Tuesday 7 February 2012

10 years a birding

Its almost 10 years since I got back into birding. I say "got back into" because there was a period way back when as a little boy of 8 years of age I was bird obsessed. And I remember how it all started. My mother had taught me to recognise the common species, Blackbird, Thrush, Blue Tit, Magpie and Robin. Then one day I saw a bird on the back garden wall that didn't look like any of those (looking back it was probably a fledgling Blackbird). Then, as luck would have it, a week later I found a bird book in my national school library. This, I thought, would tell me what my mystery bird was. Well no such luck, but every week for the next year I drew that book out (I think I can safely say that no-one else was interested in it apart from me!). I knew that book inside out, but for the life of me I can't recall the title. All the nice birds seemed had the caveat "does not occur in Ireland"........no Woodpeckers, Golden Eagles, Golden Orioles or Firecrests.........as an innocent 8 year I thought "did Britain have that much of a hold on us that they had taken all the good birds for themselves.....surely not?" Ah, the innocence of it. Anyway, little by little, I started to recognise some of the birds from the book. I ticked House Sparrow on a cub scouts outing to Dublin Zoo, Rook and Hooded Crow eating leftover crusts in the school play-ground and those were no longer seagulls, they were Herring Gulls......or whatever (I still struggle there)! I made a little make-shift bird table in the back garden. It was more of a death trap than a bird table, nice and low for the local cats and with several bent nails sticking out of it. Nonetheless I was nearly beside myself when a  female Blackcap appearred on it! Meanwhile I convinced my Dad to fork out a few quid to join me up to the Irish Wildbird Conservancy (IWC). I'd wait for weeks on end for the postman to bring the quarterly newsletter which I'd then read cover to cover. Then wait another 3 months for the next issue. Christmas and birthday presents became easy for me, birdbooks.....I still have them all. They're pretty dog-eared now but precious nonetheless. I remember one book 'The Osbourne Spotters Guide to Birds' had a little box beside each illustration. The idea being to place a tick in the box when you had seen the bird. I had very few ticked but that all changed on a school outing to the Natural History Museum.........I ticked almost everything in the book when I got home that afternoon. No-one said the bird needed to be living (I've tidied my list up a little since then). Meanwhile, the birds in our back garden got a surprise upgrade to their dining facilities when my Grandfather (a dab-hand with a hammer and nails) made me a very smart bird table. I kept on feeding the birds every winter and added Coal Tit, Great Tit, Siskin, Fieldfare and Greenfinch to the garden list. I remember great excitment when I saw my first Swifts wheeling over the house one morning in May. And my birding (or birdwatching as I called it back then) went beyond the back garden. I had read in the IWC newsletter that the West Pier in Dun Laoghaire was a good place to see birds. I asked my Dad to take me and he gave up his Saturday morning golf on several ocassions to bring me down the pier. That's where I saw Common Scoter, Great Crested Grebe and Red-breasted Merganser for the first time. In Sligo, where we'd go on holidays, I saw Brent Goose, Gannet, Willow Warbler and Redwings for the first time. I remember staying somewhere up in Donegal in a caravan, my Dad woke my in the dead of night to allow me hear my first ever Corncrake. I remain very grateful to this day that he woke me, I've heard very few since.
Then, sometime around the age of 12 my interest seemed to wane. I had started secondary school, birds were seriously uncool and I had a new passion........schools rugby!! I played 2 matches a week, trained 3 days a week and bit by bit I forgot about the birds. The IWC newsletter would arrive and I would barely glance at it. In the end I wouldn't even bother to open the envelope. Eventually Dad cancelled the subscription.
The years passed by, rugby, exams, college, career and all that meant I paid next to no attention to the birds. There were plenty of more important distractions. Ok, so my eye would still be caught by a Kestrel hovering on a motorway or one time a Kingfisher on the river Loire when I was in France for a summer holiday but no more than that.
Then, 20 years on I bought my first house. It was a normal 3 bed semi in Sallins, Co. Kildare. But it had a beautiful garden. I collected the keys from the solicitor on my 32nd birthday as it happened. I remember letting myself into the house and feeling that sense of pride you get as a new home-owner. I looked out to the back garden and there was a flock of birds crowding around an almost empty feeder. I could still recognise some of them, Chaffinches mainly, the odd Greenfinch and a few Blue Tits. All clamouring for the last remaining peanuts. It was my house, my garden and so my birds I thought. I went straight up to the local hardware shop, bought a big bag of peanuts and replenished the feeders. I turned a dustbin lid upside down and filled it with water. The birds seemed very pleased.

