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BRUCE MACTAVISH: An Irish winter birding dream

An Eurasian woodcock is caught in the spot light with dirt on its long beak from probing an Irish farm field for earthworms.
An Eurasian woodcock is caught in the spot light with dirt on its long beak from probing an Irish farm field for earthworms. - Bruce Mactavish

The first stars appeared in the Irish sky as three of us stood quietly at the edge of a woodlot next to a network of small farm fields bordered by thick hedges.

The first football-shaped bird whirls at break neck speed just above tree top level and disappears into the murky light over a field. We detect a couple more before it is too dark to see them against the night sky. It is now total blackness. We are well beyond the effects of the city lights of Belfast and any other small towns.

It is the woodcock hour.

James O’Neill, a PhD student studying the Eurasian woodcock, leads the way. I follow last in line behind Anthony McGeehan, my Irish birding host for the next nine days.

James shines a flashlight into the short grass fields looking for the reflection of the eye of a woodcock. James wants to catch them for his study project. A tiny reflection like a glass marble at the far corner of a field tells us there is a woodcock there.

Anthony and I stand back while James with his patented technique walks across the field with a net and catches the woodcock. We gather around to help record the measurements of the bird and place a metal ring with a unique number on one leg.

We get to hold the bird and admire its big eyes located on the sides of its head so it can see 360 degrees around its head. Its long bill has a flexible tip used for clasping earthworms in the soft earth of the sheep-grazed fields.

The bird is released and flies off into the black night air.

James is hoping to determine the number of woodcocks spending the winter in his study area and find out where they end up in the nesting season.

Woodcock is not an easy bird to study because by day it is motionless in the woods using its cryptic markings to conceal its whereabouts to predators and scientists alike. They are active only under the cover of darkness. Woodcock is a legally hunted game species. Two of the woodcock banded last winter in these very fields were later shot in western Russia during their spring hunt.

For the next three hours we jump fences and walk across fields looking for woodcock. We spot a dozen or so and manage to catch another three. Not a bad night. The eyes of a badger and a fox shine in our headlamps as we find our way back to the car. Welcome to birding in Ireland.

For nine days in February I birded Ireland with long-time birding acquaintance Anthony from Bangor, Northern Ireland.

We toured some of Northern Ireland’s birding hotspots and then ripped through Ireland, the old country, visiting the southwest and southeast corners of the island and places in between. Large numbers of waterfowl and shorebirds from continental Europe and Russia fly west to milder Ireland to spend the winter.

As well many nesting birds from Iceland also use Ireland’s mild winter climate as an winter resort. The abundance of shorebirds wintering in Ireland is staggering. The rich estuarine habitats are common place and hold an apparently endless supply of invertebrates in the mud to feed the birds. Even the city of Dublin supports a remarkable winter population of birds. Enough to be labelled as a biosphere reserve and receive a Special Protection Area designation under the EU Birds Directive and a Special Area of Conservation.

Who knew?

As the tide fell one evening at North Bull Island, Dublin, we watched clouds of shorebirds fly out from their high tide roosts in the marshes to the newly exposed mud flats. A peregrine falcon flew through the mix sending the birds fleeing to safety.

A mammoth flock of 2,000 bar-tailed godwits performed amazing aerial displays easily confusing the peregrine before settling down again on the wet sand again.

Many hundreds of the closely related black-tailed godwit fed in the softer mud areas.

Vast flocks of northern lapwings waited for the tide to fall further before going to feed. Oystercatchers, over the top in their crisp black and white plumage and long red chisel-like bill began walking over the flats looking for large prey like marine worms and cracking open clams. Redshanks dotted the flats busily walking in random directions picking continuously the sand and mud as they go.

Eurasian curlews with the longest bills of any bird in Ireland probed deepest into the mud. Thousands of black-headed and common gulls fly about and collect on the flats.

There is almost too much to look at.

The same scene was played out on a similar scale at numerous estuarine habitats around the coast of Ireland.

In nine non-stop action packed days I saw 122 species of birds.

Ireland is a winter dream land for the Newfoundland birder.

Bruce Mactavish is an environmental consultant and avid birdwatcher. He can be reached at

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