Birdwatching is experiencing a boom in popularity. And it is evolving into a booming tourist industry for Ireland. Bring it on, twitchers!
To some, birdwatching might, on the surface, look like a strange pastime involving a few people dressed in camouflage jackets running around the countryside looking for some small brown birds. But birdwatching is a lot more than that.
We are all birdwatchers to a greater or lesser degree. At some stage or other each of us has had our attention drawn to a wild bird, whether looking at a cheeky robin in the garden, watching seagulls during a day at the beach in summer or when feeding the swans at the local pond, birdwatching can become a lifetime hobby. Its beauty is that birds are everywhere, from the windowsill in the centre of a town or city to the cliff tops of the most remote, windswept island. So you can birdwatch anywhere, anytime, and anyone can do it, no matter what their age, sex or physical ability. Even if you are confined to home, to bed, or to a wheelchair you are in business as long as you have even the most limited window to the outside world.
Once you are bitten by the bug (or bird!), there is no limit to the level of enjoyment and knowledge to be gained from studying even one bird species. Whole books, for instance, have been written about the robin alone. Through birdwatching you can also get involved in practical conservation work by taking part in national and international surveys. You can make a valuable contribution to our knowledge and the conservation of birds. Birdwatching is also one of the best introductions, both for young and old, to the natural world around us. You may find that your attention will be drawn to the flowers and plants which birds use, or to the multitude of creatures, big and small, on which they prey. Most good birdwatchers are also very knowledgeable about plants, animals, butterflies and moths, and even weather forecasting. Many of the most famous naturalists began as birdwatchers.
IDENTIFYING IRELAND’S BIRDS
Bird identification is basically an exercise in observation. It makes you examine more closely everything you see and hear. With practice you will learn to gather a lot of information in a short space of time about the birds you find. Sometimes it can be very easy as some birds such as the magpie have very obvious features that’ are unique to them. Other times, for the differentiation of birds that look very similar such as the willow warbler and chiffchaff it is a bit like those ‘spot the difference’ puzzles where two images are presented that look identical but have very subtle differences, and you have tolook carefully to see them.
Even if you can identify only a dozen different birds, by looking at them and memorising what they look like, you will notice that there is something different about any ‘new’ bird which appears. Apart from a really good guidebook (like The Birds of Ireland – A Field Guide) is a notebook. This is used to write down what where and when you have seen and heard, and anything you feel is important to keep as a record.
It should also be used to take descriptions of birds you cannot readily identify without your notebook, by the time you get out this guide the bird may well have flown away never to be seen again. You won’t be able to remember complicated plumage details, blue may become green, grey may turn to black, streaking disappears, and size and shape become distorted. You may end up convincing yourself that the bird you spotted is the same as the first bird you come across in the book which looks vaguely like it, passing over minor details such as its extreme rarity or the fact that there are other very similar species which are far more common than the one you have picked out. Making a quick sketch of any mystery bird you see is also very valuable.
With a little practice, you can record a large amount of information about a bird in this way in a short space of time. You do not need a degree in art. In fact, you do not need to be able to draw well at all. If you think about it, if you wanted to give someone directions you would probably draw a they were quite far away with a completely new hairstyle and clothes, because of the combination of the way they walk, hold themselves, their size, body proportions, etc., which, when taken all together are unique to that person. It is the same for birds map rather than have them remember the directions in their head.
When identifying birds it is the same thing. Think of your humble sketch as a map rather than a work of art. You can practice your observation skills by describing and sketching birds you know that are easy to find and watch, such as birds in your garden or at a local pond or woodland. Then compare your notes with the species images and text in this guide and see how well you observed the birds. Taking notes makes you to look more closely and systematically at the birds you see and hear, and helps you become a better birdwatcher Note: most mobile phones have a sound record option and this could also be used to record your bird description. If the bird is making any sounds, these can sometimes be loud enough to record also.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR WHEN IDENTIFYING A BIRD
Sometimes we only get a few seconds or minutes to look at a bird before it flies away or dives into a bush, never to be seen again. Obviously the more details you can get the easier it will be to identify the bird, and the key pieces of information you need to focus on are: size, shape, patterns, colours, sounds, habits and movement, habitat and time of year observed. If possible, record as much of this information as you can before you look at the species descriptions in this guide.
