Bittern Again And Bunting-Hunting


Mention of the bittern here brought a card from Davey Hammond of Belfast. Where else? "No, I have never heard nor even seen a bittern. But Seamus H. has one in a glass case in his house, stuffed but still very handsome. And John Behan's sculpture still stands on the loughshore on Mac Giolla Chunna's home ground. Also Tommy Gunn (a provocative name if you were stopped by the UDR during the troubles, only equalled, I think, by Mickey Taigue), the fiddler, from Derrylin is a descendant. PS: The bittern is said to `boom' as in `Boom Boom'." Well, for most people the bittern lives on in Ledwidge's poem Lament for Thomas Mac Donagh: He shall not hear the bittern cry/In the wild sky, where he is lain... So the bittern may have been not unknown in Ledwidge's own countryside. Mind you, in the Complete Guide To Ireland's Birds, by Eric Dempsey and Michael O'Clery, the bittern (Botaurus stellaris) is described as rare, then they tell us that these birds bred in Munster, Connacht and Ulster until the middle of last century and that "during the last decade, several birds have been herd booming in suitable habitat in late spring and early summer. Found in areas of extensive reed-bed ..." Book published in 1993.

An exhaustive volume published in 1902 by the Belfast Naturalists' Field Club (general editor the eminent F. J. Bigger), tells us that the Common Bittern "once breeding with us can now (1902) only be regarded as a very irregular winter visitor; but Walter Smyth shot one at Groomsport, Co Down, on 9th August, 1900. A Little Bittern was mentioned by Thompson as supposedly being at the Bog Meadows, Belfast, before 1830." Anyone else heard or seen one in this country?

Anyway, to quite a different bird; one that is disputed at high levels in European politics. Or was. France has been told by the European Court of Justice to stop the trade in and eating of ortolans (Emberiza hortulana) or be fined 700,000 Francs per day. That's about £73,000 sterling. Ortolan eating is not for the faint of heart, says the London Times. These tiny buntings are trapped while passing through southern France en route south. They are fattened on grain for several weeks, then their beaks are plunged into Armagnac, their gizzards removed and they are baked for seven minutes and then devoured whole, bones and all. Anyone who eats small birds may be looked at askance, but this? French hunters and gourmets are last ditchers. Wait and see. Y