When I was young, my father hung the poem ‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling on the wall of my bedroom. Da loved poetry and this was a particular favourite. He used to say that the great poets always had deep wisdom in their words. I have to admit that it is a wonderful poem and, last Friday evening, I was reminded of some lines from that poem: 'If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew to serve your turn long after they have gone…'
You see, last Friday I was working with Brian, a talented wildlife cameraman who was filming sections for a new wildlife documentary series by Crossing the Lines Films. We had an early start and were at Tacumshin Lake in Wexford. We had hauled gear across the lake to find…well, to find nothing.
What I mean is that the expected flocks of birds were nowhere to be seen. Two juvenile Peregrine Falcons were causing mayhem as they hunted over and around the lake. Where there were usually 2,000 + waders there were just 20 Dunlin (or less). Within minutes, even they took off as another Peregrine passed overhead.
We spent several hours out there, flogging hard but eventually gave up and wearily waded our way back through the energy-sapping, sticky mud and the knee-deep channels. We had failed in our efforts. At least the weather was nice.
To go or not to go...that is the question
Throughout the rest of the morning and early afternoon, we continued to work hard at various locations around south Wexford. Late afternoon once again had us back at the ‘high carpark’ at Tacumshin. However, the scene was totally different from the morning as large black clouds created an ominous atmosphere over the lake. Within minutes those dark clouds turned into an absolute deluge. Thankfully we were still at the cars and took shelter as the torrential rain passed.
I looked out across the lake and, to be honest, fatigue was bearing down on me…not helped by the arrival of yet another downpour. This was even heavier than the previous and served to dampen our spirits even more. As it too passed having dumped more torrential rain for a full 15 minutes, I climbed out of the car once more. The sky had cleared but it was obvious that an army of dark clouds were lining up on the horizon. The temptation was to call it a day and head home.
However, those lines of that poem came drifting into my brain. If I could force my heart and nerve and sinew to muster the energy to once again haul all that stuff across Tacumshin, then that’s exactly what I should do. So, with a fresh sense of energy, we once again loaded up like pack mules and set off across the lake once more. We were also joined by my good friend and birder Paul Kelly, with another Paul (Keating) joining us later.
Back out through the squishy mud we trudged, heading out to the farthest point on the horizon where we had stood looking at nothing that morning. Reaching our destination, it was instantly obvious that there were more birds here now…in fact hundreds of Dunlin were busily feeding in front of us. Amongst the nearest birds we found a superb Baird’s Sandpiper. This ‘straight-billed’ American shorebird is subtly beautiful with its scalloped back and long wings.
Then a few moments later, a group of Ringed Plovers arrived into the flock and there, amongst them, was a pristine juvenile Little Ringed Plover (still a scarce bird to see here in Ireland). Already that hard flog and the decision to go back out was paying off. As more Dunlin arrived, another Baird’s Sandpiper was discovered amongst them…we had two Baird’s Sandpipers, both of which were thousands of kilometres off course, feeding alongside each other.
Yet more Dunlin appeared and a ‘small’ wader trailed in behind them…an adult Semipalmated Sandpiper (yet another American wader). We now had three American waders feeding in front of us. It simply couldn’t get better than this…or could it?
All the while those dark ominous clouds loomed taller and more threatening. Within minutes we were in a downpour that seemed to last forever. We huddled like penguins in a snow storm hoping to keep our gear dry (never mind ourselves). When the rain passed I was soaked to the skin but at least our camera gear was dry. The dark clouds moved east and a welcome spell of sunshine emerged to help warm me up and dry me off.
The Icing On The Cake
Whatever feelings of being wet through were instantly forgotten with the sudden and unexpected arrival of one of the best waders in the world…a juvenile Buff-breasted Sandpipers. It appeared right in front of us, casually walking through the grass to emerge into the open in all its beauty. It ruffled its feathers to dry them and paraded before us. These are truly exquisite birds, with beautifully patterned feathers, a pale buff-orange breast, large trusting black eyes and yellow legs (see the actual bird above).
Breeding on the tundra of high Arctic Alaska, Buff-b’s spend the winter in Patagonia in South America. Each autumn we are graced by their presence. These birds migrate at very high altitudes, often up as high as the jet streams. One theory on the birds migrations suggests that they use the long route to reach their wintering grounds, being carried into Europe by the prevailing jet streams and are then carried back across the Atlantic to South America by those jet streams further south. It is a longer journey but more energy efficient. Regardless of how they get here, they are always a special bird to see and I reflected that I had seen my first ever Buff-b at Tacumshin exactly 37 years ago to the day. I fell in love with the species that day and have loved them ever since.
Having spent almost four hours back out in the middle of the lake, and with more dark clouds on the horizon, we finally decided it was indeed time to call it a day. Walking back, we disturbed a Pectoral Sandpiper…yet another American wader. Where else but at Tacumshin Lake can you encounter five American waders (of four species) in just a few hours?
The rain began to fall just as we reached our cars. It had just been one of those magical Tacumshin evenings and, as a new wave of tiredness descended over me like the darkness now enveloping the lake, I thanked my heart and nerve and sinew for serving my turn long after they were gone.