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Praeger's 'fairy bird' returns to Mayo breeding site


Red-necked Phalarope: back on Mayo reserve after 30 years

Red-necked Phalarope: back on Mayo reserve after 30 years

Red-necked Phalarope: back on Mayo reserve after 30 years

The 'father' of the Irish countryside, Robert Lloyd Praeger, did not lack subtlety or a sense of humour in his writings.

He and his devoted wife and travelling companion trekked through bogs and slept in sheds or boats while on many expeditions throughout the land and by water, recording what they saw and heard during the early part of the last century.

On reading, for the first time, his seminal work, The Way That I Went, one memorable description of a village (unnamed) still lingers and triggers some amusement: "….a dozen inhabited houses, a dozen ruined houses, and half-a-dozen public houses."

It was just so. Little has changed in 100 years except that today there might be one remaining pub which trades only at night!

He wrote about an unknown wading bird he chanced upon "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."

He and his wife, in "the most interesting ornithological adventure" that had befallen them, found themselves suddenly among "fairy-like little birds, quite unknown to us, but evidently belonging to the plover family."

The most extraordinary thing about these birds was that they displayed no fear of the couple, "darting about around our feet, running over the slender water-plants which filled the pools … uttering often a small, sharp cry."

The birds had slate-grey backs with white breasts and with rufous bars on the throat on either side of a white patch. (Curiously, he did not mention the very thin, all-black bill). The couple stood "astonished for a long time" as the birds flitted and ran around them.

When they got back to Dublin they discovered they had stumbled on the sole Irish breeding site (or haunt, as he writes) of the red-necked phalarope (phalaropes lobatus) which had been discovered the previous year.

Praeger quotes a naturalist named Dresser as describing the bird as "flying lightly as a butterfly and swimming like an egg-shell."

The tamest of all our wild birds, exhibiting a trusting simplicity seldom seen, even in domestic fowls, wrote one Harvie-Brown, while P Manson Bahr in British Birds (1907), who made on-site sketches, wrote of "an infinity of grace in its every movement".

These beautiful 'fairy birds' have since appeared intermittently at Annagh marsh on The Mullet in Co Mayo where Praeger first saw them. There have been long gaps over the years when none has been seen. But great patience brings its rewards.

After 10 years as a BirdWatch Ireland protected site, and after almost 30 years absence, phalaropes returned to Annagh this year. Dick Coombes of BirdWatch proudly reports that this was "testimony to our conservation efforts as part of an EU-LIFE-Nature project."

Reserves manager Dave Suddaby revealed that a male and three females had been discovered in mid-June. There was a pairing. The male, incidentally, incubates the eggs and raises the chicks. The outcome of the nesting is still under wraps.

Annagh is world-famous as the birds' most southerly breeding ground. Phalaropes are tundra-breeding waders and winter in large numbers in the Arabian Sea.

Sunday Independent