Today marks a very special anniversary in my birding life. 25th September is when I discovered what birding in autumn was really about. It was 1979 and I was an 18 year-old birder staying at the Bird Observatory and experiencing birding on Cape Clear Island, Co. Cork for the first time.
The following extract from my book, Don’t Die in Autumn, captures why this date is so special…
"25th September dawned as a wet and wild morning. Strong southerly winds, gusting to storm force battered the coast along with prolonged periods of heavy rain. It was an ideal morning to risk our lives and head out to Blanan. In near darkness we made our way out to the tip. The seabird passage was superb with lots of Sooty Shearwaters and Great Skuas. The best bird for me, my first Pomarine Skua, passed so close to where we were sitting, I could almost reach out and touch it. Its’ deep chest and powerful broad wings made this a totally different beast to Arctic Skua. I was well pleased with my mornings work when I gingerly retraced my steps back from Blanan and returned to the Obs for a much-needed bite of food.
I remember the moment when I saw a figure running down Cotters Hill as if it were yesterday. I was in the kitchen and had beans cooking in a pot and bread toasting under the grill (the delights of beans on toast after a seawatch can’t be described). The figure looked like Tony Lancaster. There is only one reason why a birder runs on Cape Clear and that is when a major rare bird has been found. He was galloping down the hill towards the Obs. I turned off the gas cooker, shouted to Michael O’Donnell who was upstairs, grabbed my bins and ran. We met Tony at the harbour. He was panting.
‘Subalpine in West Bog!’ he said through deep gasps. ‘It’s in the gully at the top end.’
For a moment I had to think long and hard. What is a Subapline? I found myself mentally flicking through my trusty Peterson field guide…Subalpine? Subalpine?
‘Subalpine Warbler?’ I blurted out.
‘Yes…Subalpine Warbler…West Bog!’
Before he had finished the sentence, we were already running. I had remembered seeing the words ‘Subalpine Warbler’ in the guide but I hadn’t a clue what one looked like. Regardless, this was a mega bird and I needed to see it. We ran up Cotters Hill in seconds, breaking Olympic sprint records. We continued on around past Paddy Burkes, up the deceptively steep high road, around the edge of Lough Errul and past Mary Mac’s.
‘Hello Eric Boy…any good birds around?’ I heard a voice ask.
‘Yes…a Subapline Warbler!’ I answered as I ran past her house down towards West Bog. I said it as if she knew what a Subalpine Warbler might be.
‘I hope ye see it.’ I heard her call after us as we disappeared down the lane.
‘So do I,’ I thought to myself as I sloshed through pools of water.
At the far end of West Bog stood Pat. She was standing overlooking the small gully where a stream emptied water into the cove below. We ran up to her. The bird was skulking in the vegetation and bushes around the gully but had not been seen for over 20 mins. My heart sank…was it gone? Where might it be now? Then a movement from the edge of the ferns…a glimpse of a bird. It looked like the upperparts were a bluish-grey. It went back into cover. The rustle of vegetation marked its progress through the undergrowth. Then it appeared and sat perched out in the open.
It was a thing of beauty. A bluish-grey crown, nape and mantle, a red eye-ring, pinkish-orange underparts with striking white moustachial stripes. It perched upright and flicked it white-sided dark tail before going back into cover. It was like a colourful, small and exotic Whitethroat. We stood in silent reverence to one of the best birds we had ever seen in our lives. It ‘screamed’rarity. I took in my surroundings. The vista of the Fasnet Rock lighthouse was ahead of me out to sea, the West Bog behind me and the Wheatear Field running off up the hill to my left. I was on Cape Clear and had just seen a Subalpine Warbler. From that moment on, West Bog became my favourite place on the island.
The warbler showed well on and off around the gully for the afternoon. We left it skulking in the thick vegetation and returned to the Obs for our ‘much needed food’ and note-scribing into the Bird Obs rarity description log."
This moment is as clear in my mind as if it happened this morning. It was the first occasion I spent time birding with the late, great Tony Lancaster and his wife, Pat Hamilton. The picture accompanying this blog shows Tony (on the left), Tony Marr in the middle and a very scruffy but happy young Eric Dempsey on the right (complete with bright orange rucksack and rolled up sleeping bag) as Tony and I left the island in 1979.
As I read the above extract, I also remember the wonderful characters of Cape Clear such as the late Paddy Burke and also Mary Mac who passed away earlier this year.
I am so happy that I have kept notebooks over the years where such memories leap off the page and bring back so many wonderful birding experiences back to life.