These opening lines by the wonderful Irish ‘war poet’ Francis Ledwidge was part of my upbringing. My late father was a great fan of Ledwidge and, when I visited the poets grave in Flanders in 2013, I was overcome with memories of my Da quoting those lines out loud when we visited Ledwidge’s cottage near Slane in Co. Meath.
I was a young kid and, emboldened with knowledge, informed my father that whilst ‘your man Ledwidge might have been a great poet, he knew feck all about birds! Sure, by the time that poem was written, Bitterns had become extinct in Ireland since the 1840’s!’
This was fact. Due to over-hunting and wetland drainage, Bitterns were indeed extinct as a breeding species by 1840. Even when John J Watters produced his book of The Natural History of The Birds of Ireland in 1853, Bitterns were mentioned in the past tense.
For me, as a young kid with a keen interest in birds, Bitterns were the Holy Grail of birds. Their cryptic plumage and evolutionary development to hide in reed beds added to their mystic. My childhood ambition to experience this species was realised on a trip to Suffolk with an old birding friend, Dave Kelly. It was a great trip. We met and birded with the legendary conservationist Herbert Axell (he founded the reserve at Minsmere). However, the highlight of that trip was seeing my first Bittern. It was July 6th 1980 and I stood in silent awe as I flushed a Bittern from a ditch. It was the first of several we saw that week.
I saw my first Irish Bittern on 5th Feb 1994 at Lough Hunshigo, Co Down. It was a small lake and we saw the bird briefly along the lakeshore before it flew into trees. It stood in the trees, head facing skyward as if it was invisible. I never thought I’d ever see one in Ireland in my life. At the time, I remember recounting the experience with my Da. He felt Ledwidge would have also been interested.
Since then I had only seen one other Bittern in Ireland, a distant flying bird at Lough Corrib, Galway. Despite the fact that the species is ‘booming’ in Britain, it is still a real rarity here in Ireland.
So what has me contemplating Bitterns?
Well, this week I’m heading to Flanders to follow the journey of Hazel’s (my better half) grandfather who fought and survived many of the serious battles of the Western Front in World War I. Francis Ledwidge, an Irish nationalist and friend of Thomas McDonagh, had joined the British Army to help advance John Redmonds ideal of Home Rule. He was not so lucky. He was killed in Flanders on 31st July 1917. ‘Poor Ledwidge, blown to bits’ was how his commander commented on his death. The ‘poet of the Blackbird’ is laid to rest there.
It was therefore quite a coincidence that one of the most unexpected birds of the autumn was almost on my doorstep on 24th October last. I heard that my good friend John Murphy had sighted what he believed might have been a young Night Heron in flight along the M11 (the main motorway between Dublin and Wexford). John did amazingly well to even see the bird from his moving car. It had flown from a sediment pond along the motorway and was not seen again.
This is only 15 minutes away from my home so I went down more in hope than expectation. I checked the original pond but no joy. I then decided to check out another pond further north along the motorway. Here I met another birder, Christian, who had found the bird. But one look into his scope revealed the birds’ true identity…a Bittern.
It was a crazy place to see a Bittern. Normally a bird of extensive reed beds, this bird was sitting near a gorse bush beside a pond right on a busy motorway. I suspect this bird was fresh into Ireland. It looked confused (for the want of a better word). I managed a few record shots before the bird flew up and, following the line of the motorway, headed south. Who knows where it might be now? It was the most unexpected bird of the autumn, in the most unusual site.
So, next week, when in Flanders, I feel the need to seek out Ledwidge’s resting place again and, in my own way, share with him my Bittern experience.
And perhaps in honour of that Bittern on the M11, I might feel inclined to recite the Lament for Thomas McDonagh…
He shall not hear the bittern cry
In the wild sky, where he is lain,
Nor voices of the sweeter birds
Above the wailing of the rain.
Nor shall he know when loud March blows
Thro’ slanting snows her fanfare shrill,
Blowing to flame the golden cup
Of many an upset daffodil.
But when the dark cow leaves the moor,
And pastures poor with greedy weeds,
Perhaps he’d hear her low at morn
Lifting her horn in pleasant meads.
And I suspect that, should I recite this poem, I will be filled with memories of my Da and moments spent with him when I was a child.
While time is a great healer, there are times when I wish I could be given just one more hour to chat with my father.