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A new book that gets Dúlra’s vote

Conor O’Brien’s new book Conor O’Brien’s new book
By Dúlra

IF there’s a book Dúlra would like to have written, this is it.

Birdwatcher Conor O’Brien decided to explore Ireland Through Birds – the book’s title ­­– and travels the length and breadth of the country to find our finest species.

Twelve Birds One Nation is the brilliant subtitle to his debut book which reveals a wild Ireland waiting to be discovered.

The first bird on the list is one that Dúlra has never seen – at least to his knowledge. Our smallest hawk the merlin is dexterous enough to catch skylarks on the wing. Dúlra’s walked so much of our landscape that he must have encountered it somewhere, but probably dismissed it as just another thrush – which is exactly what it wants its prey to think as well. Conor goes to the coast at Dundalk where this bird of prey often spends the winter months. But the amazing thing is that rather than a story with a happy, Hollywood ending with the merlin making a star appearance, he actually fails to spot one. As he points out, wildlife documentaries take years to make with untold misses – and it’s the journey into the Irish countryside with all its hidden layers that is the payoff.

Conor’s hit-list of birds isn’t an end in themselves – they’re just one part of our country’s rich tapestry. One thing he has always loved about being Irish is that there is history everywhere you go, hanging in the air around you. Birds weave their way through this rich history, which Conor does his best to unravel.
And he points out that the calls of birds that used to be much more common provide an aural window into a time now gone.

He goes searching for a red grouse in the Wicklow Mountains. He takes one of Ireland’s most scenic routes, the Military Road, which was cut through the mountains to disrupt rebels after the rising of 1798. Ireland’s only remaining species of grouse love these vast spaces, where they blend into the heather – occasionally as Dúlra used to walk on Black Mountain, one would burst into the air in front of him. This is a distinct Irish sub-species, but they live in such remove and separate mountain enclaves that the red grouse have become genetic islands, cut adrift from outsiders. The lack of genetic variety leaves them vulnerable.

The grey partridge which Conor finds in the flat, productive fields of County Offaly is a fascinating, incredible bird. He calls them the rabbits of the bird world, scuttling about the grass in family groups. Flight, that ancestral safety mechanism, is only used as a last resort.

Living in open spaces makes them exposed from air and ground, so to compensate the partridge lays more eggs than any other Irish bird – 29 is the record.

The destruction of Ireland’s vast forests was a boon for the partridge, and the gentle rhythms of the farm synchronised with the bird’s lifestyle, giving it ample time to rear its chicks before the crops were gathered. But from the 1960s onwards, its prospects darkened dramatically as mechanisation destroyed nests.
In healthy fields where the partridge should be found, they are now missing. A stable of Irish rural life was obliterated.

By 2000, there were only 30 left in the whole country. At Lough Boora in County Offaly, efforts were finally made to save it, with a nursery being set up and now there are a few hundred pairs breeding there.
As Conor notes, the reintroduction of eagles and kites hog the headlines, but the humble partridge is no less noble a cause. In Offaly, they decided to save the habitat rather than one species. And the partridge is one of many winners.

Conor goes to Tory Island to find the corncrake – as Dúlra has done ­– and to Conamara to find the cuckoo. But the most encouraging are the goosander ducks, síolta mhór in Irish. He finds them in the beautiful Glendalough in County Wicklow. This is a large, colourful duck of wild, secluded lakes, but rather than nest at the water’s edge, it needs a tree hole – the most prized nesting real estate the forest has to offer, Conor writes.

It’s almost impossible to find the right one at the water’s edge, but in Glendalough they made artificial nests for the goosander which the birds have readily taken to. Thirty years ago breeding pairs were unheard of in Ireland – today it’s made a stronghold in County Wicklow, and there’s confidence that with public help, there’s no reason it won’t colonise the whole country.

Ireland Through Bird has been shortlisted for Best Irish Published Book 2019 – it certainly gets Dúlra’s vote.

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