A Christmas treat for birders
NATURE:Any Irish birdwatcher would be thrilled to find this spicy, vigorous guide under the tree
Birds Through Irish Eyes, By Anthony McGeehan, with Julian Wyllie, Collins Press, 336pp, €39.99
In the sudden mid-19th-century passion for natural history that Belfast shared with Victorian England, a vivid three-volume study by a gentleman zoologist, William Thompson, was the pioneering work of Irish ornithology. Vividly written, it is still often quoted today, not least for his seminal recognition that habitat and diet are the keys to what species live where – this almost 10 years ahead of Darwin on the origin of species.
In 1850 the great flocks of wigeon that carpeted the mudflats of Belfast Bay in winter were already under siege from swivel guns, but Thompson saw also that the city’s reclamation of the seabanks was robbing the ducks of their food. “The oozy, the sandy, the gravelly, the stony, the rocky beach each has its favourite species, as has every peculiar natural or artificial feature of a country, from the level of the sea to the most lofty mountain summit.”
Not since Thompson has Ulster produced a work on birds of such island-wide interest and significance as the new book from Anthony McGeehan. He credits “a collective, collaborative process” involving many diligent fellow birders, but most immediate is the freshness of his own voice: modern Belfast – direct, engaging, often passionate and acerbic. Then comes the rich observation of a lifetime affair with birds, beginning with a council-estate childhood and a desperate longing for wellies in which to go watching waders. The lifetime has shaped strong opinions – about the taming and destruction of the wild countryside, predictably, but also about new bird introductions he finds “unethical” and the motivation of some professional conservationists.
The Ulster flavour and orientation of much of the book are part of what makes it so importantly different. It draws on the writing of the region’s many naturalists – the field clubs of Belfast, after all, were the engine of much Irish natural history – and on research into habitats and species (the lovely eider sea duck, for example) of distinctively northern character. But its context is Ireland as a whole, and the two-handed weight and sumptuous photography (much of it the author’s own) make it the Christmas book that any Irish birdwatcher, of whatever grade, would be thrilled to find under the tree.
At its core are the species accounts, organised by habitat, of everything from the great, lost capercaillie of Ulster’s former woodlands to the smallest birds of countryside and garden. Computer montages sort the seasonal plumages of blackbirds and wagtails, and the confusing liveries of migrant warblers that can look so like each other. Imaginative help with identification is one of the book’s many virtues, and the section on birdsong urges the creation of mental images, the wackier the better, to fix first encounters in the mind (the wren as Pavarotti, the Morse code of the greenshank). In North America, McGeehan fixed the “plink” of the tiny Swainson’s thrush as “like a droplet plopping into a half-filled bucket”.