Sunday 15 September 2019

Country Matters: Rare sight of waiting curlews


Joe Kennedy

A full basket of blackberries for jam-making and then, over a hedgerow, a startling sight for the finger-stained pickers, of more than a dozen curlews in a field overlooking the ocean.

In west Kerry, where plump mackerel were shoaling, local people promptly pointed out that this was a clear augury for the county football team: the birds were waiting to greet the arrival of significant silverware!

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The curlews were 'visitants' (a word of an old naturalist to describe migratory birds) and would soon move on. They had arrived from Europe, or perhaps Scotland and northern England, to winter here. Once very much characteristic of this country, native-bred numbers have plummeted of this largest and most familiar of waders. It is now a rare sight.

Two years ago, English birder and writer Mary Colwell went on an Irish walking and speaking tour to promote awareness of the species' plight and wrote a book highlighting habitat loss, human incursion and intensive farming methods as being among the causes of decline. Curlew 'pastures', places remote enough to provide secure breeding areas, became fewer; coastal territories were over-run by holiday developments. As man encroached, wild places faded. The birds just moved silently off into the morning mist, north to the Western Isles of Scotland to probe estuaries and mud-flats with their amazing beaks for marine worms, crabs and molluscs.

I once watched a lone bird among rocks with a mussel firmly gripped, oyster -catcher style, banging it on a stone to get a better purchase and force open the shell. It was entirely focused on its task, and this shy bird appeared oblivious of my presence.

The birds' evening cry, a ringing 'coor-li', was familiar to coastal and seashore walkers homeward bound, as in times past, it coincided with the Angelus bell that the agricultural working day had ended. This familiar sky-high call contrasts with an extraordinarily sad, wild bubbling song heard on breeding fields. The liquid crescendo of the mating trill is displayed in an air-dance by the male bird, rising steeply and then gliding down with wings held in a shallow V-shape. Robert Burns called this "elevation of the soul".

I have wondered if the image of a different water bird - the reclusive bittern - had not crept into the vision of another poet, Francis Ledwidge, in his Lament for Thomas McDonagh ("He shall not hear the bittern cry, in the wild sky"). The 'bunan buidhe,' well hidden in rushes and not airborne, makes a powerful booming call at mating time from January to April which may be heard over a considerable distance. Was Ledwidge, who did not return from the 1914-18 war, really thinking of a curlew?

You may not be as fortunate as Kerry folk to see curlews while gathering a great blackberry harvest, but consider the variety of treats for this vitamin-C rich fruit - pies, puddings, jams, jellies and drink combinations. So go and gather. Tip: soak some in red wine overnight!

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