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”.

His sharp imagery enlivens so many of the species accounts, informed by a lifetime in the field. Some young barnacle geese “betray their age by the presence of random white snags among black neck plumage, as though a kitten had pulled stuffing out of a cuddly toy”. When shearwaters are banking low over the waves, “silver wing linings glint like chalk on a blackboard”. The call of a storm petrel hidden in a burrow is, gloriously, “like a fairy being sick”, and while this simile is not, he admits, his own, his voluble blackbirds are memorable: “Even in lashing rain, megaphone broadsides are launched in darkness, as though combatants are singing from their beds.”

His own broadsides try to keep their cool, even when 80 per cent of Britons, polled in 2010, thought biodiversity was a washing powder. Since many on both islands, he writes, have made their gardens the “in” place for recreational birdwatching, “conscience money flows to conservation organisations”.

Many of McGeehan’s concerns were addressed earlier this year in Bird Habitats in Ireland (Collins Press), edited by the ecologist Richard Nairn and the UCC ornithologist John O’Halloran. But Ulster presents some extreme results of intensive farming, and when McGeehan writes that “assailed on all sides, the land is groaning”, it is the tightly barbered landscape of the North he has first in mind. His vision of loss, however, is island-wide. Kestrels “seem to be quietly disappearing across Ireland”, barn owls succumb, at one remove, to “chuck-and-forget sachets of rodent poison”, baby lapwing are devastated by foxes and predatory crows, and the last island corncrakes on Tory and Inishbofin are lost to killer cats. His proposals for repair of the countryside, such as can be managed, are positive and often detailed.

McGeehan saves some of his sharpest words for new directions in the birding world, notably recent releases in Co Down of the red kite – a bird he clearly suspects “was never here”. “Since 2008,” as he sees it, “the provenance of any red kite in Irish skies is forever tainted.” In the natural way of things, he argues, wandering juveniles can increase the range of their species “under their own steam, rather than being repatriated by PR zealots”. He is sceptical, too, of the conservation obsession with the hen harrier. This bird, he suggests, “has become a golden goose for bird surveyors dragooned into the field by wind farm companies, the RSPB, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency and a gaggle of environmental consultancy firms”, and their recommendations “masquerade as holy writ when dubious conclusions suit commissioning paymasters”.

Such distinctive vigour is new to Irish ornithology and spices the book’s great value to the lovers of birds, whether at the kitchen window or through the expert’s telescope, and in any avian habitat, north or south.

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