‘Jizz’ is a term used by birdwatchers to describe that almost indescribable element of a bird’s appearance. It usually becomes recognisable when you get familiar with a species. For example, you would be able to identify a good friend even if they were quite far away with a completely new hairstyle and clothes, because of the combination of the way they walk, hold themselves, their size, body proportions, etc., which, when taken all together are unique to that person. It is the same for birds.
WHY CONSERVE BIRDS?
There are many reasons why we should conserve bird life. Firstly birds play a very important part in the web of life on our planet. They provide us with food, beauty and inspiration and, within the food chain, they play a vital role, for example in helping to balance populations of ‘pest’ insects or in clearing carrion. Without birds our lives would be much duller!
There are many ways in which you can help to conserve our birds and the special habitats in which they live. They are an important part of our natural heritage now and for the future. Through bird conservation our countryside’s wild habitats will be retained, therefore, by conserving birds we also take care of the places where they live and the many other species of wildlife that co-exist in those places, covering almost every type of habitat you can think of, from the ocean to the mountains. Because birds can fly and do not recognise political boundaries they are the best example to show the need for a global approach to wildlife conservation.
Ireland plays host to hundreds of thousands of birds which spend part of their year in another country often very far away and necessitating a flight that will take them across many countries. For example, the swallow, which comes to Ireland each summer to raise its young, undertakes a hazardous journey to reach here. Apart from having to survive the winter months south of the Sahara, it will, when it starts its migration in spring, first have to endure the harsh conditions over the Sahara desert. If it succeeds, it will face sea crossings and illegal hunting over the Mediterranean before eventually returning to Ireland. Similarly geese that are protected in Ireland are shot in other countries on their way south to winter here each year. If we want birds such as the swallow to return to us each summer; it is vital that international co-operation between governments is encouraged.
BIRDS OF PREY IN IRELAND
Hawks and falcons are the most common birds of prey in Ireland. Hawks tend to have rounded wings and long tails, use surprise attack to catch their prey and feed mainly on birds and also small mammals. Hawks will hunt in woodland and gardens. The sparrowhawk is the best known of the hawks in this country. Falcons tend to have more pointed wings than hawks and like to hunt in the open. Many falcons catch their prey on the wing but our most familiar falcon, the kestrel, prefers to hunt small mammals.
Harriers have relatively long wings and tails. They hunt by moving along a field, reed bed, or moor looking for prey on the ground. They ‘flap and glide’; a few wing beats and then glide with the wings held in a shallow V. They feed on small birds and small mammals. The Hen Harrier is the only breeding member of this group in Ireland. The Marsh Harrier bred up to the end of the 19th century and the rare Montague’s Harrier has been recorded breeding here on a couple of occasions in the past.
The Hen Harrier is declining as a breeding species, probably as a result of loss of good moorland habitat where they breed, and climate change. Eagles, buzzards and kites will readily eat carrion (dead animals) and also small mammals and even fish, in the case of the white-tailed sea eagle. All three were extinct in Ireland as breeding species by the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries, largely due to human persecution. The Buzzard re-colonised naturally with a pair in Antrim in 1933 and has been spreading south and west since then.
Eagles and kites, on the other hand, have been the subject of reintroduction programmes in recent decades. The golden eagle is being reintroduced in Donegal, the white-tailed eagle in Kerry and the red kite in Wicklow, Dublin and Down. Golden eagles and red kites are once again breeding in the wild in Ireland and white-tailed eagles are set to breed in the not-too-distant future. The fondness for carrion of all these birds of prey has unfortunately led to some being killed by the illegal use of poison in pieces of meat laid out to kill foxes, etc. Six species of the owl family have occurred in Ireland, but only two – the barn owl and the long-eared owl – regularly breed here. They usually hunt at night but will also hunt in daylight hours, especially at dawn and dusk during the breeding season or when food is scarce. They eat mainly small mammals but also small birds.
In recent years there has been a dramatic decline in breeding barn owls. The cause of decline is not clearly understood and is thought to be a combination of factors, such as habitat loss, secondary poisoning, climate change, etc. The short-eared owl is a winter visitor that usually hunts by day and the other three species, including the snowy owl, are very rare.
If you want to get outside an spot ACTUAL creatures, rather than augmented ones, and like Pokémon Go, do it with other humans, then birdwatching is for you.
Get involved by visiting Birdwatch Ireland.