I would describe myself as a reasonably well-travelled Southern African birder. I have crossed the subcontinent in most directions and to most corners. I have a bit of a glaring gap in Mozambique, which will hopefully be rectified within a year or two, but when it comes to World birding I would have to acknowledge that I am close to a complete novice.
I was fortunate to travel overseas a number of times as a kid but the last 15 years or so have been very locally based. My only international birding was on the island of Mauritius during a family holiday, but a total list of 27 species for a 10 day holiday which included a visit to the only remaining indigenous forest on the island and a pelagic trip indicates how desperate the birding really is on the island. That trip did include some pretty good sightings of one of the world’s rarest birds, the Mauritius Olive White-eye, which they reckon numbers fewer than 200 individuals. To have captured it on camera is certainly a World birding highlight.
But, overall it did not get the heart racing.
So, that has been about it from an international perspective.
Recently the company I work for has been involved in a business in Dublin and I already have one trip under the belt this year which was undertaken in January. It was a short trip and given the very short days I did not even get to wander around the city parks to look for a few birds.
A trip in June seemed like a very good opportunity to get some birding under the belt. Despite the brevity of the trip (also 4 days) the very long summer days would give me a chance to spend a little time looking for a few birds outside of my working hours.
Dublin city is a pretty normal European city. The streets are busy, the buildings are grey and the people always seem to be purposefully on the move.
As is the case with most busy cities there is a city centre green area called St Stephen’s Green and that would be my first port of call. I had bought myself an Irish field guide on my last visit and during the flight over I paged through looking for the likely candidates that would find themselves on my list.
A slightly disappointing aspect was realizing that summer was actually the poorer time for birding in Ireland. Despite the warmer days and greater insect activity for the passerines it is a very poor time of year for gulls, waders and waterfowl which, in Ireland, makes up a fairly sizeable portion of the available species. In winter, many of these birds use Ireland as a “mild” wintering area whilst their breeding grounds further north are gripped by icy winters. Many of the Palearctic waders do not actually migrate all the way to the southern hemisphere but use countries like Ireland for their wintering grounds. The ducks and geese have a similar pattern and the seemingly cold winters (from our perspective) in Ireland are positively balmy for these birds.
Despite this, I was still likely to see a few decent birds. I had lugged my binoculars and camera with me to Dublin but I decided to leave my big lens behind, favouring my smaller, lighter one. It was a good decision from a convenience aspect but the miserable light that is par for the course in Ireland made for tricky photography. It is important to make a few excuses for the poor images that I captured on the trip.
My visit to St Stephen’s Green happened to coincide with Dublin’s most beautiful evening in quite some time. The sun was shining brightly and the thermometer was a warm 14 degrees.
Perfect for birding.
Unfortunately also perfect for every single Dubliner to spend time in the park. There were literally hundreds of people using the park for all sorts of purposes – soccer, picnicking, yoga, Pilates, martial arts and most notably there was a lot of close contact between couples of all sorts of descriptions. It seemed as if Spring was not only in the air for the birds.
Chasing flitting birds to all the nooks and crannies in the park often ended up with me almost on top of two people in a rather tight embrace. Fortunately the weather was pretty cold so they were all clothed.
It follows that the highlight of my visit to the park was finding several pairs of tits in one of those nooks and crannies. Yes – Blue Tits, Coal Tits and Long-tailed Tits. What else did you think I meant?
In amongst all the people I saw all sorts of new birds. I think my list crept up to at least 23 species but it was just nice to be out and seeing and photographing birds I had not seen before. The dainty little Robin (red-breast) along with Mistle and Song Thrush were the most photogenic and the Tufted Ducks (which we are allowed to tick in Dublin) put on a great display in one of the ponds. Woodpigeon, Blackbird, Magpie and Mallard were all ubiquitous and a hint of familiarity swept over me as several Chaffinch trilled from the woodland on the lawn edges.
It was a good introduction to the birds of the city but this was not going to satisfy my needs. 90 minutes of birding in the inner city was definitely not going to be enough.
Ahead of the trip I decided to contact Birdwatch Ireland, an Irish birding association, and try get hold of a guide for an evening after work. I figured two evenings spent with my colleagues in the pub, sipping a Guinness or two, would buy me at least a single evening of selfishness to do my own thing.
I was delighted and pretty surprised to receive a personal mail from Eric Dempsey offering to take me out on one of the evenings. Eric Dempsey is the foremost birder in Ireland and the author of the field guide that I had purchased on my previous trip. Unfortunately the timing was off and Eric was not able to take me out on my free night. This wasn’t a bother at all – Eric made sure I was not let down and put me in touch with one of his protégés, Phillip Clancy, who would fill the void and ensure that I did not bumble around with very little idea of where to go.
Phillip picked me up at my accommodation in the middle of 5pm traffic and we hit the road north.
