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Sean Ronayne in Birdsong
Irish Birds

'The sound of extinction': One man's mission to record Ireland's precious birdsongs

Birdsong, a documentary film, airs on RTÉ One this evening.

SEÁN RONAYNE IS on a mission. He wants to record the call of every bird species across Ireland.

Each call is like a fingerprint, Seán says – unique. In a documentary film airing on RTÉ One this evening, we get to follow Seán across Ireland as he captures the sound birdsong — some of them highly elusive — and learn about his personal journey with ornithology.

We start on Tory Island in Co Donegal with the corn crake, a secretive bird with a distinctive call that builds its nests on the ground. They used to breed in Ireland in meadows with a rich diversity of plants but intensified and mechanised agricultural practices have driven them out, we learn. Nests have been destroyed and chicks have been killed by human interference.

The corn crake is not alone in its vulnerable position. 63% of birds in Ireland are at risk of extinction (either red or amber listed). 

In an interview with The Journal, Seán said that as he dived deeper into his task, which started as a personal project, he realised more and more the importance of what he was working on.

“When I got to the more difficult species, I realised why they were difficult – because they’re rare. They’re rare because of the fact that a lot of their habitats are wiped out or are down to a minimum here,” Seán said.

“For example, we have the lowest cover of native woodland in all of Europe,” he said, adding that “Ireland has lost 90% of all its wetlands in the last 300 years, which is the worst in any country in the world”.

People think that extinction is this far-flung concept, something that only happens in the Amazon Rainforest, when in actual fact it’s happening right here and right now. And it will accelerate and get worse if we don’t all band together to step up and take action.

Next generation

At one point in the film, Seán visits a classroom of primary school students, who listen raptly to a recording of birdsong to see can they guess the bird it came from. “A cuckoo!” one of them calls out. One child asks how many species of birds there are in Ireland. It’s a heartwarming scene and perhaps something of a contrast to Seán’s recollection of his own school days when he was branded “nature boy” – a term he’s now reclaiming to use as the title of his forthcoming book. 

These days, Seán is in high demand for talks at schools, community halls, festivals and other events. The reaction from young schoolkids, he says, can sometimes be hard to gauge, as some children can be quieter and might not want to admit that they’re interested in birds in front of peers.

“Sometimes I’ve had classes where I give a talk and there are no questions at the end. But then there are classes where I give a talk and I could be inundated with questions. I gave a talk two days ago and that was the case and it was just brilliant. It’s really rewarding to see that kind of reaction from the kids because they’re the future and we need them to carry the torch, so to speak.” 

Personal story

“Birds and nature in general have always been interesting to me, from the very beginning. My parents figured that out because I was restless as a kid but they knew that when they brought me out into nature that I was just a different person, totally calm. I was enthralled,” Seán recalled.

“I never had an interest in any sport. I probably tried every sport under the sun, but it just wasn’t me.

“I’m still restless and I need a project that challenges me. I need something to look forward to and to keep me driven. This is something that ticked all those boxes.” 


Interspersed throughout the documentary are some moments of Seán’s parents and partner sharing personal stories, including when his partner, Alba Novell Capdevila, set him on a journey of learning that he has autism. Alba had noticed that some of Seán’s behaviours lined up with the criteria, she explains in the documentary, and he subsequently received a formal diagnosis.

When he received the diagnosis, it helped him to understand himself better.

“Everybody’s affected differently. For me, I found socialisation really difficult. I didn’t want it to be difficult. I wanted to be friends with people and I wanted to have smooth conversations but it just I couldn’t do that,” Seán explained in our interview.

“The other thing that like that affects me a lot is its sensitivity to sound. That has positives and negatives. Because I am so sensitive to sound, I can really use that to my advantage when it comes to listening intricately to bird sound and sounds of nature,” he said.

“But that also means that I get really irritated with sounds that most people wouldn’t really even pick up, especially low bass sounds. I get really anxious and it builds and it builds and it builds and I end up in a fight or flight reaction and sometimes I can actually blackout. Before, I used to think, why do I get so angry over something so little? Now I understand why. That for me is a relief, because now I can accept it and understand the mechanisms behind it.”

Skellig Islands

We meet many birds and see and hear striking sounds and visuals as the documentary brings us the length and breadth of Ireland – Tory Island, Killarney, the Dublin/Wicklow mountains, Glenveagh, Lough Ennell, and the Skellig Islands.

It’s on the Skellig Islands that the viewer is treated to some brilliant shots of soaring birds as Seán seeks out sounds that can’t be found on the mainland.

“Skelligs was a dream come true for me,” Seán said, explaining that there was a lengthy process required to obtain the necessary licences to visit and film overnight.

“Finally, we got the licenses to go out there, and it was amazing. After 3pm, there were no tourists, so it was just us on the island with a few of the guides that were there for the weekend.

“Kathleen Harris, the director, she’s from Texas, and they have significant wild spaces over there, so she’s really been in some proper world national parks, but she said that she has never seen such a place that’s totally just for the birds. It’s another world.”  

Vast knowledge

Seán has thousands of audio recordings. Birds, naturally, are the primary characters, but he’s also captured sounds from the environment like flowing rivers or stormy weather. Other wildlife feature too, like bats, flies, and even an otter, whose playful chatter feels halfway between a toddler’s babble and a high-pitched cat’s meow.

Seán’s vast knowledge shines in a particular scene of the documentary film when he’s in a forest, surrounded by an orchestra of sound, and is able to pick out each individual instrument – meadow pipit, song thrush, mistle thrush, chiffchaff, kestrel, swallow, redpoll, house sparrow – without breaking a sweat.

When he shows us the process of using sound wave charts to pick out specific bird calls and then listen back to them in a recording – as well as identifying other noises, like an airplane passing overhead, simply by the visual pattern on the chart – you get a sense of the science behind the scenes.

Seán emphasised that his sensitivity to sound and his hyperfocus didn’t mean that all of this simply fell into place – “there’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears behind it”.

“When I was in the depths of this project, I was out all day doing bird surveys. I had microphones all over. I had two permanent microphones that were running for three years. Every six weeks, I was collecting memory cards on them and changing the batteries. To keep on top of that and analyse all that, after work I was doing sound analysis until one or two every morning. The live interpretation is the result of constantly listening and analysing.”


The future

There are plenty of triumphant moments of discovery in this documentary, like when Seán captures the sound of a great spotted woodpecker drumming on a tree with its beak – it’s only the second time he’s heard one in Ireland and the first time he’s caught it on tape.

Some of them are underscored with a note of sadness as we are reminded of the vulnerable and uncertain future many of these birds face, like when Seán records a ring ouzel. “To see and sound record a ring ouzel, looking and listening to the last pair of the species in Ireland – listening to this haunting song of melancholy of the uplands, it was the sound of extinction,” he reflects in the film.

For Seán, there are three bird species left for him to find, each of which poses its own challenges.

In the nearer future, he has an album of Irish soundscape tracks called Wild Science coming out soon, as well as a book called Nature Boy set to be released on 10 October – and happily, he and Alba are expecting a baby, also due in October. 

Birdsong will air on RTÉ One tonight at 6.30pm.

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