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Dublin: 5 °C Thursday 14 November, 2019
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Extract: 'Birds are vessels for a lasting happiness that can be hard to find in other avenues of life'

I’ve seen species from my bedroom window that I haven’t seen anywhere else, writes Conor W. O’Brien in an extract from his book.

Conor W. O'Brien Author of Ireland Through Birds

IF YOU’RE LOOKING to become more attuned with nature, one of the very best ways to do this is to look for birds.

Birds are everywhere in Ireland. For every species of mammal we have (on both land and sea) at least five species of bird have been recorded here. The contrast is even starker when you compare our birdlife with our reptiles (one species) and amphibians (three species).

Fish are fascinating, but hardly lend themselves to easy observation. Neither do insects, at least during the colder months.

Birds, on the other hand, can be enjoyed right throughout the year. Our avifauna changes with the seasons, from the vast hosts of ducks and waders we welcome each winter to the magnificent seabird colonies that fill our cliffs in summer.

This diversity is what guarantees a unique experience almost every time you look for birds. And a journey in search of birds lets you relish Ireland at all times of year.

Even at my most well-explored spots I still encounter rarities; birds blown off course, or perhaps stopping over on a deliberate detour, stocking up on food before resuming a long migration north or south.

Ireland is beautifully positioned in this regard. We’re perfectly situated for a host of seasonal birds on their biannual journeys from Eurasia to Africa.

Lying on the western periphery of Europe, we’re often the first stop-off for rare vagrants from as far away as North America. And in autumn, our south and west coasts play host to some of the best sea-watching in the whole of Europe, as vast numbers of seabirds – including rare vagrants – pass within sight of our shores.

Spotting birds

Spotting birds is easy. With a little food in your garden you can do it from the comfort of your home.

This is particularly true now in winter, when wild food sources become depleted and birds must make the most of every resource available to them.

Of course, cultivating native plant species in your garden is a boon for wildlife, and will do much to endear it to your local birds. If you happen to have berry-bearing bushes, watch as they become prime real estate, guarded zealously by thrushes.

You can be surprised at what might turn up in your garden at this time of year; I’ve seen species from my bedroom window that I’ve never come across anywhere else.

If you want to further immerse yourself in the wild this winter, pay a visit to your local wetland some morning. Find a site that combines open water with exposed mud, and ideally some reed beds as well.

This mosaic of habitats will attract a glut of species. Shorebirds from the northern reaches of Europe make their way to our wetlands to stock up for the winter. A rising tide is the best time to watch them, as this forces them closer to the shore.

Get yourself a pair of binoculars 

Out to sea, a whole host of ducks and divers ply their trade along our coasts at this time of year. Getting a good look at them will require a pair of binoculars – or, even better, a telescope – but if you’re serious about birdwatching this is a good investment.

If you have a reed bed near you, be sure to check it out for species such as the reed bunting to the elusive water rail. If you’re lucky you might even see the ghostly form of a hen harrier, cruising low over the wetland in search of prey.

As winter gives way to spring, we enter the breeding season once again. This is when our songbirds are in full voice. A walk through your local park or deciduous woodland lets you experience the amazingly diverse array of sounds our passerines – or perching birds – can produce.

Identifying a species by its song is always a fun challenge. This can be daunting at first, but with practice you’ll become more familiar with the signature calls of each species.

For a truly spectacular bird-watching spectacle, make your way to one of our many large seabird colonies at high summer.

The cliffs all around you reverberate with a cacophony of noise as thousands of birds clamour for space among the natural terraces.

Kittiwakes, the only true sea gull we have, fill the air with their singular cries. Fulmars, distant cousins of the albatross, betray the family connection as they glide by on stiff wings.

Gannets, surely our most spectacular seabird, keep guard over reptilian-looking chicks, viciously seeing off any interlopers who stray too close.

And if you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of one of our most colourful avian denizens, the puffin, as it makes its way to and from its nest in a refurbished rabbit burrow. As with all birds, just be sure to keep a respectful distance so as not to cause them any disturbance.

One thing I’ve learned from my birdwatching sojourns near and far is that birds are vessels for a kind of lasting happiness that can be hard to find in other avenues of life.

If you’re treated to a glimpse of a new or elusive species, however brief, you soon forget any hardship that led you to it. You can still recall every sensation of it, months or even years later.

Ireland Through Birds: Journeys in Search of a Wild Nation by Conor W. O’Brien is published by Merrion Press. It’s nominated in the TheJournal.ie-sponsored Best Irish Published Book category in the An Post Irish Book Awards this year. The awards will take place on Wednesday 20 November – for more information and to vote for your favourite of the nominees, have a look at the website.  

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About the author:

Conor W. O'Brien  / Author of Ireland Through Birds

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