It’s the last day of August as I sit to write this blog. For most people, autumn starts tomorrow with the arrival of the first day of September…but don’t be fooled: autumn has well and truly arrived weeks ago!
While most might consider August as still ‘the summertime’, for birders, August is the month that kicks off the real autumn migration season. In fact, the truth is that for birders, July is often the time when the big birds begin to turn up and the 2016 season has been very special (so far).
I won’t go into too much detail but the past seven weeks has seen a feast of mega rare birds reaching Ireland and, undoubtedly, the hottest place to be over those weeks has been Tacumshin Lake in Co. Wexford.
The World of Tacumshin Lake
Lying in the sunny south-east, between Carnsore Point and Kilmore Quay, this vast wetland of sandy pools, shallow water, sticky mud, sand dunes and reed beds is my favourite birding place in Ireland. It seems to be a magnet for migrating birds and rare vagrants. The variety of species I have seen there is mind-boggling.
Names given to various places around Tacumshin have also gone into birding lore. There’s the famous ‘Patches’ (the best place in Europe to see Buff-breasted Sandpiper and where I would like my ashes spread when there are Buff-b’s around) and the Forgotten Corner. Then there’s the ‘East End’, the ‘Sluice Gate’, the ‘White Hole’, the ‘Lingstown End’ while the pools around ‘Sigginstown Island’ are also worth checking.
In winter, Tacumshin floods and becomes a lake (hence its name). However, during the summer, the water levels drop when we get dry weather and so, by early autumn, the exposed mud and shallow pools makes it a paradise for waders.
Over the past few weeks I have spent many days at Tacumshin both with friends and by myself. During the mid-week, there is nothing like the feeling of arriving at what is one of Europe’s prime birding spots and finding that you are the only person there. Where else but in Ireland could this be possible?
Wading through the reeds at the East End you enter a different world…the world of Tacumshin Lake. You forget the world you have left. The feeling of excitement at what might be out there runs through your veins. A sense of anticipation of what you might find surges through you. You begin to see where the flocks of birds are. Where they are feeding. Where they are roosting. You can sense if a Peregrine or a Merlin is present by how jumpy the birds are. You almost become part of the lake…part of the flocks of birds.
Last week I spent almost eight hours birding out in the middle of the lake by myself. I didn’t meet a sinner. It was just me and thousands of waders. The feeling of total peace that descends over me at times like this is hard to describe. I spent hours just looking through the thousands of Dunlin that were feeding all over the lake.
Looking Through Dunlin
‘Looking through’ might seem an odd choice of words. Surely ‘looking at’ the Dunlin might seem a more appropriate description? I must confess that I didn’t look at a single Dunlin that day but did scan through thousands in the hope of seeing something that jumped out from the crowd. Dunlin are the common ‘small’ wader and they migrate through Ireland in large numbers. Waders like to move in flocks and these migrating Dunlin can sometimes attract scare and rare vagrants which travel with them.
Dunlin come in all shapes and sizes...some have longer bills than others, some are bigger, some are smaller. Knowing what they look like in their various plumages is vital to picking out something different. In my early birding years, I spent long periods of time ‘looking at’ Dunlin, learning their plumages and how different they all appear. With that apprenticeship completed, I no longer need to ‘look at’ Dunlin but now ‘look through’ them in the hope of seeing a white belly, a peach-washed breast, a shorter straighter bill, a smaller, longer-winged bird or one with yellow legs…all indications that the bird you have found might just be a rarer species (and not just a Dunlin!). When scanning the Dunlin flocks, I am merely looking through the birds in much the same way a person looks through a crowded room to locate a close friend.
Dunlin don’t really get looked at.
Two days after my marathon lone session out at Tacumshin, I once again found myself walking through the reed beds at East End. This time I was guiding a lovely group of Irish birders. It was great to be able to share all the nooks and crannies of the lake with them. This group of five included one young midland birder. He is 17 years old and is just beginning his birding journey.
There were thousands of birds around and we enjoyed excellent views of Curlew Sandpipers, Little Stints and Ruff. We even found a Pectoral Sandpiper skulking in the reed fringes of the East End. Out in the middle of the lake, I took in where the Dunlin flocks were feeding and the direction in which they were moving. We gave the birds a wide berth and I then encouraged everyone to simply stand still. The birds are often so intent on feeding that by simply standing still, they begin to approach you and will actually feed around you.
We stood still and sure enough, we were surrounded by feeding Dunlin, Curlew Sandpipers and a Little Stint. For the photographers amongst us it was a lovely chance to get some shots of Curlew Sands.
However, my young birding friend was enthralled by the Dunlin. He had never been that close to them in his life.
‘They’re so small’, he whispered to me. ‘And much more colourful than they look when you see them from a distance’.
I took my eyes off the Curlew Sands and looked at a group of young Dunlin only two metres from me. They were ‘talking to each other’ as Dunlin often do. I crouched down to be at their level. They were feeding non-stop at arms-length from me.
‘They really are tiny when you see them this close’, I thought to myself.
The subtle reddish mantle feathers of juvenile plumage, being slowly replaced by the grey feathers of winter, created patterns I had not taken time to look at for a long time. The rufous feathers of the crown added a rich colour to the birds. The complicated, blotchy breast patches added to their character.
Inspired by my young birding friend, I once again looked at Dunlin. It was as if I was ‘seeing’ them for the first time. How could I have been so blind? They are truly beautiful birds. I have now discovered them once again.
I suppose in life we spend too much time looking for something rare and exotic. Perhaps we should all take a moment to stop and really appreciate what we have right in front of us.