Tuesday 20 February 2018

Country Matters: Fearless fairy birds' infinity of grace

BRAVE: The red-necked phalarope (P lobatus). Photo: Andreas Treple
BRAVE: The red-necked phalarope (P lobatus). Photo: Andreas Treple

Joe Kennedy

Several years might pass between sightings of one of Ireland's most elusive birds - and even then, its nesting site might remain in the exclusive care of dedicated people of BirdWatch Ireland, the leading avian charity.

This bird is the red-necked phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus) whose tiny Irish breeding colony in north Mayo is the most southerly in the world and whose principal nesting places are in the Baltic, spending its winters in large flocks in the middle of the Arabian Sea.

It was described as a fairy bird by the renowned naturalist and scientist Robert Lloyd Praeger (subsequent president of the Royal Irish Academy), who, with his wife-companion traversed mountains and bog-lands, sleeping in sheds and on boats, recording what they saw and heard during the early years of the last century.

Praeger's seminal work, The Way That I Went - which is still in print - contains an observation that I have never forgotten, describing an unnamed village as having: "a dozen inhabited houses, a dozen ruined houses and half-a-dozen public houses".

Little has changed in more than a century, except that now there would be just one pub, trading only at night!

Praeger wrote about seeing the phalarope, then unrecognised by him, when he chanced upon it in "a place that shall be nameless, on a barren, storm-swept, half-sandy, half-peaty flat, intersected with shallow pools on the edge of the Atlantic".

In what he described as their most interesting ornithological adventure, they found themselves among "fairy-like little birds quite unknown but evidently belonging to the plover family".

They showed no fear of the couple, "darting about our feet, running over slender water plants which filled the pools, uttering often a small, sharp cry". This has been described by another observer as like a violin string being plucked.

The couple stood, "astonished for a long time" as the birds ran around them. The colour of crown, cheeks, back of neck, breast sides and mantle was lead-grey with rufus-ochre on sides of neck.

When the Praegers got back to Dublin they learned that they had accidentally stumbled upon the sole Irish breeding site of the phalarope which had been uncovered just a year earlier by another ornithologist who may have been named Dresser, quoted by Praeger as describing the bird as "flying lightly as a butterfly and swimming like an egg-shell".

The phalarope in the sea holds its neck slanting forwards, nodding in pace with swimming motions and spinning around stirring up food morsels. The female bird does the courting, leaving incubation to the male, a fearless nest protector.

Praeger quotes a naturalist named Harvie-Brown as describing it as the tamest of birds, exhibiting a "trusting simplicity seldom seen, even in domestic fowls" and Manson Bahr in British Birds (1907) writing of its "infinity of grace in every movement".

These fairy birds were first observed breeding at Annagh Marsh in The Mullet, Co Mayo in 1900 and intermittently ever since. After a lengthy absence, phalaropes returned last June but specific details from the site appear to be professionally sensitive.

Sunday Independent

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