March is almost over but it seems that winter is reluctant to let go of her grip on Ireland’s birds. Along the coast of Wicklow, Greylag and Brent Geese are still grazing, Whooper Swans are feeding in the fields and Red-throated Divers are offshore. Where are the Sandwich Terns?
On some days in the past week or two, we’ve had all four seasons in one day. We have had snow in the morning, followed by rain by midday and glorious sunshine in the afternoon. Add to that are the strong winds that have blown…it has truly been a right hotchpotch of weather but that is what an Irish March is famous for.
It has therefore been a slow spring so far for our spring migrants. During one of those warm spells it seemed that the first wave of migrants arrived into Ireland. Within days the forecasters were predicting snow and I am always reminded of how such early migrants must suffer when faced with these adverse weather conditions so soon after they have arrived for ‘summer’. What must go through the minds of these birds…’Feck this, I’m heading south!’ How difficult it must be for the first Swallows and Sand Martins to find enough food to sustain them until the weather improves.
That First Spring Migrant
Throughout March, I long to see my first migrant. I don’t know why this is so important for me. Perhaps it marks time in my mind? Perhaps it’s a throwback to my genetic makeup…my inherited DNA from a caveman ancestor who struggled to survive each winter and welcomed the returning migrants as a sign of better days of plenty ahead. Perhaps it is simply the thing that reignites my wonder at journeys these birds make?
So I have birded hard, seeking that first glimpse of my first spring migrant. I birded in Wexford for days on end but did not see a single migrant. It felt like winter birding with ducks, geese, swans and even Fieldfares. I walked the coast of Wicklow in what seemed like ideal sunny weather with southerly winds yet still not even a hint of a migrant. Not even a singing Chiffchaff to stir the soul.
Then, last week, I walked along Kilcoole. It was late afternoon with dark heavy rain clouds gathering over the mountains and heading east towards me. The winds were to the south-west but they were lazy winds…they went through you rather than around you. The waves were crashing up onto the beach. Feeling the cold winds and watching the approaching deluge, I asked myself if I were mad. There was no chance of seeing a migrant along here in these conditions.
Disheartened, I turned to leave but my attention was unexpectedly drawn by a flash of white along the beach. It had flown along the sand ahead of me. I walked slowly towards the area before another flash of white appeared on the short grass along the path. I raised my bins to behold a beautiful male (Northern) Wheatear just back from his wintering grounds of central Africa. This bird had just crossed the Sahara! He was a perfect male in all its glory. With his black eye-mask, peach-washed breast, grey crown and back, and that striking white rump contrasting with the black T-bar patterned tail, he was truly a thing of beauty.
As the rain reached us, the Wheatear took cover in the long grass that formed a border between the beach and grassy path. This was an experienced bird. Unlike me, he was perfectly sheltered from the biting wind and the rain that was now pouring down. I left him to his beach and, despite the rain and wind, I returned to my car with a warm glow inside.
Like my caveman ancestors I now knew that I survived another winter and that spring was now truly on its way. Let us hope that it is indeed a time of plenty for us all, migrants and humans alike.