Watch the birdies and help the environment
We have destroyed more shorebird habitats on the east coast than we have created. But there is hope, as the Dublin Bay Birds projects’ work with oystercatchers shows
Dublin Bay Birds: the Dublin oystercatcher known as AJ, photographed in Norway. Photograph: BirdWatch Ireland
Dublin Bay Birds: oystercatchers with colour rings on their legs. Photograph: Graham Prole
Few Irish shorebirds look more dramatic than the oystercatcher. The size of a plump duck, with very smart black-and-white plumage, it flaunts a dramatically long orange-red bill, shocking pink legs, and red eye rings.
Everyone can recognise an oystercatcher quite easily, and they are not very shy of people. Indeed, like Brent geese, they are increasingly familiar in city sports fields and parks, especially in late winter. And you can hardly step on to a Dublin beach without seeing one.
Wherever you see an oystercatcher next, look closely at its legs: if you can spot green and yellow rings, this bird is part of the project. If you have a camera, zoom in on the two big letters on one of the yellow rings.
These letters identify individual birds, and each resighting builds up a clearer picture of the bird’s favourite places and behaviour. The results are already flowing in: of 118 oystercatchers ringed last February, 93 have been spotted again at least once so far, with a total of 282 resightings. Most have been in the bay area, but two were in Scotland, and one was in Norway.
The most interesting figure is that 80 per cent of these reports have come not from experts but from ordinary citizens, many of them alerted by the project’s informative blog, on dublinbaybirds.blogspot.ie.
What’s the point of it all?
The project officer for BirdWatch Ireland, Niall Tierney, says the fundamental aim of the project is to establish a baseline for bird behaviour in the bay. Where do particular species feed and forage? Where do they roost and rest? How do they respond to disturbance, by humans and other animals? Where do they go if they migrate?
Dublin Port Company, the semi-State enterprise responsible for managing the city’s maritime infrastructure, decided to help find out.
It is funding this project from the refreshing perspective that it is better to understand environmental impacts fully before embarking on new development, rather than bogging down in endless hearings with objectors during the planning process.
The chief executive, Eamon O’Reilly, says: “We are not disconnected from the environment. We love it ourselves. We expect a substantial piece of science out of this project, enabling us to make decisions that are good for us and good for the environment. My instinct is that this kind of collaboration will become a normal part of how we operate in future.”
The abundance of birdlife that can be found on the shoreline within the city limits is one of the joys of our capital city. But it’s also, evidently, a challenge to planners and conservationists alike.
It’s well known that the vast tidal flats of the bay act as a magnet in winter to thousands of migrant geese and ducks. The bay also attracts kaleidoscopic flocks of long-legged waders, from the familiar heron, curlew and oystercatcher to birds with archaic and evocative names such as redshank, godwit and sanderling.
It’s perhaps less well known that the bay in summer harbours great numbers of breeding terns. These elegant relatives of gulls were once better known as sea swallows, for their swift and graceful flight.
They nest not only on remote sites such as Rockabill and Dalkey Island but also, for decades, on two mooring platforms right inside the city’s working port.
Round about now they assemble in a single huge evening roost, if the tide is rising, on Sandymount Strand. Over the coming weeks, thousands more will join them, resting together before their mind-boggling migrations to the southern hemisphere.
You might think of it as a kind of tern Gathering. Keen birders can have fun distinguishing species, including the rare black tern. But you don’t need to be a birder to enjoy one of the city’s most spectacular annual natural displays. BirdWatch Ireland’s extensive volunteer network has been monitoring Dublin’s shorebirds for decades, but much remains unknown about their behaviour.
Tierney points out that volunteer bird counts tell us only about species’ presence and abundance, and in very broad strokes.
The Dublin Bay Birds project involves much more detailed and professional monitoring. This involves at least eight specialists recording behaviour, as well as species and abundance, at 21 sites twice monthly, under varying tidal conditions, over the next three years, all funded by Dublin Port.
At least two more species, bar-tailed godwits and redshank, will be ringed this winter, to extend the scope of the survey.
“The public can make a huge contribution by reporting sightings to us,” says Tierney. “Any day, someone may be able to fill in the missing link in a really exciting story. The Dublin oystercatcher seen in Norway is called AJ. If somebody spots him again here, that will tell us a lot.”
Meanwhile, Dublin Port has begun another project, experimenting with nesting platforms for terns. This is based on work done by the late Oscar Merne, the sorely missed National Parks and Wildlife Service bird specialist, on one of the port’s mooring platforms.
In the 1990s Merne and his colleagues refurbished the platform, providing protective rails and covering to prevent chicks falling prematurely into the sea, and gravel beds to mimic beach nest sites. Breeding productivity soared.
Now the company has done a similar job on a pontoon used for the Tall Ships visit, and docked it in the Tolka estuary with help from Clontarf Yacht & Boat Club. One pair bred there this year, and more should follow.
This kind of positive interaction between built infrastructure and wildlife has a long history in the bay. The extraordinarily biodiverse North Bull Island is itself “artificial”, created by the changing tidal dynamics caused by centuries of port construction.
This doesn’t soften the hard fact that we have destroyed many more shorebird habitats on the east coast than we have created, but it does put it in a more complex, and slightly more hopeful, perspective.