Last weekend I had the pleasure of watching five Avocets at Tacumshin Lake in Wexford. I was guiding a group from the Carlow Birdwatch Ireland branch and it was a wonderful sight for everyone to see. Avocets are scarce in Ireland. We do well if we see one or two each year and, when we do, it’s usually in winter. Often a year goes by without seeing one at all. So, seeing five is impressive.
However, what is more interesting is the fact that two pairs of Avocets successfully nested back in 1938… at Tacumshin Lake. Now we have five birds hanging around with the nesting season almost upon us. Will this be the year when they make their comeback to Ireland?
As we watched the Avocets, we also enjoyed a Marsh Harrier soaring over the reedbeds. These were once a common species breeding throughout Ireland up to the mid-1800’s but were wiped out through hunting and habitat loss. In the past few years, they have nested for the first time in over 150 years. My thoughts were interrupted by the scratchy calls of a Reed Warbler singing nearby. They have now colonised Ireland in big numbers and make another wonderful addition to our breeding birds.
Before we left, I brought the group to the large reedbed at the western side of Tacumshin to listen for Bearded Reedlings, another recent colonist that returned to Ireland following a 30-year absence. While we were there, we kept our ears open for the booming of a Bittern that has been seen and heard at Tacumshin in recent weeks. Like Marsh Harriers, Bitterns were present throughout Ireland up to the mid-1800’s but, like the harriers, went extinct as a breeding species. Yet, here was one booming and obviously holding territory at Tacumshin. Was this another potential come-back bird?
As I reflected on the birds we saw (and could have seen), I found myself listing out the species: Avocet, Bittern, Reed Warbler, Bearded Reedling, Marsh Harrier. It sounded more like a list from Minsmere in Suffolk than from Tacumshin Lake in Wexford. Back at home I found myself reaching for my notebook from 1980 when I went on my first ever birding holiday…to Minsmere.
My First Birding Holiday
I travelled with an old birding pal, Dave Kelly, with whom I have now lost contact (Dave, if you are out there…hello!). We caught the Dublin-Holyhead ferry and then the train to London. We spent the day in London where we visited the Natural History Museum and went to see Monty Python’s ‘The Life of Brian’ which was banned in Ireland at the time. I was 18 years old and travelling ‘abroad’ for the first time.
The following day we caught the train to Suffolk and stayed in a B&B close to Minsmere. The lady who owned the B&B was a volunteer warden at the reserve and knew the great Herbert Axell who, single-handedly, dug out the famous scrape that allowed Avocets to nest there for the first time in 1948. She even introduced us to ‘Bert’ and he very kindly brought us on a guided walk around the reserve. In fact, he was so encouraging to us, that he took us birding with him for three days. For me, being in the company of such a legend in conservation was awe-inspiring. That he was such a kind and generous man was something I remember so well.
On that first day around the reserve with him I saw my first Avocet, Bittern, Reed Warbler, Bearded Reedling and Marsh Harrier. If someone told me back in 1980 that in 2017 I would expect to possibly see all five species in one day in Wexford, I would not have believed them for a minute. It is interesting to have lived long enough to see such changes (never mind the Little Egrets everywhere and the 13 Cattle Egrets also hanging around Tacumshin as the nesting season approaches). What will the next 30 years bring?
The scrape at Minsmere was the catalyst that allowed Avocets to start nesting successfully and that success has led to their expansion across Britain. Are we now seeing the fruits of that here as populations of Avocets increase so much that they begin to overflow into Ireland? Will this be the year when Avocets make their return as a breeding species? If so, then we should take a moment to thank the late but great Herbert Axell. We might now be seeing the results of his vision which started back in the 1940s…and what a legacy that would be.
I wonder what legacy for the future we are leaving?