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

Sat, Dec 14, 2013, 01:00

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.

The buzzard (similar to a small eagle) has moved in the opposite direction. It has recolonised Ireland from north to south in an expansion that the atlas registers as almost 2,000 per cent over 40 years. Here the cause is thought to be a big drop in poison use and active persecution.

There have been other surprises, such as the sudden establishment of the great spotted woodpecker as a breeding species in Cos Down and Wicklow, and beyond. Its noisy presence in springtime filled a baffling gap in our woodland bird life during the very years the atlas was being compiled.

There are also, of course, big losses to record, especially among farmland birds and among familiar waders such as the curlew.

This atlas confirms the extinction in Ireland of the corn bunting, important as an indicator of vanishing traditional farm habitats. The much more colourful yellowhammer seems to be in a similar decline, with a loss of 60 per cent of its breeding distribution range in Ireland over 40 years.

With these maps, however, the atlas is only confirming, albeit in great detail, stories that were already well known, at least in birding and conservation circles. Brian Caffrey, the organiser of the project for BirdWatch Ireland, stresses that the greatest value of the atlas lies in its future use.

“It provides a huge bank of data that can now be mined into by universities, and by conservation agencies like the National Parks and Wildlife Service and BirdWatch Ireland,” he says.

In this sense the atlas is not an end point but a beginning. “The figures behind the atlas, some of which will be published later online, will inform analysis and guide conservation policy for many years to come.”

The raw statistics behind the endeavour are certainly jaw-dropping. For starters the atlas combines winter and breeding birds. These categories were treated separately in the three previous atlases covering Britain and Ireland, one for the winter species (1981-4) and two for breeders (1968-72 and 1988-91). So information formerly presented separately can now be shown on maps side by side, reflecting a staggering 19 million records made by 20,000 observers, mostly volunteers, over four years. Two million records were submitted on the island of Ireland, by 1,179 observers in the Republic and by 409 in Northern Ireland.

This required the effective exploitation, training and checking of the field-recognition skills of thousands of amateur birdwatchers. “The second big story of the atlas is the deployment of citizen scientists on this scale,” says Caffrey. “I can’t think of any other instance here where volunteers have collected so much information.”

The great outdoors is not a closed laboratory, of course, and the high mobility of all birds, and secretive behaviour of many, means a census on this scale cannot be absolutely precise. Nor does the atlas claim to establish population figures for each species – though its data will contribute to that exercise in many cases. Rather, it attempts to show the current distribution of each species and its relative abundance across that range.

Although all this work required a serious, scientific approach, many volunteers also found it most enjoyable. “The atlas period introduced added excitement and purpose to any birdwatching trip or even a stroll down a country lane,” says Tony Nagle, a Cork volunteer.

Caffrey stresses that the most important quality in the work overall has been its consistency. The methodology, and the territory covered, mirror those of the earlier atlases, and comparisons so provide a good indicator of significant trends.

Puzzle to solve
One new pattern this atlas has revealed has attracted great attention – and leaves the experts with a major puzzle to solve.

There has been, the maps show us, a previously unnoticed shift in the relative abundance of some familiar but very different summer visitors, such as the cuckoo, the house martin and the willow warbler. They have become scarcer in southeast Britain and more abundant in northwest Ireland.

What do they have in common? They are all migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. So could this shift be due to climate change?

Possibly, says Caffrey, but he points out that summer visitors from the Mediterranean are not registering this shift at all.

The cause may lie in something that is changing in sub-Saharan African winter quarters, but why that should make these birds shift their breeding territories here remains a mystery. It is likely to be just one of many questions, out of the hoard of information this atlas project has unearthed, that will exercise the minds of conservationists in the months and years to come.

Additional data will be available by
email (
from January. You can buy the book
(€94) at

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