Saturday 20 December 2014

Country Matters: Recluse lurking in reed beds

LAST week, the Belfast Telegraph published a half-page colour photograph of a bittern (botaurus stellaris) stalking in a reed bed at Inch Lake in Co Donegal. This was exciting news for birders and an exclusive scoop for wildlife photographer Martina Gardiner. Visitors were attracted to the area hoping for a glimpse of this rare and reclusive arrival; the species once bred in Ireland but has long been extinct.

The late Major Robin Ruttledge, 'father' of Irish wildbird conservancy, wrote in his seminal "Irish Birds" in 1966: "The bittern was breeding in Munster, Connacht and Ulster up to about 1840 since when no case of its doing so is known." He also noted: "Probably regular winter visitor." That's the clue. But the birds are as scarce as hens' teeth and it is rare if a British-bred bird – there are about 20 pairs surviving – should wing its way across during winter habitat dispersal, or if a mainland European should stray here.

The bittern had ceased to breed in Britain also by 1868, according to the RSPB, as many wetlands had been drained, the birds were hunted as food and, as they became scarcer, eggs were stolen by collectors and remaining birds were shot for taxidermy.

Fortunately there was some recolonisation early in the last century and nesting began again.

The bittern makes an unusual and remarkable sound during spring and early summer mating period, a unique booming like a foghorn or a sound made when blowing over the mouth of an empty bottle or glass demijohn.

Major Ruttledge records this being last heard in Co Wicklow in 1962.

In a newspaper newsroom at that time I remember a colleague taking issue with my assertion that the bird was extinct as she had heard the booming while walking in the Dublin hills!

I had wondered if the poet Francis Ledwidge had heard a bittern in the Boyne reed beds to encourage his poem about Thomas MacDonagh ("He shall not hear the bittern cry/In the wild sky where he is lain etc") but of course MacDonagh's best known work was "The Yelllow Bittern", a translation of "An Bunan Buidhe" by the Ulster poet Cathal Buidhe MacGiolla Gunna, a poem which was included in schools' curricula, and perhaps still is.

In the early 1960s also, the late Liam Clancy, as a soloist in concerts in late-night venues such as the Grafton in Dublin (long gone), used include the MacDonagh translation in his repertoire: "It's not for the common birds that I'd mourn/The blackbird, the corncrake or the crane/ But for the bunan buidhe that's shy and apart/And drinks in the marsh from the lone bog-drain."

MacGiolla Gunna, having found a dead bird of the "long smooth neck" felt that it had died of thirst!

The Donegal bittern has been regularly observed since its famous photograph, BirdWatch Ireland reports. The bittern has a richly mottled golden brown colouring, is smaller than a grey heron and has large green legs and feet. It spends much of the time hiding in dense reedbeds emerging in the evenings to seek fish, frogs and insects to eat.

The possibility of a pair meeting and nesting here is remote. The Donegal bird lives in hope, perhaps, booming occasionally, but not destined, it is hoped, to leave its bones on a naked stone, like Cathal Buidhe's poor bird.

Sunday Independent

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