Lonesome cry of a shy, elusive shore bird
I have often wondered if the image of another wading bird had swept across the vision of Francis Ledwidge in his Lament for Thomas MacDonagh.
The poem opens with the lines most schoolchildren remember, especially at this time: "He shall not hear the bittern cry in the wild sky where he is lain". MacDonagh's bird was, of course, a bittern, the powerfully-beaked Bunan Buidhe of his translation of Cathal Buidhe MacGiolla Gunna's epic of a reclusive reed-dweller whose "bones were thrown on a naked stone/ Where he lived alone like a hermit monk".
A bittern is not a bird regularly heard crying in the wild sky but is rather a denizen of dense river vegetation whose curious booming calls - like blowing over the mouth of an empty jar - would have been familiar to Ledwidge at Slane. Today, unfortunately, their cries are not heard at all, except from a rarely passing UK visitor; one was photographed in the North last year.
Ledwidge could have been thinking of the curlew, a shy wader of estuaries whose cries in the evening skies of "coor-li, coor-li" were as familiar as the Angelus, indicating that farm work was ending for the day.
There is concern now that the curlew, like the bittern, is heading for wipe-out, a harsh prospect to consider: indications are there have been fewer sightings and sounds of a bird Robert Burns called "an elevation of the soul".
A UK birder, Mary Colwell-Hector, is currently on a walking trip here to raise awareness of the decline. She has been talking to fellow birders in some provincial centres and is seeking support for a BirdWatch Ireland cry-of-the-curlew appeal. Almost as elusive as the bittern, the curlew is usually seen as a solitary wader and is usually wary of man. High in the evening skies, its flight calls may be heard but spotting it on tidal stretches calls for careful scanning with binoculars.
In the 1980s, author Clive Hutchinson of the then Irish Wildbird Conservancy wrote that the curlew was "widespread at most time of the year". Alas, no more.
There has been a serious dispersal, perhaps northward towards the Scottish Isles, of this eccentric bird, which nature fashioned to inhabit salt marshes and inlets with long legs and incredible curved beak for probing deeply for food.
In an older Ireland, it was an evening-time clock. The birds headed for night roosts on islets and headlands and their lonesome cries indicated darkness would soon fall.
A number of reasons have been given for the decline. There are the usual ones of changing agricultural practices but also one of hunting, which I found surprising. I would image that the flesh would be as vile as that reported of grey heron, say, or shield-duck. I am aware this did not stop Brian Vesey Fitzgerald, when, as editor of Country Life, he sampled wild creatures. He described the taste of curlew as "a bit kippery".
If you are lucky at the seashore, you may see a curlew waking slowly and deliberately, watching the sand for invertebrates and probing deeply with its amazing beak. Once only I heard its bubbling trill of song, rising to an ecstatic crescendo of wild notes in an air-dance display by the male bird which rises steeply and then glides downwards with wings in a 'V'.
To the poet Ted Hughes, the birds were "wet-footed gods" that "hang their harps over the misty valleys".
Many harps may now be played by angels.