Cuskinny’s wildlife in the frame

A CYNIC might suspect that birder and photographer Ronan McLaughlin this month choked Cuskinny Marsh of its oxygen — and consequently its marine life — as a stunt for the upcoming launch of his calendar collection of exquisite wildlife photography, and to make his images all the rarer, as he has tracked the months and the seasons on this widely-sung and justly-appreciated marsh beauty spot.

Widely-sung? It is if you listen to Derek Mooney’s annual National Bird Dawn Chorus Day, as Cuskinny in Cork harbour’s eastern reaches has been the location no less than seven times for the broadcast — its birds are veritable divas. They are such divas that nature gave them an unexpected milk bath after late September’s unseasonally warm weather turned the marsh’s shallow, salt waters a brackish, milky white. The phenomenon hadn’t been noted in living memory at Cuskinny and is now under examination by relevant bodies and individuals from Cork County Council, marine/fisheries investigators, as well as by University College Cork and Cork Institute of Technology scientists.

It is likely to be a coincidence of natural phenomena, rather than human interference. A cause could be high levels of weed built up, such as sea lettuce, rotting in tepid autumnal waters causing sudden eutrophication and consequent oxygen depletion. All fish life died rapidly and quick-witted birds, like terns and egrets, came to feed off the dead and the dying, with bellied-up shrimps as an added delicacy in their cocktail, to a background air and stench of hydrogen sulphide.

Jim Wilson, of BirdWatch Ireland, has been a Cuskinny habitué for 20 years, and has been instrumental in setting up and improving the wildlife habitat here since 1990. Wilson is fascinated by the swift change from healthy marsh to opaque chowder, but says that because it is tidal it will recover most of its species. The attributes that laid it open to such a sudden devastation will allow it replenish again.

But it’s certainly an indicator of climate change, he says. On the good news front, last week’s heavy rains helped flush the place out, and waters are clear again.

Cuskinny Marsh has also been hugely studied by a mix of young school children, keen amateurs, twitchers and others, including academics.

If anything moves in the marsh, there’s someone to spot it, log it, identify it, and debate it on the appropriately-named Twitter. Re-enter, then, Ronan McLaughlin, who is an Irish Navy lieutenant from Derry who had his first Irish rare bird sighting (of yellow-and-black shore larks in Donegal) aged 14.

McLaughlin combined his consuming interest in bird-watching with photography, and has photographed birds in far-flung and remote locations, including a Great Shearwater miles off the Blasket Islands — courtesy of his ‘hide’ on the bridge of a navy vessel.

McLaughlin’s birdwatching haven is Malin “where you could go forever without seeing another birder, whereas in Cork you’ll always meet someone else.”

May is his favourite month, and that’s also island time, with chances to hit the Saltees, puffin-watch on the Skelligs and Tory Island up north, when he’s particularly homesick.

Day to day, though, it’s the wonders of the 12-hectare Cuskinny Marsh on Cork’s Great Island, a place where familiarity breeds content.

Here, he’s amassed and documented thousands of images, and hundreds of species of avian life, fauna and flora. His calendar-year photo study saw him add one new plant, and two more bird species, to its admittedly long list of residents.

Making a determined bound from the silken cyberweb pages of the online photo management site, flickr, McLaughlin has produced the A Year in Cuskinnny Marsh 2012 calendar, having whittled down his images to 26 representative samples, mixing landscape, birds, butterflies bugs and flora.

He’s using it as a fundraiser for the eye-catching Sirius Arts Centre, in the old/original RCYC yacht clubhouse in Cobh town, and the calendar sells for €10, and €2 from each sale at the Sirius or via its website (see panel) going back to the Cuskinny Marsh Reserve management committee.

The 26 photographs are a glimpse of his trove of superior images, and more can be seen on his blog (see weblinks panel), or when his exhibition opens at the Sirius Arts Centre on November 24, running until January 29.

It’s the next best thing to getting your waders or wellies wet.

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