Birds Through Ireland

Before I returned home for winter break, Maysa—my fellow Belfast Mitchell—bought me a book by Conor O’Brien called Ireland Through Birds. On my flight home, already missing the moody grey-green landscapes, I found solace in O’Brien’s journey to glimpse twelve of the rarest endemic birds in Ireland. His efforts took him into the Wicklows, to rugged, remote islands off the northwest coast, through coastal reserves, and inland to peat bogs. Each chapter and bird is associated with a different geographic region of the island—its history, ecology, and memories. Taking inspiration from O’Brien, I decided to reflect on the most memorable birds I have encountered here.

One of the first birds I saw in September was the fulmar. The fulmar is one of my favorite birds—its deceptively banal, gull-like appearance masks a different lineage, sharing a common ancestor with the great seabirds of the open oceans: albatrosses, petrels, and shearwaters. The rugged Irish coast provides optimal nesting habitat for fulmars, and the Bray to Greystones cliffwalk is a good place to spot them. Unfortunately, during the trip my contacts had clouded over, rendering the world around me blurry. Yet, as I squinted overhead, half-blinded by the sun, I miraculously spotted the stiff-winged silhouette of a grey-white bird coasting effortlessly in the wind. “A fulmar!” I shouted to Abby, half-wild with excitement.

I’ve also come to deeply appreciate the diversity of Corvids in Ireland, and the frequency with which you can spot them. Back in the States, I’m only used to seeing crows and the occasional raven, if I’m out of the city. Here, in the heart of Belfast or Dublin, you can see rooks, hooded crows, jackdaws, and magpies all in the same spaces. Corvids are some of the smartest birds—New Caledonian crows are documented tool-users—and you can see the wheels turning as they cock their head side to side, casually walking along the sidewalk next to us while their brains problem-solve issues more complex than we can imagine. I try and remind myself not to take them for granted; each sighting is its own gift.

Along the many waterways, you can also see Eurasian coots and moorhens. Both belong to Rallidae, the rail and crake family, and appear somewhat like wild swamp chickens. My first time biking along the River Lagan, they were a novelty, and I stopped often to observe them paddling happily in the water while the drizzle had forced other birds to seek cover. As Ireland became more familiar, so did the Rallids. Yet, walking around UCD’s wooded campus while visiting Dublin Mitchells, I became stumped by the immature plumage of a juvenile moorhen. That night, “immature Eurasian moorhen” became a clue in our now-staple UCD fishbowl tournament, eliciting great laughter. It’s harder than you think acting out a young moorhen while hunched under a sheet!

There are so many more meaningful bird-and-place associations already—the common eider Meg spotted along the Causeway Coast, the tufted ducks and gulls of St. Stephen’s Green, the buzzards I see soaring over rolling farmland outside of Belfast, or even the elusive red grouses only alluded to on various signs posted throughout the Wicklows. “I have the whole of Ireland laid out in front of me, ready to explore one valley, forest or country road at a time,” O’Brien writes. I, too, am eager to continue exploring, bird by bird.

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