Cape Clear choughed to bits with 50 years of birding

Cape Clear Observatory is today celebrating 50 years of studying the rare bird species that find themselves blown on to the island…

Cape Clear Observatory is today celebrating 50 years of studying the rare bird species that find themselves blown on to the island, writes LOUISE ROSEINGRAVE

IT’S ALL eyes on the Bird Observatory on Cape Clear Island today as birdwatchers celebrate 50 years on the tiny island.

The celebrations, which include a barbecue and live music at the observatory this evening with an open invitation extended to everyone on the island, form part of a two-week Birding Festival, which runs until August 27th. Highlights include talks, guided walks, sea-bird watching and events for junior birdwatchers.

Over the coming days, Conor Kelleher, from the Irish Bat Conservation Group, will discuss the myths and mysteries surrounding these creatures of the night and former bird warden Tom Green will reflect on his experiences of bird life on the island between 1960 and 1970. Dick Coombes of Birdwatch Ireland will poke fun at the birdwathchers for the closing event on August 27th.

Today’s event, according to the island’s aptly named bird warden, Steve Wing, is about giving something back to the islanders, just as much as it is about celebrating the observatory’s half-century lifetime.

“Really this is aimed at the islanders, just as a thank you to them. They put up with us walking through their fields, through potato patches and sometimes into their back gardens at 6am in the morning. And they wave at us. It’s a great little community here, a great atmosphere,” he says.

Established in 1959, the main aim of the Bird Observatory is to maintain a daily log, which involves Steve Wing taking note of every bird he sees and recording his findings, to add to an extensive collection that dates back 50 years.

The observatory attracts up to 400 people every year, with numbers swelling in September and October for the peak of the migration season. If a rare species of bird is spotted, that number could rapidly expand, as it did in 2005 when a blue-winged warbler, native to north America, drew record crowds of up to 800 from all over Europe.

The tiny bird was migrating from north America to Mexico when it was blown thousands of miles off course by Hurricane Isaac, to land on tiny Cape Clear, which measures 4.8km by 1.6km.

“That was the first blue-winged warbler ever recorded on Cape Clear. It was lunacy here [with] 800 people hoping to catch a glimpse of the bird,” says Wing.

The observatory plays an important role in island life and it serves to stretch the tourist season, which ends in late August elsewhere. Here, though, the months of September and October offer prime viewing, the best of the annual calendar.

“I’d like to think it creates a little extra business for the islanders. And they like the amusement. They like to see us wandering around in all sorts of foul weather and they will always ask if we’ve spotted anything unusual,” Wing adds.

Wing once counted 32,000 birds passing overhead in one hour. “They were a species called Manx Shearwaters. I counted them for three periods of five minutes in one hour to get an average and then multiplied to get the total. It was certainly an exceptional movement.”

Typically, Cape Clear is home to the same bird species found across the southwest coast of Ireland. In sea watching, or in migration season, the more magical sightings take place.

“Birders” are birdwatchers who come regularly to the same area. These differ from “twitchers”, who tend to arrive wherever something extraordinary has been spotted to tick it off their list.

Birders on Cape Clear would regularly spot gannets and puffins out to sea, while a twitcher might be drawn by a sighting of a Great Shearwater, which breeds on the southern tip of South America, before circumnavigating the Atlantic and migrating to the northern hemisphere; it is one of just a few species to migrate south to north.