ireland’s shoreline birds so well.

We have a shoreline longer than that of France or Spain; nowhere in Ireland is further than two hours drive from the sea. For the avid or amateur birder, the shoreline waders are easy to watch, feeding on the bare sand flats or mud flats. Binoculars bring them closer. Their visibility works to advantage in both cases: we see them but, ever wary, they can also see us. The gulls are easy to spot in the air. Although I am fortunate to live beside an estuary and see these birds every day, the text and pictures of The Shorebirds of Ireland presents them in a new, more vivid light. As with many creatures, the more we know of them, the more fascinating they become.

Some waders, such as black-tailed godwits – whose story, including their epic journeys to breeding grounds in Iceland, is told with great flare by Jim Wilson – are often close by, especially at high tide when they cluster on the estuary margins. Golden plover are also easy to observe, not only when they rise in spirals, of often a thousand or more birds, but when they roost in dark masses on sandbars, like islands of birds.

A lovely ‘portrait’ shot of a golden plover, roosting on one leg, accompanies the chapter on this species; similarly for the dunlin, redshank, knot and the rest– the photographs cannot be faulted, and, given the quality of the paper and reproduction, they spectacularly illustrate the text.

The book opens with chapters on the ‘geology of the shore’, ‘humans on the shore’, and ‘the life of a shorebird’. These preambles are useful to our understanding of the shorebird environment and interesting in their own right. For example, in the ‘humans on the shore’ section we read about the ‘kitchen middens’, the waste-heaps of shells left by our Neolithic ancestors.

On Ballysadare Bay, near Sligo, shells cover the area of half a football field, to a depth of nine feet. The seaweeds and creatures on which the birds feed are discussed. Evidence shows that 5,000 years ago our progenitors foraged along the shoreline with the birds.

Also mentioned are the places shorebirds congregate in tens of thousands, among them Cork Harbour, Tralee Bay, the Rogerstown Estuary, and the loughs of the Shannon and of Ulster. Overseas locations – the birds’ migration venues in Heligoland, and breeding grounds in Iceland – fill in the parts of their story we in Ireland do not see.

After all this, the chapter on ‘studying shorebirds’ is a fine introduction to the chapters on the birds themselves.

Every bird one would hope to see on Irish estuaries, coasts, wetlands and sea loughs is described in a separate entry, its characteristic behaviour detailed, its wingspan, length, weight, and age of the oldest bird recorded, with a colour-coded map showing its breeding grounds, wintering grounds and where it is resident all year.

We learn that the knot makes some of the longest non-stop migrations of any wader. There is evidence that some members of the species, which passes through Ireland in winter, fly 15,000km between their breeding grounds in Siberia and their wintering grounds in South Africa. They weigh just over four ounces. Such facts – and there are many, equally fascinating in the text – will make readers marvel at the resilience of nature.

They fire the imagination, and, to paraphrase John Masefield, they take one down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky. But the shoreline is far from lonely, these months when the winter waders are with us. Having read Wilson and Carmody’s book, we have a lexicon of wonderful creatures to entertain us. The 200-page, 175mm x 245mm paperback, with French fold covers, costs €22 and is worth every cent.

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