My zoo in the air
The kind of passion that drove a childhood birdwatcher also lies behind an enormous atlas of birds in Ireland and Britain, based on 19 million records, that will guide conservation policy for years to come
Eye spy: long-eared owl chicks, whose distinctive calls, demanding food from their parents in late summer, helped recorders find and count them. Photograph: Chris Bale
Sitting tight: a breeding golden plover. Photograph: Mick Durham
Branching out: yellowhammer, a farmland species. Illustration: David Daly
Bird life: recording a juvenile hobby. Photograph: Dawn Balmer
One of my earliest memories is of building a zoo. My father and brother were building a bedroom for my sister. I could barely walk, but I filched discarded bits of wood and corrugated asbestos (strange but true) and made little cages.
Every day I confidently asked the postman, a most obliging individual, to bring me a different animal to put in the cages: a rhino, an orangutan, a cheetah.
The postman never brought more than his friendly smile. I filled my cages with imaginary animals regardless. But at some point I must have realised that, if I wanted to see wildlife, I would have to go out into the wild myself.
And so I spent long and happy days wandering the Sugarloaf mountain in Co Wicklow. It wasn’t very promising habitat for rhinos or cheetahs, but birds were everywhere. Ravens flew spookily close, inspecting me while I lay in the heather. I found a place from which I could always see five kestrels hovering over the hillside at one time.
I can’t explain the power of these encounters, except that birds, with their infinite variety of plumage, form, flight and behaviour, magically rekindled the passionate excitement that exotic zoo animals had first awoken in me.
I was never especially bothered about finding rarities, but I did dream of seeing a larger falcon than the kestrel, the then almost mythical peregrine. It had been quite common in Ireland earlier in the last century, but it was almost extinct by the 1950s.
Forty years later I sometimes see a peregrine from my bathroom window in central Dublin, and I can usually find one without much difficulty on any trip into the Wicklow Mountains. This bird’s comeback, following the banning of the pesticide DDT in 1985, is one of our most dramatic conservation successes.
Its vastly expanded breeding range is recorded by clusters of tiny, upward-pointing red triangles on most of our mountains and sea cliffs in the Bird Atlas 2007-11.
This 700-page volume is a joint enterprise by the British Trust for Ornithology, BirdWatch Ireland and the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club. It contains numerous other maps that give us clear-cut narratives, some gratifying and some grim. It is also sumptuously illustrated, not only with great photographs but also with seven luminous watercolours by the Irish artist David Daly.
Making a comeback
The little egret, an elegant heron of pristine whiteness, barely figured as an extreme rarity in earlier atlases. Now it graces most of the estuaries and wetlands of these islands. Its rapid expansion from southern Europe is often cited as a response to climate change, but this remains to be established.