Category: Archive

Eagle eyed

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

The presence or absence of such a large bird says much about the health of an ecosystem. But what if the bird is only a few inches from tip of tail to tip of beak and spends most of its time in a bush? Will its presence or scarcity be noticed one way or another? And what does its breeding numbers say about the health of that same ecosystem, now seemingly so much richer for the great eagle’s soaring presence?
These are the kinds of questions that the professional birders at Birdwatch Ireland must ask themselves each day between the dawn chorus and the last birdsong of twilight.
Bird watching, or birding, has wrested itself in recent years from the kind of images that once linked the pastime with eccentrics or nerdy types.
This is no less the case in Ireland, where birding now attracts thousands of enthusiasts and frequently entire families, who hope to catch a glimpse of an eagle or perhaps a furtive little Warbler.
And in keeping with this expanded public interest, Birdwatch Ireland has molted into a professional environmental organization propped up not just by membership money, but also cash injections from government agencies.
The very name of the group, which is a registered charity, speaks of the changes that are taking place in the task of preserving Ireland’s flora and fauna.
So does its rather pragmatic sounding motto: “For people, for birds, for habitats.”
Birdwatch Ireland is a trading name for the Irish Wildbird Conservancy, which was founded in 1968 and is now the largest conservation body on the island.
Interest in Ireland’s avian inhabitants has spawned a growing business, with the sale of products and land purchasing now coming under the umbrella of an organization that started as a loose alliance of weekend enthusiasts scattered throughout Ireland’s four provinces.
Birdwatch Ireland is headquartered in a terraced house in Monkstown, a seaside suburb on Dublin’s south side.
The first room that a visitor encounters is the Birdwatch Ireland store where one can buy books, birdsong tapes, feeders, seed and other essentials for the ornithologically committed.
The office’s general manager, Oran O’Sullivan, and Birdwatch Ireland’s development officer, Aisling Tallon, are ready with an array of brochures, reports and tip-of the-tongue facts that quickly dispel any idea that this is a backwater endeavor concerned with issues that have limited effect on the economy, or the general human population of the island.
Inevitably, as with any conservation body, each day is one where the glass can be viewed as being either half full or half empty.
Taking the latter as a starting point, Oran O’Sullivan points to Irish agriculture and present day farming practices as being one of the crucial influences on the status and health of Ireland’s bird population.
“There has been tremendous change in agricultural practices in the last 30 years and this is our biggest concern,” O’Sullivan said.
The development of more intense farming, drainage of wetlands, pollution of waterways by agricultural fertilizers and the cutting down of hedgerows have all had their effects.
“Silage making has become a big factor,” O’Sullivan sid. “Farmers are under pressure to have bigger fields, bigger machines, to take out hedgerows. It’s not the farmers’ fault, but due to [government and European Union] policy where the farmer gets grants for doing specific things. We’re dealing with a broad canvas.” So to narrow things down, he plucked a single species from the rich list of Ireland’s breeding birds, the corncrake.
The corncrake’s unmistakable, rasping and often nocturnal call was once heard in even suburban Dublin, but is now confined almost entirely to three areas of the Republic.
“The corncrake is an icon of the endangered list,” said O’Sullivan.
“It’s now found mostly in three core areas, the Shannon Callows, where there is still a traditional mowing season, Tory Island off the cost of Donegal, and northwest, Mayo where the farming regime really hasn’t changed,” he said.
The corncrake is one of 18 species of birds on B.I.’s “Red List” which names birds that are of “high conservation concern.” Another 77 species, skylark and swallow included, are on a list of “medium conservation concern.”
Other members of the list include long familiar species such as the curlew, barn owl and lapwing, gray partridge (believed down to just about a dozen or so) and the corn bunting, a small bird once common in farming country.
Another is the hen harrier, a raptor that patrols mainly open country, marshes, fens and bogs and uplands, and is now the subject of intensified protection efforts.
Not intensive enough, however.
In a cruel reminder of how fragile even a bird of prey can be, a mutilated hen harrier was recently mailed to the Kerryman newspaper. The killing was presumed to be the angry reaction of a farmer to European Union plans to designate part of North Kerry as a “special protection area” for the harrier.
Some farmers in the area fear that the designation would restrict their rights to use land for forestry or wind farms.
According to Aisling Tallon, Birdwatch Ireland now often sees its role as being an intermediary between farmers and government agencies.
“When you actually approach landowners, the response is usually very positive,” she said.
In addition to grants for new farming methods, Tallon continued, there are now also “all sorts of funding mechanisms” for preservation and environmental enhancement.
“But you can still easily take out a hedgerow, especially if a road is involved,” she said.
Said O’Sullivan: “There have been more losses than gains but it’s only in the last five years that we’ve been building decent data bases.”
This has been aided in part by funding from government agencies. The data has been compiled by various surveys aimed at the likes of breeding populations of all species or more specialized studies such as the compiling of statistics for wetland birds.
Urban sprawl, surprisingly, has been less of a problem than changes in farming methods.
Some species have risen in numbers because of backyard feeders and the planting of garden bushes and trees.
Others are benefiting from definite signs of global warming. According to O’Sullivan, new species, long familiar in more southern European latitudes, are beginning to show up and even breed in Ireland while summer migrant visitors are now turning up about a full week earlier in the season than former years.
Much of Birdwatch Ireland’s work is devoted to education and fostering interest in birding among young people.
“You have to be good at this,” O’Sullivan said. “Kids today have very short attention spans. It’s a case of, yeah, that’s birds, now what’s next?”
Said Tallon: “We’re trying to interest kids as early as possible and through them, their parents. We try to create a sense of ownership, not just selling birds as an interest, but as an environmental issue.”
Bird watching, she said, had long struggled against a negative image, indeed a comical image characterized by “major types.”
But the fate of the island’s avian fauna was too important to be hampered by dated stereotyping.
Meanwhile, habitat and species loss in recent years had outnumbered what Birdwatch Ireland would consider gains, O’Sullivan said.
The organization has by necessity become more politically active, a move helped by the fact that it now has in the region of 10,000 members, most of them committed and active, and a core group of full time employees running the business of Birdwatch Ireland seven days a week.
“We are now the largest professional environmental organization in Ireland and we want to prove that we are worthy of this position,” said Tallon, who was not a birder when she applied for her job.
She had a background in chemistry and mathematics but convinced the B.I. interviewing board that her very ignorance of birds was the reason they had to hire her.
“I was shown pictures of birds and I hadn’t a clue, but I said to them that I was the very kind of person that the organization had to convince that bird life was important to the environment the country and the economy,” she said.
Birdwatch Ireland now owns several islands and tracts of land around Ireland amounting to about 500 hundred acres.
The organization is hoping to buy more land, according to O’Sullivan, and with this in mind is hoping to send a team of Irish ornithologists to the U.S., most likely Boston and New York, in the next year.
“The idea is to raise funds so that we can purchase land for birds,” O’Sullivan said.
Clearly, the sky over Ireland is not a fully safe refuge. What is, or is not, on the ground, also counts.
“Birds vote with their feet as well,” quipped O’Sullivan.
Tallon focused more on the human footprint across Ireland.
“Irish people still believe their own hype about living in the greenest of green islands,” she said. “They don’t quickly enough perceive what damage has been done, and what damage still can be done. We can’t allow ourselves to get to the point where we’ve lost it all.”

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