Thursday, 4 July 2013

A Woody tale

Ray O'Hanlon, a birding accomplice from the distant past ( late 1960s/1970s), was in touch recently from New York where he now lives and works. His letter brought back a stream of memories from the days of black and white TVs, cine cameras and the IWC, Dublin central branch, meeting once a month in the then Carrolls Theatre on Grand Canal Parade. 

He is missing the old sod: far away fields appear greener and all that.  It was great to get his perspective on the Irish birding scene, then and now and his thoughts on Woodpeckers.

I have reproduced his letter in full, it will surely appeal to all those who joined the cause back in the 70s, on the back of the old IWC (BirdWatch Ireland) talks and outings, spurred on by the clever animations of Amuigh Faoin Speir on our fledgling TV station.

Juvenile Great Spotted Woodpecker, Wicklow ( Dick Coombes)

Diary of an ornithological exile

 Ray O'Hanlon

      I remember it like it was yesterday. Actually better because life these days in New York is, as you can imagine, a little on the mad side, so yesterday slips fast into the hazy wake.

      1968 was rather less mad, especially if you were a 12-year-old kid living in the still calm and quiet suburbs of South County Dublin.

      It is a morning in May. Very early, just about dawn. I slip out of bed, quietly so as not to disturb sleeping parents and siblings. For the very first time I am going bird watching at dawn.

      The expedition doesn't require much as its limit is the back garden with its hedges, evergreen trees at the far end and ranks of Sweet Williams in my dad's fussed over flower beds.

      And what wonders are to be found in this familiar piece of walled-in sod. The dawn chorus is going full belt and the place is alive with flapping wings and darting colours. And it being the late 1960s, absolutely nobody else is up. Ireland used to get its eight hours then, and then some.

      I am clutching a copy of "The Observer's Book of Birds." It is a volume of wonders and endless promise, from the frame showing Passer Domesticus to the Hoopoe, to which I have already extended an open-ended invitation to visit my little sanctuary.

      And sure what bird wouldn't want to be in this place, the very center of the known universe? My known bit at any rate.

      I am, of course, standing in a time long before the power to observe just about everything down a thread-thin wire. Books were reliable windows to the world and "Observer's" was my wide open one that morning, and subsequent mornings when I wandered in ever widening circles in search of the conspicuously common, and relatively rare.

      One thing I quickly understood about bird watching is that you could easily end up seeing what you weren't in fact watching. The imagination could run riot, especially in the early morning half light.

      I still lacked binoculars, so that brown blob twenty yards away was a Corn Bunting, even if the Observer's, and common sense, said otherwise. And wasn't that Sparrowhawk a little on the large size. An eagle perhaps, lost and looking for the way back to Scotland.

      "The Observer's Book of Birds" was, of course, a British publication, though Ireland did get mentions throughout its alternately colour and black and white pages.

      So what was available to me as a budding Irish birder was wondrous indeed; what were even better were those birds that didn't make their home in our back garden, or Ireland in its then vast entirety.

      No Woodpeckers then. Ah Jaysus!

      And there were a few more absentees, not least the aforementioned Hoopoe. That didn't shut down the imagination though and forays to the local golf course would always require sharp ears as well as eyes just in case a Green or Greater Spotted Woodpecker had hitched a ride from Holyhead, a place which, after all, was closer than Galway.

      Hoopoes being exotic and far away I could understand. But why Woodpeckers? The Observer's waxed poetic over the Green Woodpecker and stated it could be seen in woods, parks and gardens and in trees "everywhere."

      But that was everywhere over there, not here.

      In the years that followed, I became firmly attached to my new hobby, joined the Irish Wildbird Conservancy and learned, grudgingly, to accept the absence of Woodpeckers from Ireland in general, and our back garden in particular.

      Fast forward 45 years. I am sitting in my new back garden, or "yard" as the natives call it. It's early on a weekend morning and I'm gazing at a tall and very dead tree in the next door neighour's.

      Dead trees are drive-through eateries for Woodpeckers and in my new universe, about an hour north of New York City and overlooking that avian interstate, the Hudson River, I am thinking back to that morning in 1968 when feathered songsters were only rivaled by the Beatles letting loose with "Lady Madonna."

      It's high summer and the trees are fully leafed out. So Woodpeckers can come and go with relative privacy, only not on the great dead Maple with its peeling bark. Downy, Hairy and Red-Bellied Woodpeckers are up, down and across the blighted arbor as are their Nuthatch cousins. Even a Flicker, a Woodpecker that more often feeds at ground level, has been dropping by.

      And there's always the chance of that local king of bark peckers (no, not Woody) the Pileated Woodpecker, a species that can grow to the size of a crow - and may a few years back have set in motion that great hunt for the most likely (and sadly) extinct Ivory Billed Woodpecker in the swamps of the American Southeast.

      Woodpeckers then, once imagined, and now so frequently seen, are a particular favourite of mine. They are agile, industrious and seem especially aware of their world.

      So you can imagine my joy when, over the last couple of years, I have been reading of increased sightings of Great Spotted Woodpeckers in Ireland, and the likelihood that there is now a viable breeding population as close to the old homestead as County Wicklow.

      That house and garden of so long ago is still in the family and peanut feeders dangle from the mature apple trees at the garden's end. All in the house are under instruction to keep an eye out for possible Woodpecker sightings, especially in winter.

      Nothing as yet. But perhaps the Great Spotteds, which look like Eurasian versions of the Hairy, are holding back, waiting for a visit from yours truly, an ornithological exile living just over the wall, and three thousand miles away, in Picidae Central.

      I wouldn't put it past them.

      Ray O'Hanlon is a journalist, author, and member emeritus of the IWC.

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