‘My mission is to record all of the bird species in Ireland’

Seán Ronayne, ornithologist and creator of Irish Wildlife Sounds

I’ve had an interest in birds for as long as I can remember. Both my father and grandfather had an interest too and from a very young age my father would bring me into the countryside and show me the different birds and teach me the sounds.

There was a period where I tried to pretend I wasn’t interested because it wasn’t a cool thing, but that only lasted for a year. From the age of 16, I realised there were people who would travel around the country and seek out rare migrant or vagrant birds blown off course, and share the news about them. That allowed me to meet other people like me.

I am more of a solo birder now, because I like the solace. I like the peace, to be in my own thoughts. For me, it’s a release. If I’ve had a stressful week with work, I can just step out and get away from the city.

I am always listening when I’m outside. This gets me into quite a bit of trouble with my partner. I can’t turn it off. If I’m speaking to somebody and I hear a bird in the background, I will switch to it. Anything the person is saying to me, I won’t hear.


When I’m recording, escaping anthropogenic noise is a must. I’m looking for a pure sound, to isolate that sound from the unwanted noise of modern life. When everything falls into place and there is a beautiful sound recording and the sound is pin sharp, that for me is just brilliant.

A wren singing in my back garden in Cork will sound different to wrens singing in Dublin. So to have Irish recordings of these species is important, because there are dialects and there are variations

My mission is to record all of the regularly occurring species in Ireland. This takes me to wild spaces – mostly bog, or native woodland – which have a broad range of native species and more avian diversity. I go to estuaries, I go to beaches, I visit coastal lagoons, mountain tops and native grassland, of which there is very little.

I want to record all of the species you are likely to hear on a given day. This has jumped to 166 species so far. I’d like to get to 210; the hope is to make an interactive audio guide that people can use.

A wren is very prone to dialects, it's almost like an accent. So a wren singing in southern England will sound completely different to a wren singing here in Ireland. A wren singing in my back garden in Cork will sound different to wrens singing in Dublin. So to have Irish recordings of these species is important, because there are dialects and there are variations.

Another aspect I’m really engrossed in is vocal mimicry. Ireland’s best mimic is a bird called the Common Whitethroat. You can use software to pick out the species that it mimics; some it would have heard in the wintering grounds south of the Sahara, others in Iberia as it migrated north.

Nature is everything. It’s more important than anything, especially birds and bird sound. Can you imagine stepping outside and not hearing birds singing? Doing something as simple as not cutting your lawn, or leaving a margin so that some wild flowers remain, will give insects and birds a chance.

The best time to hear bird song is first thing in the morning, as early as you can. If you can get to a little patch of woodland, a wetland, a bog, you will hear a really nice dawn chorus. A lot of species have just arrived back from wintering grounds in Africa, and they will be setting up territories and singing, proclaiming their spots and defending. Resident species are doing the same. Cuckoos are back now, and Whitethroats, Willow Warblers and Chaffs. It's a brilliant time of year.

– In conversation with Joanne Hunt

This article was amended on May 28th

Kathleen Harris

Kathleen Harris

Kathleen Harris is a video journalist at The Irish Times