It’s Sunday afternoon, Oct 15th as I sit and write this blog. I’ve been busy this morning trying to tidy things in the garden that might get blown away. You see, tomorrow, Ireland will be hit by a sub-tropical storm which is the tail end of Hurricane Ophelia.
This hurricane has broken all the records for this side of the Atlantic apparently being the strongest hurricane recorded this far east and north. It has tracked over the Azores and is heading straight for Ireland. As the waters around our coasts are colder than those further south, it will lose its hurricane status but will still pack some punch. It is predicted to be the strongest wind event to hit Ireland since 1961.
Of course, Ophelia is not the first ‘hurricane’ we’ve experienced with the famed Hurricane Charley being one most often remembered for the rain and wind that caused chaos across the country. That hit in late August 1986 and my memories of that night were driving up to Dublin from Cork on the old main roads in an old VW Golf. This was the most contrary car ever and it didn’t like water. If I drove through a puddle, it would cut out. Yet, that night, I drove over 300km in atrocious weather with cars abandoned everywhere along the flooded roads. I remember reaching the ‘Naas Dual Carriageway’ and facing a totally flooded road ahead. Then a huge truck arrived and ploughed like a big ship through the water. I followed in its wake for almost 30km. That car eventually cut out just 200 metres from my house and wouldn’t start again for a month!
However, Ophelia is expected to be even stronger than Charley and schools in the south-west have been advised to close, people advised not to travel and transport systems are being shut down. However, regardless of whatever ‘Red Weather Warnings’ are issued by the Met Office or the prospect of severe damage this hurricane may bring to Ireland; birders aren’t really concerned by such things. No indeed…birders are wondering what birds this storm may bring. All of my birding friends have cleared the decks to be free on Tuesday to see what this dramatic weather system may have brought to our shores. Tuesday is forecast to be calm and sunny…perfect!
Storms and October combined are enough to have us salivating like Pavlov’s dogs at the possibilities. We frequently encounter the remnants of hurricanes in autumn which arrive as strong Atlantic storms. I remember being on Cape Clear Island, Cork in 1990 when one such storm arrived. It had been a very quiet week and I was due off on 6th October. However, the storm hit the island on the night of 5th and the following morning the huge seas meant the ferry could not sail. Later that morning a freshly arrived North American Gray-cheeked Thrush was found near Lough Errul. To think that this small Robin-sized thrush had been carried by the winds across the Atlantic was (and still is) awe-inspiring. It was a great case of not being able to get off the island paying dividends.
Quite the opposite was the case in October 1988 when storms prevented us from getting onto Cape Clear to see a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, a woodpecker species also from North America. The bird arrived during a huge storm that lasted for several days. Those on Cape were stuck there whilst those of us who wanted to see the bird, couldn’t get on.
Thankfully, I had been given the name of a local boatman who was contracted to ship supplies for the upgrade of the pier over to the island. I was told that while the ferry wasn’t running, this boatman might chance it. So I contacted him and we agreed to meet at the quay in Baltimore.
I arrived at 8.30am and found his boat at the pier. It was already heavily weighed down by a mountain of gravel. The wind was howling and it was lashing rain. It was a long wait but he eventually arrived at 11.00am and proceeded to load 120 bags of cement onto the boat. Once they were loaded, the boat was so low in the water that I felt he was not going to risk it…but he did. To say it was a scary crossing is to put it mildly. How the boat did not sink numerous times in the gale force winds and rain is beyond me?
Somehow we reached the island in one piece and he gave me just 90 minutes on the island before he had to turn back. We were greeted by birders who reported that the bird had not been seen since the previous afternoon. They added that birding had been almost impossible due to the weather.
As I walked up to Cotter’s garden where the bird had been last seen, the rain eased off and the wind dropped. Then, almost like a miracle, the rain stopped and the sun came out. With the sun emerged this wonderful exotic woodpecker. It paraded up and down the branches of the trees allowing me to make some sketches of it (see my poor artwork above).
Having entertained us in the garden for about 10 minutes, it then flew up onto the High Road where it shuffled up and down the nearby telegraph poles. Then, with the sun now shining and the wind dropping, it took a look around it and flew strongly down towards South Harbour and out to sea.
Being in the presence of a bird that had survived an Atlantic crossing and which had sheltered in deep cover for days during the storm that had delivered it to Ireland, was yet another one of those moments to remember. However, what impressed me most was the strength of the migration urge to keep moving. Despite the incredible journey it had just made, that urge still had that bird moving south.
Storms and the migration season conjure up so many such moments. What happens to these birds, we’ll never really know. If they survive at all, they will spend their lives on the wrong side of the Atlantic. For those of us who are interested in seeing such birds, it’s hard not to be filled with conflicting emotions. They are lost but that is the reality of nature. Seeing such birds are precious experiences…not in the ‘tick’ sense for me but in the sense of being in presence of such birds.
So, with Ophelia barrelling down on us as I write, I do wonder what species might be seen to stir those birding emotions over the coming days.
The most important thing for now is to stay safe everyone.