It’s been a quiet birding month so far. Compared to the extraordinary gull January of 2016, when Ireland’s first Glaucous-winged and Vega Gulls turned up, the start of 2017 has been relatively sedate. As you might already know from reading my blog, I find such gulls beautiful…beauty is in the eye of the beholder. While many of you might not understand such sentiments, I think that everyone agrees about the beauty of one species: Waxwing!
January 2017 has been a Waxwing month. Birds began arriving into Ireland in the last days of December but by mid-January large flocks had found their way into the housing estates of Dublin. I can’t resist Waxwings. I had to stop what I was doing and find my way into the maze of small roads in the estates of Lucan, slowly kerb-crawling my way along until I heard the unmistakeable trilling calls of 150 Waxwings sitting in tall trees overlooking a large open green. Standing near heavily laden berry trees, waiting for the flock to descend is part of the culture of Waxwing-watching. And that moment when the flock suddenly drops down to feed...well it’s a magical moment.
The Lure of Waxwings
I have never been able to resist the lure of Waxwings since my very first experience of the species and that pushed my endurance to it’s very limits….
The morning of 4th Feb 1985 was a cold, bright morning and I was on the road early. The night before I had received a call to inform me that a Waxwing had been seen in the back garden of the Post Office, in Abbeyleix, Co. Laois. Anyone who has read the chapter ‘For the Love of a Desert’ in my memoir, Don’t Die in Autumn, will know that in early 1985 I was very ill. I had contracted a parasite (or something along those lines) in a trip into the Sahara Desert in the autumn of 1983 and, by the start of 1985, I was ill, weak and weighed less than seven stones.
However, the report of a Waxwing had me rising, Lazurus-like, from my bed with a determination that I would see one at last. Even though I had been birding hard for many years by then, Waxwings had eluded me. There had not been an ‘irruption’ (the name given to the mass arrival of Waxwings) in all of my birding years. A winter or two before, I had travelled to Bangor, Co. Down in search of a single bird but failed to find it. I had listened to seasoned birders describe them and the species began to take on mythical qualities. So, when I heard of one in Laois, I simply had to go.
There was one small problem to overcome…I didn’t drive. So I caught the bus from my home in Finglas into Dublin city centre and, from there, caught another out to the Naas Dual Carriageway. My plan was to hitch to Abbeyleix and I firmly believed that it would be an easy task. These were the days before motorways and the main Dublin-Cork road brought every car into every little town between Dublin and Cork…and Abbeyleix was one of those towns.
I positioned myself in a strategic place just beyond a main junction and where there was plenty of room for a car to pull in for me. I held up a piece of cardboard with the words ‘Abbeyleix’ in bold black letters (prepared the night before) and stood with my thumb up, clearly visible to all passing motorists.
The Best Laid Plans…
Hours passed and I was still standing on the Naas Dual Carriageway as car after car flew past. I was getting cold, my thumb had frozen into its ‘thumbs-up’ position and I was beginning to falter. However, the thought of Waxwing kept me in determined mood.
Morning turned to early afternoon and I started doing mental arithmetic…it would be dark by 5.30pm, the bird most likely would have gone to roost long before then and it would take almost two hours to get to Abbeyleix. So, if I didn’t get a lift by 2pm, I would have to admit defeat.
So began a minute by minute countdown in my quest for Waxwing. I checked my watch constantly…1pm, 1.15pm, 1.30pm, 1.45pm, 1.50pm, 1.55pm. Still I stood there hitching…hopeful that a miracle would happen. 1.56pm, 1.57pm, 1.58pm, 1.59pm…I watched the second hand move around the numbers of my watch, counting down my despair and second by second ending my hopes of seeing Waxwing.
Then, with just ten seconds to cut-off point, an enormous Articulated truck pulled in. The driver rolled down the window, looked down at me and said ‘Hop in…I’m heading to Abbeyleix!’ My saviour had arrived with seconds to spare. I climbed high into the cab and off we set. I had never been in the cab of such a huge truck and a feeling of invincibility descended over me. The driver was bemused (to put in mildly) that I was hitching to see a bird but, when I explained to him that I had hoped to get to Abbeyleix before the bird went to roost, he put his foot to the floor. ‘I’ll get you there before you know it’.
He was true to his word…it’s amazing how many cars pull in to allow a huge monster of truck to pass driven by a man who understood the despair of a skinny, pale, sickly-looking young man who had one thing on his mind and in his heart: Waxwing! By 3.30pm we were in Abbeyleix. He wished me luck and I watched as he drove off. I still had that feeling of invincibility…karma was on my side.
I found the Post Office and was shown around the back of the house by a very friendly man. The bird had been feeding out of view in a neighbour’s garden but consistently came to land in a tall tree at the back of his garden. He showed me where to stand and what tree to watch. His wife even arrived out with a welcome cup of tea and chocolate biscuits (she probably saw the state of me and felt I needed some sustenance before I dropped dead).
A Moment to Savour
As I warmed up with each deep sup of hot tea and munched on my tasty biscuits, a bird suddenly appeared on the top branch of the tree. Even without bins, that dumpy shape with a long crest on the head sent my blood pumping through my veins. I raised my bins…a Waxwing! I put my scope on the bird and there, assaulting my optic nerves, was an adult male Waxwing in all its glory. I drank in every colourful detail and wallowed in the beauty of the bird. It was everything and more I hoped my first Waxwing would be.
I watched the bird for about 15 glorious minutes before it flew off high and out of view. I remained for another 30 minutes but it never returned. I had scored, and scored well. I thanked my hosts for their welcome and hospitality, and walked to the end of the village to begin my long haul back to Dublin. I didn’t care how long it was going to take…I had seen my first Waxwing and nothing else mattered.
I stood on the road, stuck my thumb up and the first car that passed screeched to a halt. The driver was a work colleague of my mine. I couldn’t believe my luck. I was chauffeured to the door of my house in Finglas. It had been a long, long exhausting day but it was worth it.
The following week found me in hospital undergoing serious tests and treatments. What kept me going in the weeks and months of illness that followed was that Waxwing…that beautiful, charming, colourful Waxwing.
I have seen many Waxwings since that first bird but every time I see one, it always feels that I am seeing one for the first time. That hearting-pumping moment in the back garden of the Post Office in Abbeyleix is brought back to me time and time again. Seeing Waxwings also remind me of the kindness of that truck driver on that February day in 1985 and the warmth of the welcome from the people who allowed me into their garden. I am also reminded of how very ill I was back then and how thankful I am to the wonderful doctors and nurses who brought me back to health.
Waxwings ultimately remind me to be thankful for still being healthy enough to continue to enjoy such simple things in life. In the hectic world we live in these days, it can be all too easy to forget that.