Watching for flights of fancy

As summer approaches, it’s a good time to take up a new outdoor hobby and few are as rewarding as birdwatching, says wildlife expert Jim Wilson

AS a birdwatcher living in Ireland, many of the birds I encounter live on or near freshwater. Though we share this emerald isle with so many birds, most of us are unaware of the amazing ways they have evolved to take advantage of these wet places.

One of my earliest memories of birds was being brought to The Lough in Cork city and seeing swans and other freshwater birds up close for the first time. I remember seeing coots fighting, threatening any other coot that crossed the invisible boundaries of their territory.

That day also there were brightly coloured ducks, such as the mallard with its iridescent head, and the aptly named shoveler with its broad, flat beak which it uses just like a humpback whale to filter food from mouthfuls of water. I found out later that shovelers come to Ireland every winter from breeding grounds as far away as Iceland, Scandinavia and Russia.

The Lough was the bath and washroom for the huge flocks of gulls returning from the now-closed landfill site nearby where they had fed on dumped food. Among them was the black-headed gull, a bird that often challenges the novice birdwatcher, because not only is its head not black (it is chocolate brown) but in winter it does not have a ‘black’ head at all.

At The Lough, using my telescope, I was able to read the information on tiny metal rings that scientists had put on the birds’ legs to study their movements. From this information, I discovered that in winter we had black-headed gulls coming here from as far away as Germany, Estonia and Finland.

Ireland is a mecca for freshwater birds that breed in arctic regions. They come here to escape the harsh winter conditions. For example, half a million snipe from Iceland spend the winter here. Just last week, I was lucky enough to come across a ‘herd’ of whooper swans on flooded fields along the banks of the river Blackwater near Lismore, County Waterford. The whooper swan breeds in Iceland and spends the winter in Ireland on lakes and flood plains. This is the swan that inspired the ancient myth of the Children of Lir. The noted ability of the Children of Lir to sing may be because, unlike the mute swan, the whooper swan is vocal, its whooping calls giving it its name.

Also, the children’s banishment may be tied in with the whooper swan’s disappearance from Ireland during the summer months. Hearing them call is a memorable experience.

As someone who lives by the sea, one thing I do every year is stroll along one of our many fast-flowing streams or rivers in search of one of our most remarkable freshwater birds, the dipper. I was lucky enough to catch up with one on the river Flesk in Kerry last summer. What is so remarkable about this starling-sized bird, which is all dark with a pure white bib, is its unique way of hunting. It walks underwater along the riverbed, searching for insect larvae on and under rocks. It has developed very strong feet and its body shape, along with the use of its wings, keeps it from being washed away in even the strongest of currents. Not a bad feat for a bird that only weighs 64 grams.

In my experience, the bird that most people who spend time on or near the water want to see is the kingfisher. Unlike the dipper, the kingfisher prefers slow-moving rivers, ponds and lakes. While technically a land bird, it gets its food from water. With plumage more typical of a bird of a tropical rain forest, it is amazing how few people have seen one. Knowing what to look out for will increase your chance of spotting one on your travels. Most pictures of a kingfisher show it larger than life, but it is not much bigger than a robin. Despite its gaudy blue-and-orange plumage, it can easily go unnoticed sitting on a perch over water, waiting to dive on an unsuspecting fish near the surface. Keep an eye out for what looks like a lone, upright leaf on a bare branch overhanging water — it just could be a kingfisher.

Once you find your first kingfisher, you will start noticing them more, because you will know what to look for. I come across them regularly, most recently at Cuskinny Marsh nature reserve, near Cobh, where I live. They are shy birds and easily disturbed, so be as quiet as you can when searching for one.

Monitoring the fortunes of our freshwater birds is important if we are to ensure their survival in the future. As part of my contribution to this effort, I was out doing an Irish Wetlands Bird Survey (IWeBS) last November in Cork Harbour and came across a large flock of little grebes in the estuary near Fota Wildlife Park. They were busily diving underwater to hunt for small fish and shrimps. Most people I speak to have never heard of a little grebe. It is a common Irish freshwater bird that sometimes moves to estuaries for the winter. Also known as a dabchick, it usually nests on ponds and lakes, where it builds a floating nest of vegetation, which it attaches to a branch or waterside vegetation. Unfortunately, an unexpected, sharp rise in water level, such as unusually heavy rainfall or the wake from a passing boat, will swamp the nest and destroy the eggs. Because the young are unable to keep themselves warm for the first few days after hatching, the adults use the feathers of their back and wings to cover them up and keep them warm. So don’t be surprised if you see a small head peeping out from the back of a little grebe during the summer. The young will continue to try and hitch a ride from the parent even when they are big enough to keep themselves warm.

One of the most amazing bird spectacles in Ireland involves not a freshwater bird but a land bird, the starling, which will often seek shelter at night in reed beds at the edges of our lakes and bogs. Starlings, which will sometimes nest in the roof of a house, gather in huge numbers (a murmuration of starlings) in late autumn and winter to roost for the night. They do this for safety but also to communicate, because individual starlings look at the condition of their neighbours in the roosting flock in the evening, and in the morning will follow those that look well-fed, assuming they know where there is a good food supply. We have a very small roost here in the centre of Cobh, where I live, but much bigger roosts are found at traditional roosting sites around the country.

Roosts at The Lough, in Cork City, and near Scarriff, in County Clare on the shores of Lough Derg, come to mind. They occasionally gather in flocks of 200,000 or more birds and the aerial show they put on, before falling as one into the reeds, is one of the most amazing spectacles of the natural world.

* Freshwater Birds of Ireland is published by The Collins Press, €19.99.

Five top tips to get you started

1. Join BirdWatch Ireland

BirdWatch Ireland is the largest nature conservation organisation in the country. Its quarterly magazine is packed with news and information on birds and bird watching in Ireland. It has over 20 branches nationwide and organises regular outings and indoor meetings. Non-members are always welcome.

2. Get a good pair of binoculars

The quality of binoculars has improved dramatically in recent years and you can get a good pair for under €150 that can last you a lifetime.

3. Get a couple of books on Irish birds

There has been a proliferation of books on Irish birds in recent years

4. Get a good quality telescope and tripod

A good telescope can be bought for about €200 and will add greatly to your bird watching experience.

5. Take your time

The more you look the more you see: this is something you can do all your life no matter where you are, as long as you have one good eye, or one good ear.

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