Thursday 18 January 2018

Hanging out for a curlew moment

The Curlew:Moving northwards
The Curlew:Moving northwards

Joe Kennedy

Looking at January's harshness it is difficult to imagine that another freakish year may be ahead with a plethora of media headlines about 'hottest day, hottest month ever etc' as the topsy-turvy seasons fuse once again.

Last year was the warmest on record. Flowers bloomed at odd times, furry mammals thrived and birds behaved like the late musician Barney McKenna's caged canaries which, so it was said, burst into song at midnight.

Birds use different cues to begin their breeding cycle. Longer days and rises in temperature are obviously important. But it just takes a sudden cold snap to give insect life the staggers and thereby cut off vital protein for birds and their young.

A splendid autumn brought a bumper hedgerow harvest - bounty for birds and berry pickers. The crops were the result of the early spring weather. Many flowers came early. Crocuses and snowdrops played peep-o-day and wild daffodils were about in February. One keen birder counted seven species singing where one, the eternal robin redbreast, has usually ruled the garden roost.

But there was at least one shadow of gloom cast over the birdlife year: the spectre of the disappearing curlew from coastal regions was publicised by visiting British birder Mary Colwell-Hector who, while on a countrywide walking trip, spoke at several public events about the dramatic effect habitat loss was having on this species. The birds were moving northwards, perhaps because of climate changes but more likely because their coastal territories were being overrun by man-made development. It was as if there were no further areas of peace and seclusion left for them.

I thought of a bucolic vista of 10 years ago on a Munster cliff-top listening to the ocean, watching choughs and ravens soaring in the updrafts and hearing the faint alarm calls of a peregrine.

Then there arrived a magic curlew moment! Looking down on grazing pastures spread like gaming cards, the burbling, liquid crescendo of the bird's wild mating trill was displayed in an air-dance by the male bird rising steeply and then gliding down with wings held in a shallow V.

This sighting, what Robert Burns called "an elevation of the soul", was my reward after a lifetime of watching the high birds making their evening way homewards with their lonely cries of "coori-li, coori-li" along coastal stretches or, far out on mudflats, seeing these solitary waders - our largest - probing deeply with their incredible curved beaks for ragworm and shrimps.

If human intrusion is responsible for migration northwards towards the Scottish isles and peaceful countryside, we should be sensitive towards those that remain - who the poet Ted Hughes called "wet-footed gods... that hang their harps over misty valleys". May they continue to play their peaceful notes in the coming year.

Sunday Independent

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