A Beautiful Beast

A Beautiful Beast

Posted by Eric Dempsey, With 2 Comments,

So, what can I say? I twitched!


If you read my last blog (To Twitch or not to Twitch) you will have gained a small insight into my dilemma. If you have read ‘Don’t Die in Autumn’ you will fully understand my past experiences of twitching; the good, the bad and the ugly. It is time for a confession…I am a recovering twitcher. I am only human and, occasionally, I fall off the wagon.


It’s a strange thing this twitching stuff. Having run the Irish birdline for 20 years, I was steeped up to my neck in all things twitching. Chasing rare birds around the country was my life. However, in the past eight years I have taken a big step back and realise that the great thing about birds and birding is the actual pleasure of being out enjoying the magic of birds. The tick is no longer my driving force. It has long been replaced by the sheer magic of birds, rare and common. Don’t get me wrong. I still love seeing rare birds. I still love seeing a new species for Ireland but I am cured of the curse of twitching.


Get Thee Behind Me Satan

However, then came a certain Glaucous-winged Gull to Casteltownbere in west Cork on Saturday, 2nd January. I saw the pictures of it on various websites. It really looked spot-on for Glaucous-winged. My heart began to beat. I found myself being tempted by the lure of a gull.


‘Get thee behind me Satan’, I said to the pictures.


It’s a long way to Castletownbere from Wicklow…four and a half hours drive away (the latter half on narrow, winding country roads). Over the past few years many colourful and exotic vagrants have been found and none have tempted me to drop everything and go. Why then would a big brute of a gull have a different affect on me? Why would a species I have seen on the west coast of North America even tempt me to contemplate driving through the night to see it?


On Sunday, the main hardcore twitchers went for it…it was ‘giving itself up’. I denied any interest in the bird…but found myself reading up more on the species. Of course ‘this was just for my own knowledge’, I told myself.


Monday morning…it was still there…coming to bread and ‘showing well’. Throughout Monday I found myself clearing tasks and making Tuesday 5th January totally clear…’just in case I might think about having a day out in Cork!’


Good Omens

I wrote my ‘To Twitch or Not To Twitch’ blog and posted it…sharing my thoughts with all who cared or were interested. Would I go? Lots of people contacted me…luring me into temptation (lead me not into temptation… I can find my own way!). With the weather forecast poor for the east coast on Tuesday 5th, and clear for Cork, it seemed even the Irish weather was part of the plan to lure me to this gull. How could I resist? When the Irish weather is even on your side, then the omens are good. It was even made better when my old friend Rob Vaughan contacted me and was also keen to go. I now had good company.


So, on 5th January, I set off at 4am in the pouring rain, picking Rob up on the way, and off we drove into the darkness of the night. It was lashing rain for the first hour but, as we drove south, we found ourselves in clearer weather. We drove on, reaching Cork city before 6.30am. There were hardly any cars on the road.


At 7.20am, we had a wonderful view of a Barn Owl as it glided across the road in front of us. Any day you see a Barn Owl is a good one. Was this yet another good omen? As we crossed towards the Beara Peninsula, it began to rain again but, with the town of Castletownbere in sight, the clouds lifted and the rain stopped. We reached the town at 8.20am and fell out of the car, weary and stiff. The local Supervalue was open and we bought a ‘healthy’ breakfast roll, tea and three loaves of bread…essential to keep us going and to bring the gulls into us.


The Anxious Wait

Armed with breakfast and bread, we went onto the pier. It was still quite dark, with the first light of dawn just climbing above the horizon. This is always the moment when you wonder if that mad drive has been worth it or not. Is the bird still here? Has it flown off following an early morning trawler out to sea never to be seen again? What am I doing here?


We began eating our breakfast rolls whilst tossing some slices of fresh white bread out off the pier…just to see if any gulls would come in. The effect was immediate. Hungry gulls appeared from everywhere. Herring and Great Black-backed bickered noisily over the bread. We watched and scanned. Then ‘it’ appeared! The beautiful beast itself! The Glaucous-winged Gull was sitting on the water right below us and I had hardly taken two bites of my breakfast roll.


It was a thing of beauty. Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder but it really is a lovely moment when you connect with the bird…it makes the drive and effort worthwhile. It’s a hard feeling to describe for anyone who has never twitched. That moment when you see ‘the bird’ is a special moment. We stayed watching and photographing this bird for over three hours. It ‘gave itself up’. We enjoyed taking in its shape and features…those big, ‘voluptuous’ tertials, the deceptively pale wingtips in flight, the patterns of the primaries, the bill shape and pattern, the dark stained head and breast, that dark beady eye. I drank my fill of the bird…and it was great.


We also enjoyed a splendid Yellow-legged Gull that showed well around the harbour. We reluctantly left our beautiful gull and ventured towards Bantry where we enjoyed a wonderfully tame Iceland Gull and several Mediterranean Gulls. Then onto Baltimore where we encountered an adult Glaucous Gull. It’s not often you can see Glaucous-winged, Glaucous and Iceland Gulls in Ireland in one day. It will probably never happen again in my lifetime.


We finished off watching a hunting Short-eared Owl over the marshes of Clonakilty, where an American Green-winged Teal was throwing shapes to the female Eurasian Teal. And to end the day, a Glossy Ibis found us as we left Clonakilty…it flew over the road from flooded fields right in front of the car. There was no denying it: the omens were all on our side.


Home and Happy

I reached home in Wicklow at 9pm…over 950km driven in the day. I was exhausted but happy.


So, here I am several days later, and I now have to answer that question I posed at the beginning… why would a big brute of a gull tempt me to drive through the night to Castletownbere in west Cork when other colourful and exotic species haven’t tempted me at all? What was it about this gull that stirred the sleeping twitcher in me?


It’s hard to truly answer but I suppose a Glaucous-winged Gull is a birders bird. It’s like a pint of Guinness…an acquired taste. It has a beauty all of its own. It is a special thing to see such a bird alongside our Herring Gulls. It is a special thing to be able to study and learn from such a bird. It is a special thing to be in the company of a bird that should be wintering somewhere along the Pacific coast.


The great thing is that I went to see the bird because I wanted to go rather than ‘needing’ to go. That is the truly liberating feeling I hold in my heart. To be in the lucky position to be able to say…’I don’t need to go like the ‘Old Eric’ once did’.

I am now free to just be able to go if and when I feel like it. I can now enjoy a mega rare bird on my own terms, without the pressure of days past…and that it what makes such a twitch all the more enjoyable.



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