It was very interesting chatting to Phillip as I got in the car. The Irish financial circumstances are in a very depressing state. The banking crisis from 2008 has had a huge effect on Ireland due to the Irish banks’ exposure to toxic debt. Ireland went into deep recession and is still struggling to find its feet. Many people lost their jobs and those people that were self-employed in some form of trade have found it very difficult to find work as the building industry has collapsed. Phillip was a trained plumber but now cannot get enough work to get by. Bird guiding fills a bit of the gap but birding tourism has also taken a dive as the flow of tourists from America has dried up.
Putting the state of Ireland behind us we headed to the Sord Estuary about 30 minutes north of the city. It wasn’t raining but it was very overcast making photography very difficult. The estuary had large numbers of birds but I was reminded by Phillip of the paucity of birds relative to the winter months. He described scenes of thousands of waders, waterfowl and gulls at the same estuary during the depths of winter. It was a strange concept for me to grasp in that our summer birding is just so much more prolific than the winter.
We quickly added birds like Shelduck, Mallard, Mute Swan, Lapwing, Grey Heron, Black-headed Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Greater Black-backed Gull, Herring Gull and a lone Godwit which we opted for as Black-tailed – it was distant and the features were not as obvious as we would have liked.
We are spoilt for choice when it comes to raptors in South Africa. Phillip had been to SA on a few occasions and kept on reminding me to appreciate what we have as the raptors in Ireland are pretty thin on the ground. We eked out a poor view of a Buzzard and a single Kestrel a little later in the day. Phillip pointed out that the corvids in Ireland replace the raptors and this is clearly evidenced by the variety of species of corvid. In our short time out we saw 4 species including Hooded Crow, Magpie, Jackdaw and Rook. There are plenty of others including Carrion Crow, Raven, Jay and Chough. The corvids are not everyone’s favourite family of birds but one has to admire how they have assumed a role that has not been well filled in Ireland.
After covering the estuarine mud flats we turned our attention to the small open farmlands and hedges alongside the estuary. This was where I expected to see the most new species. Within seconds the passerines were popping up – Dunnock, Yellowhammer, Reed Bunting, Linnet, Goldfinch, Greenfinch, Bullfinch, Wren and Meadow Pipit. Almost a full complement of lifers for me. Unfortunately, the only birds that found their way onto my memory card were the Meadow Pipit and Wren.
We packed up at Sord estuary and headed South east alongside the coast stopping at a marsh which had large flocks of Curlew and European Oystercatcher. Our next stop was the little harbour of Howth – a very quaint little village as one would expect outside the main city. The target here was Black Guillemot and within seconds Phillip had three of them swimming and diving amongst the boats within the confines of the small harbour. Once again the birds were distant and the possibility of a photo was virtually nil. I was compensated very slightly with a poor photo of a Pied Wagtail.
Our final stop was a headland just outside the town of Howth. This was what I had been looking forward to the whole evening. We walked along the cliffs overlooking the Irish Sea and despite a very cold breeze blowing behind our backs it was a clear evening and we had great views of Guillemots, Razorbills, Kittiwakes, Herring Gulls and Fulmars. I took a few pics of the birds as they whizzed around the cliff face but they will just count as record shots. More time, a longer lens and better light would have improved things but the lack of good photos didn’t bother me as I breathed in the fresh Irish Sea air and enjoyed the last bit of light before the evening’s birding came to a close. The winding call of a Rock Pipit alerted us to its presence on the rocks just above the crashing waves and it was certainly a very different bird to our African Rock Pipit. The last birds on the list were a pair of hirundine species – House Martin and Sand Martin.
I was amazed when I looked at my watch as we got in the car to head back and it was almost 10:30. A full 5 hours of birding squeezed in after a full day’s work. No one could accuse me of not making the most of my time in Dublin.
My time in Dublin was very brief but I ended the trip with a list of 57 species at least half of which were lifers for me. I will hopefully get an opportunity to do a bit of winter birding the next time I am over to fill my list a little more. It is also a reminder of how lucky we are in South Africa to have the diversity and specialisation that we do have. Ireland does not have a single endemic species and there are only around 430 recorded species. Still, they have a great deal of resources for birding with a great field guide supplemented by a “where to watch” book authored by Eric Dempsey.
The birding experience was considerably enhanced by using Phillip as a local guide. His knowledge of the calls and his very detailed understanding of the local spots made all the difference in picking up the different species. I would have missed well over half of them if I had been on my own. Phillip had also spent most of the day recce’ing the localities we would visit so we could maximize our chances of seeing what was on offer. His commitment to the cause was further demonstrated when he drove 30 minutes to the airport the next day to hand over my rain jacket after I had left it in the car the night before.
I know there won’t be many SA based birders that are likely to travel to Dublin specifically for birding but if you are on a business trip or you are there for any other reason don’t hesitate in contacting Phillip or Eric to take you out, no matter how short the time spent. You can get Eric’s details on his website at www.birdsireland.com.