An ornithologist can start life almost anywhere, but it helps to have been young in a landscape full of birds.
Patrick Smiddy is lead author of The Birds of County Cork, a massively elegant new book from Cork University Press. A history of the county’s birds from the earliest times to the present, it offers accounts of a remarkable 427 species, including many first recorded for Ireland.
In rural Cork of the 1960s, at Ballymacoda, the 12-year-old Pat Smiddy’s engagement with birds was a passion all his own. He was enraptured with the swirling winter flocks of golden plover and lapwing at the estuary half a mile from his house and thrilled to discover strange spoonbills sifting through the shallows.
His father worked for a road haulier and it was the Ireland of leaving school at 14. Pat joined a local cabinet maker and saved for his first pair of binoculars. He had no idea that watching birds was an organised enthusiasm with a whole science behind it so discovering the new Irish Wildbird Conservancy (now BirdWatch Ireland) in Cork must have felt like taking to the air.
The 1970s were the decade of the IWC’s own take-off, with the Cork wader estuaries a special focus of research. Smiddy joined the first great wetland counts organised by Clive Hutchinson and applied for a ringer’s permit. His work at the mist-nets drew him closer to the science of migration. West Cork has cliff-top ring seats for grand spectacles of seabird passage and its 40 days of Atlantic gales add a seasonal flow of rare and vagrant species.
Smiddy became an expert on their identification, a skill that later brought him a decade as secretary of the Irish Rare Birds Committee. This was offered sightings of such unfamiliar blow-ins as the bobolink, veery or ovenbird.
Smiddy, an inveterate note-taker since boyhood counts of eggs in nests, produced a flow of observations and papers for science journals
In 1980, at 30, he was recruited as conservation ranger for the National Parks and Wildlife Service , a job in which he took to heart the insistence of mammalogist James Fairley. ”Unless research is published,” Fairley insisted, “it might just as well never have been undertaken”.
Smiddy, an inveterate note-taker since boyhood counts of eggs in nests, produced a flow of observations and papers for science journals, ranging ever more widely as his work engaged with new species, from birds to beached whales and turtles, or the fleas on bats.
Many of his articles are the traditional naturalist’s descriptions and records of occurrence, but more have moved into the number-crunching world of modern ecology. In 2000, he was conferred by UCC with the honorary degree of Master of Science and he is an honorary research associate of the university’s prestigious Ornithology Group.
The Birds of County Cork has a national story to tell, reflecting the unprecedented pace of avian change. Much of book’s later research fell to co-author Mark Shorten, an experienced birder and the county recorder since 1990.
Declines and losses of farmland birds such as corncrake, skylark and yellowhammer are matched in the hills by disappearance of curlew, twite and nightjar. Climate change has brought new species northwards, notably the little egret, whose colonisation of Cork’s estuaries and rivers was closely documented by Smiddy.
The accounts of 427 birds stretch from the capercaillie of ancient woodlands to today’s declining yellowhammers, common in the 1700s, and still to be seen, sometimes in flocks of more than 100, on weedy winter stubble.
Among the fortunes of familiar Irish birds are no fewer than 94 species with first records for this island —American sandpipers and warblers exhausted from autumn storms, vagrant thrushes from almost anywhere. Their first landfall is often among the shrubs of Cape Clear Island, attracting throngs of twitchers with cameras and binoculars.
The Birds of Cork is far from a field guide (its weight needs both hands), but it carries some of the fine photographs for which Richard Mills has been noted
The cliffs, however, demand telescopes, for the views of large seabirds on seasonal movement are among the finest in Europe. They brought the island its bird observatory in 1959 and the passage of 1,217 great skuas in 1984 marked “the best autumn on record.”
The Birds of Cork is far from a field guide (its weight needs both hands), but it carries some of the fine photographs for which Richard Mills has been noted in more than 50 years. The book also has charming, atmospheric illustrations of birds in their habitats by Russ Heselden, who gained his PhD from UCC.
But if you want to know what a bobolink looks like, or what makes the Baltimore oriole different, you’ll still need to reach for Google.