For some reason, I often find myself wondering what Ireland would have been like for a birder in the early 1800’s as opposed to the 2000’s. There certainly would not be Little Egrets walking around the wetlands nor indeed would we have Collared Doves in our gardens. But what would it really have been like for me living in the rolling farmlands of coastal Wicklow where I now live?
At the beginning of May, I was out on Tory Island in Donegal with Hazel and Rob Vaughan (and of course with Suzie our spaniel). Tory lies off the north-west coast and is a spectacular location, overlooking the dramatic Donegal coastline. A lighthouse with moorland dominates the west side while sheer sea cliffs and stacks lie to the eastern section. Two small villages (West and East Towns) form two distinct settlements on the island. Irish is the spoken language and it is lovely to hear the language being spoken with such ease.
We had booked a house right at the pier where the ferry arrives into West Town. I have been on Tory on just three occasions but I had never stayed before. In fact, I have seen two Black-headed Buntings in Ireland and both have been on Tory! However, we weren’t really expecting such rarities (although they would have been very welcome) as our aim was to enjoy the sounds, sights and, with luck, capture a few shots of Corncrakes.
A walk back in time
Tory did not let us down. We had at least eight calling males in West Town and two over by East Town. The birds were performing superbly with one wonderful bird posing beautifully on a wall early one morning in perfect light (worth the 6.00am start despite the hangover).
However, it wasn’t just the Corncrakes that impressed me. Walking around the island, it seemed that every field held Skylarks singing overhead, a reminder to me that this species is indeed in decline across Ireland. Then there were the Lapwings and Snipe…how rare is it these days that drumming Snipe and calling Lapwings are common sounds? Yet, in the 1800’s these would be a familiar sound of the Irish countryside. What a shame we are not doing enough to protect these species.
At night, West Town became alive with Corncrakes. Their loud calls echoed around the houses. Standing near the fields, their calls almost vibrated though our bodies. I had read that in days past, people hated Corncrakes because they kept everyone awake. Listening to these birds from my own bed, I could understand those sentiments!
And as if Skylarks, Snipe, Lapwing and Corncrakes weren’t enough of a reminder of what birds may have been seen back then, we left Tory and spent a couple of days near Glenveagh National Park. On a warm, misty, magical morning, we listened to a Cuckoo calling from the high trees across the lake with a Whinchat singing on the moorlands close by.
Then, off in the distance, a shape appeared over the far mountains. It soared on long, broad wings and, even at a distance through my trusty Swarovski scope, a golden mane of nape feathers was obvious…an adult Golden Eagle! With great work done by the Golden Eagle Trust to reintroduce these magnificent raptors back into their former haunts, a handful of pairs of eagles have successfully nested. The birds and landscape seemed to belong to each other. The bird we were watching was an Irish-bred bird.
It is a joy to see a breeding Golden Eagle fly in an Irish sky…and what a joy it is to be kept awake at night by the sounds of Corncrakes.