The weather was grand by the time I caught up with Pat Connaughton and his team ‘competing’ in the great West Cork Bird Race the Sunday before last. They were still a bit flushed from the wind and the rain of the morning, and the excitement of the birds.
They had already foraged along the Feale River at Clonakilty and noted the birds that walk on the river bottom (dippers) and flit over the surface (grey wagtails) and ducks, waders, egrets and herons in the estuary, and were now at the seaward end of Rosscarbery pier peering through scopes and binoculars out over the choppy, grey sea.
“Sixty four species, so far”, Pat told me. “Seventy five, now...” said a voice nearby, a head bent over a telescope, “Red-throated diver. Out there by the rock...” and all eyes swung in that direction. I looked, too, and found that “Out there by the rock” was nearly a kilometre away.
How the man had spotted a bird which, at best visibility, swims half submerged, hunts under water and surfaces for only seconds, seemed a minor miracle. How he saw that it was a red-throated rather than a black-throated diver, was beyond me. In both cases, their throats turn white in winter.
Minutes later, a wind-blown woman with big binoculars spotted two tiny guillemot away out on the bockety sea while, on the horizon, a cloud of gannets were seen plunge-diving on a fish shoal, plumage all but transparent against the ethereal light of winter sun. God bless the eyesight of bird watchers! It is extraordinary.
Birds everywhere. One team has 70 species counted; another, 82. Were they to be believed? Well, the fact was, they didn’t need to conjure up species. They were there. They only had to spot them. Seven teams, and an estimated 100 species would be seen. Expectations were surpassed. More than 100 species of bird on this small stretch of West Cork coast, Clonakilty to Rosscarbery? So they said. I followed with my binoculars and my wife.
I can now attest that where they said there was a bird, there was a bird. Before being listed, it had to be seen and identified by at least three of the group.
I came upon a ‘team’ on a Galley Head back road, their optics trained on something in a clay-grey field where shorn stalks of Indian corn stood rotting in the January mud. Had I scanned the field with my Jenoptems for a month of bird races, I wouldn’t have noticed it, probably not even if it moved, and it wasn’t moving. “Take a look,” said someone, indicating a scope.
There, in the lens, on the wet ground, between the ragged corn rows and rain pools, I saw a lump of feathers, black, white, brown and yellow and, at one end, a long, straight bill. Motionless as a clod, the cryptic patterns of its plumage would make it invisible to the naked eye from just yards away; it was a work of magic, of illusion: it was a roosting snipe.
A snipe is a native Irish species. It may be ‘common’ but it is an uncommon sight to me and, I imagine, to you, dear reader. To those who trouble to go out and get attuned to the land, sea and sky, what marvellous new dimensions are revealed.
As I met the groups on boreens, piers and headlands, I came on a team that had seen a sparrowhawk take a bird in flight, had seen a buzzard, a peregrine and a kestrel —and in Pat’s group, a man, totally blind in one eye and half blind in the other had, to the delight of his companions, spotted a small hawk, a merlin, hardly bigger than a blackbird, rarely seen. He was dubbed Eagle Eye for the day.
The teams knew where to go: the ‘race card’, with its list of species and boxes to tick, included a summary of local habitats: Galley Head — Cliff, seawatch; Rosscarbery — Lagoon, woods, dunes; Ownahincha — Beach, river; O’Donovan’s Hotel, Clonakilty — Cuppa tea, pint of stout, blazing fire.
Woods were ransacked, lakes and seascapes scanned, rarities discovered —Icelandic, American Ring-billed and Greenland glaucous gulls; a blackthroated diver, blackneck grebe, and cattle egret. The winning team spotted 99 species; 106 species were seen in all.
“Good old-school fun!” was how a pal described, and it was that!
To my readers, I’d say join BirdWatch West Cork (or anywhere) for a bit of a lark, and life-enhancing expeditions of discovery. Type in www.birdwatchirelandwestcork.ie/ and you’re there.