In my last few blogs I have been waxing lyrical about the beasts from the Pacific Ocean.
I am still in awe of a bird like a Vega Gull being found in Wexford. A bird that should be in the fishing harbours of Japan in winter somehow making it’s way to Ireland is a truly spectacular natural event. The Glaucous-winged Gull in Cork (another Pacific coast species) is another avian wonder. However, regardless of their respective journeys, when you look at them, both individuals are big brutes of gulls, competing with the other gulls for fish scraps. It isn’t hard to imagine them crossing open seas, feeding over stormy waters or following fishing trawlers. They are tough birds.
Last week I met another avian super star…albeit a much smaller, less obvious one. A talented young Wicklow birder (Cian Cardiff) and his dad, Tom, found it feeding along a channel at a place called Killoughter, close to where I live. It was no more than a ten minute drive for me to see it.
The bird the lads had found was a Siberian Chiffchaff. I have seen a handful of these birds in the past few years. I have even seen one in late October 2014 in my own garden. A few have also been found spending the winter in Killarney in Kerry in recent years (I found one there in the cold winter of 2009/10). However, this particular bird was the first I had encountered wintering in Wicklow.
Comparing a Siberian Chiffchaff with ‘ordinary’ Chiffchaff, you are immediately struck by how grey and white they appear (see the picture above). They look clean and crisp compared with the slightly dingy green plumage of wintering Chiffchaffs we see occasionally. More importantly, they have a distinctive call…a loud, sharp but sad Dunnock-like 'peep' call that really catches attention. That call is so unlike the ‘hoo-eet’ call of Chiffchaff. This little warbler was so vocal that it’s location could easily be tracked by sound alone. Everything about this bird makes it so different to Chiffchaff but they are still considered to be the same species (it will only be a matter of time before they are given full species status).
While I really enjoyed my moments with this bird, it was thinking of its origins that the true wonder of this little bird hit me. Here was a bird that would fit into my hand three times over and which could not have been more than 10grammes in weight (if that). It was flitting up and down a channel catching insects in Wicklow but it really should have been in India at this time of year. India! This species breeds in Siberia and spends the winters in Asia. Yet here was one in front of me in Wicklow.
Think of the incredible journey this bird must have made to make it to Ireland. It would have flown across western Siberia, then perhaps over the Ural Mountains, down through northern Europe, perhaps over the North Sea, past Scotland until it reached the east coast of Ireland where it will spend the winter. How incredible is that?
While the gulls have indeed made unbelievable journeys to reach Ireland, I have to remember that they are big, bold and tough birds. That this little Siberian gem of a warbler has succeeded in surviving such a journey, makes it an avian super star.
And reflecting on this fact as I watched it, I realised that I was truly star struck.