As dawn broke over the distant end of Rossbeigh beach, I was alone in a magical world.
A faint sun glow on the farthest horizon, the tide breaking gently on rippled sand, and the hazy outline of Dingle on the neighbouring peninsula.
Then came an unmistakable sound that transported me back to childhood – a call of the wild as rare as it was beautiful.
Just a stone’s throw away stood a curlew – majestic in the dappled dawn, its long legs supporting a dark striped body and topped with that distinctive sickle-shaped bill.
I stood, still as a statue, entranced by the plaintive and ascending call – ‘cur…lee, cur…lee’. In that instant, the encounter became one of 2021’s priceless moments – frozen in time, never to be forgotten.
But mixed with the precious joy was the sad realisation that it could also be my last sighting of this most iconic creature of the Irish countryside.
The curlew population here has been dwindling for decades with numbers down from 5,000 in the 1980s to an all-time low of less than 100 breeding pairs today.
BirdWatch Ireland’s ‘Birds of Conservation Concern 2020-2026’ recorded a shocking 46pc increase in the number of bird species now on the Red List, the highest threat category.
Are we really about to bid a final adieu to the much-loved puffin, the razorbill and kittiwake, the knot, snipe, kestrel and corncrake? Shame on us all, fiddling like Nero while genocidal flames of our making fatally engulf these magnificent visions.
And lest we bang the battered green drum extolling the virtues of our beautiful landscape, the ghastly reality is we’ve reached a tipping point where Ireland’s waterbirds are declining at a rate higher than those in most other EU member states.
I came to bird watching, like many, as a Covid refugee, with my sorties into this airborne kingdom as an enthusiastic amateur scrambling over ditch and drain.
I learned early the truth of naturalist Henry David Thoreau’s observation: “When a sparrow alighted on my shoulder I felt more distinguished by that circumstance than by any other epaulet life might have given me.”
With the average winter garden supporting dozens of species, beginners will have little difficulty in ticking the wood-pigeon, wren, robin, blackbird, song thrush, starling and chaffinch off your ‘must do’ list.
The ‘birder’ fellowship is a social community, and many an occasion have I gallumped through a marsh or bog, only to find a similarly inclined individual crouching behind a nearby furze bush.
One summer evening amid the marshes just outside Kinsale, I encountered a Japanese lady in search of a golden plover who almost jumped out of her wellies on finally spotting her heart’s delight.
Bird watching excels as a low-cost pleasure requiring only a decent wax jacket, waterproof boots and more patience than you’ll realise you had.