It’s been a while since I’ve sat down and written a small blog here…but I do have a good excuse!
I’ve been away for a few weeks and lived a life without internet service…how wonderful is that? Myself, Hazel and Suzie (our Springer Spaniel in case you’ve forgotten) took off in the car on what can best be described as a road trip through France. It was a ‘follow-your- nose and see where it leads you’ type of journey for most of it. No major plans…a bit of birding here, photography there, culture, history, R&R, food and wine. We stayed in guesthouses, a chateau or two, apartments even camped for a week.
However, our first section of the holiday was spent in the south of France…in the Pyrenees. It was amazing. The landscape and clear air was superb. We stayed in an old mill with a waterfall and a natural swimming pool (very, very cold), and mature deciduous woodland all around. The birds were great with Griffin Vultures and Short-toed Eagles flying over the house every day while Cirl Bunting, Golden Oriole, Short-toed Treecreeper and Melodious Warbler were breeding in our garden! It was a little bit of paradise.
Then, only five minutes from home, we were able to drive up onto the open plateau where Tawny Pipits, Sardinian and Subalpine Warblers, Red-backed Shrikes and Black Kites were common. However, it was the road up to the plateau that turned out to be so magical for one reason…a beautiful sound that brought me back to the Mullet Peninsula in Mayo.
Let me explain…the road weaved through wonderful grassland meadows, full of insects and birds. On the first morning, driving up with the windows open, I heard this sound. I stopped the car and listened…and there it was again! From the field beside the road came the unmistakable jangling notes of a Corn Bunting. They were everywhere. For anyone who has yet to experience the sound it is a bit like that of Yellowhammer without the ‘cheeesssseee’ at the end.
I simply sat listening to a sound I have not heard for many years. The buzz of insects and the smell of hay meadows brought me reeling back to days when this sound was an Irish sound. I have been around long enough to have encountered Corn Buntings in Dublin, Wicklow and Wexford but slowly, year by year, their numbers dwindled until finally the species was constricted to a small area of Mayo where traditional farming meant that hay meadows (and not silage cutting) was the way and where seeds fell and sustained birds in the winter.
Looking at my old notebooks (I have 69 bird notebooks dating from 1978….I still keep a notebook!) I see that in the summer of 1991 I was on the Mullet Peninsula. It was a sunny day and I encountered two Corn Buntings at the north end of the region (near Annagh Marsh). Incidentally, on Annagh marsh itself was a female Red-necked Phalarope…one of the last breeding phalaropes in Ireland. These Corn Buntings were among the last breeding Corn Buntings left in Ireland. When I returned just one year later…they were gone. The bird was lost (and is still lost) to Ireland.
Now, 22 years later, I am delighted to see the return of birds of prey again to Ireland. Red Kites, Golden Eagles and, for the first time in 100 years, White-tailed Eagles are breeding again. However, I can’t help feeling sad that in my lifetime, a species has become extinct in Ireland. It seemed that no-one really cared. Corn Buntings were not sexy like BOPs…small brown boring birds didn’t exactly set the world on fire. With so much time and money spent on the reintroduction of these raptors (which I fully support), isn’t it time that we as a nation considered just what might be done to bring Corn Buntings back to Ireland? We let them slip away without any real fuss…don’t we owe it to them to do all we can to bring them back? Would it be a difficult thing to do? Would we be able to create suitable habitat again to sustain a population of these birds. I hope one day that happens.
However, until then, all I can do is to look at the shots I managed to take of this wonderful species in France and in my mind, remember that beautiful sound. Everyone in Ireland deserves to sit quietly in a summer grass meadow and listen to the lovely jangling song of an Irish Corn Bunting. It is an experience to savour. Let us hope that it’s an experience we may all have again in the future.