Monday 18 November 2019

Country Matters: Flutter of the doves who took flight like schoolgirls on each other's trail

Rock Sparrow
Rock Sparrow

Joe Kennedy

I had been keeping an eye out for the doves that I hadn't seen for a while and then, unexpectedly, there was an anxious fluttering towards willows in a landscaped recess.

This was not far from a villa residence, really a small hotel, where a housekeeper had told me that Jackie Onassis had once stayed. I had given my name and she offered to show me "Mrs Kennedy's room". From there one could walk down through tiered garden landscaping to a boardwalk and on to a long beach facing the Atlantic. Pretty spectacular - and from another time, it appeared.

The doves I had been trying to identify since I had seen them, were like gentle, nervous schoolgirls, anxiously trailing each other, never too far apart as if concerned that one might lose the other. Were they turtle doves (streptopelia turtur), small creatures with a particular neck mark, or rufus turtles (s. orientalis), also with necklace, laughing doves (s.senegalensis), with black spotted scarves or simply collared doves (s.decaocto) of bold neck band and common in Ireland and most of Europe except here in the Iberian Peninsula? I wanted to settle on the turtle for its smallness (like a blackbird) and its shyness because I learned it was much hunted. In parts of Europe that's not unusual.

The turtle pair have been missing this week and may have moved to Africa for the winter. Not so crag martins (ptyonoprogne rupestris), sturdy, confident fellows that skim between the high rises in the early mornings, picking up drifting mites. The occasional one has come close to my home, looking well-groomed. Their flight is agile and quite acrobatic, spreading their tails when turning, showing white spots. Their homes are on a rocky cliff-face about 2kms away. They stay all year round while their Alpine brothers move south in winter. Sand martins (riparia riparia) bore into soft cliff-faces whereas the crags build strong nests beneath protective rocky abutments.

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An evening treat is to watch and listen to hundreds of tree and rock sparrows (passer montanus, petronia petronia) as they settle for the night on two broadleaf trees. I watch and listen to them as they assemble for the night like starlings or the O'Connell Street pied wagtails of old, endlessly chattering and changing places. In the early mornings there is a tremendous humming as they bestir themselves for a new day.


The last time I met Gay Byrne, whom I had known since he began writing a column for the Herald in the 1960s, was at a lunch when he asked me about hearing nightly birdsong where he lived in Ballsbridge. I phoned Niall Hatch of BirdWatch Ireland there and then, passed over my mobile, Niall providing the necessary information and Gay absorbing the technical detail about bird behaviour and street lighting, etc, as the first-class interviewer that he was. May he rest in peace.

Joe Kennedy was writing from the Algarve, Portugal.

Sunday Independent

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