The garden of my old house in Sallins, a great place for birds!

That was 2002, and it had started all over again.  I dusted down one of my old field guides and re-joined Birdwatch Ireland. Bit by bit I started to see more birds. A Sparrowhawk in the garden, a Kingfisher on the river Dodder beside Lansdowne Road stadium and one day while fishing off a pier near Waterville, Co. Kerry....a Great Northern Diver.
From that point on the birding just seemed to gather momentum for me. I joined up with the Liffey Valley branch of BirdWatchIreland and went on field trips to Kilcoole, Broadlough, Shannon Callows and many other places. I made some great friends in Denis Carty, David Browne and Bob Strickland. A career move to Cork really added fuel to the fire, finally getting to visit Cape Clear Island in 2006, the first of many trips there.

Seawatching on Cape Clear Island 2006

Indeed in 2008 I found a first for Cape Clear........a Great Spotted Woodpecker.

I don't care to think how much of my hard earned cash I've spent on birding between bins, telescopes, cameras, lenses, tripods, birding trips, clothing, books and magazines...........a lot! But worth every penny. And birding has brought me to parts of the world that I never would have gone to otherwise. The Gambia, Namibia, Ecuador, Argentina, Panama, The Galapagos and even the Antarctic.

A break from the birding - playing footy with the local kids - The Gambia 2006
Paradise Bay, Antarctic Peninsula 2007
Miraflores Lock, Panama Canal 2009

Looking for Albatrosses - Southern Atlantic Ocean 2007
I'm also very fortunate to have a wife that shares my interest in birds. Going to Galapagos for our honeymoon in 2010 was an obvious choice and the trip of a lifetime!

Polina and I - Santa Cruz Island, The Galapagos 2010
Shortly after I became interested in birds again my girlfriend at the time told me never to tell anyone I was into birds...'no good can come of it' she said. Possibly she was joking but I'm glad I didn't listen to her. Birding will probably never be cool, I remember as a kid being ridiculed for being interested in birds. Its changed a bit now but birders are an odd lot. I still get strange looks when I wander about with bins around my neck. However when people ask, I'm always very happy to show them what I'm looking at and tell them a little bit about birds, who knows what sort of spark I might be setting off.
If you're reading this and you're becoming interested in birds then good for you......stick at it, its a wonderful pastime. Put out food for your garden birds and then go and join BirdwatchIreland or if you live in the UK join the RSPB. Birds face so many challenges now, from habitat loss to illegal hunting and trapping, they need all the friends they can get.  I'm eternally grateful to have found birding again and I doubt I'll ever lose that interest. I hope the next 10 years are as good as the last!


  1. Great read Graham. I think a lot of us "returnees" have similar stories of being mad keen birders up to some point in our teens and then it all goes pear-shaped and other things take over. For me it was beer, birds (the non-feathered kind) and (motor)bikes that got in the way. I'm only into my 3 year back birding now but can't see myself giving it up a second time. Plus it's going to take me a life time to get my head around the photography. Keep posting, always a good read.

  2. Glad you enjoyed the post Floss and keep up the photography. Imagine what a list we'd both have if we didn't take a break from it!

  3. Don't remind me of the list! No peckers, no Nuthatch, most of raptors, no owls, loadsa quacks, NO WALLCREEPER!
    I reset my list to zero when I started again in 2010. Even at a very conservative gues-timate of one tick per month, that would be 360 extra species, over the non-birding period if I had kept it up. Tragic! ;-)