by Martin G
BIRDS Through Irish Eyes
Anthony McGeehan with Julian Wyllie
First impressions of this heavy-weight, inch thick book, with large almost square-shaped format are- it’s a ‘coffee table book’. Oh dear, I don’t really read many (any) coffee table books – even those on bird related subjects. So how will this one fair as I come to review it?
Now I’ve had a chance to read carefully and I am annoyed I offered to review it in the first place. It’s too well written and my attempt at waxing lyrical will seem insipid in comparison. So here’s my ‘simple words’ review ; )
This big, quite thick, book essentially contains nearly 200 accounts of individual bird species observed in Ireland. Each account covers 1-4 pages with accompanying photograph(s). The text delivers a delicious narrative about each species informing and inspiring- every time. Each mini-essay is superbly written in characteristic McGeehan-esq style with pithy text, cram-jammed with original information and observation delivered in rich evocative prose. So far, every chapter read has provided me with new and surprising learning. No kidding. Just occasionally the vocabulary leaves me head scratching as I search for a dictionary. The photos are also annoyingly good. On average one to three appear with each subject, occasionally more (as in the Pied and White Wagtails) or rather effectively as a photo-shopped montage (as in some of the gulls and Willow Warbler/ Chiffchaff). Each photo being chosen to give the reader a feel for the species as it appears in the natural setting. Photo captions too are replete with simple and memorable ‘pearls’.
Black-tailed Godwit from page 153: Birds through Irish Eyes
Another regional guide? Yes but no. The raison d’être is champion the birds as they are because: “each has a story and many perform modern miracles”. McGeehan with Wyllie and their cohorts have positioned themselves effectively as ‘publicists for the birds’; birds that are both within but extend well beyond, Irish shores as interest in this book no doubt will too. Interwoven together with the awe-inspiring facts from the lives of the birds themselves is pertinent historical information and colloquial trivia which brighten the page. From the press release:
Read more about:
The ingenuity of children on Tory Island, County Donegal, in the eighteenth century who tried to provide specimens of a rare seabird by trimming the tail feathers of a commoner species to claim a reward;
Attempts by a returning soldier from the Napoleonic Wars to control grain-eating hordes of House Sparrows in County Down
the scale of Rook fatalities after a great storm in County Westmeath.
The extinct seabird that appeared off the Waterford coast – in 1834 a Great Auk was taken into captivity where it lived on potatoes.
Besotted keepers who provided caged Skylarks with a daily sod of fresh grass – a ploy that prompted the lark to sing.
Children who, ‘uncomputered’ and playful outdoors, learned to decoy Treecreepers into view and then caught them with their caps.
The great and the good, eighteenth century writers who described the richness of Ireland’ natural history and had no scruples about paying urchins to swim into estuarine waters to fetch downed wildfowl – in January!
Changes in the environment affected our bird population:
Changes in farming practices affected the birds’ environments and food sources – 5000 years ago Neolithic farmers started to clear land for tillage and grazing
Elizabeth 1 (Queen of England and Ireland 1558-1603) expressly ordered the felling of all tree cover to deprive the Irish of shelter.
Oliver Cromwell ordered the extermination of wolves, offering trappers a reward: £6 for a female and £5 for a male.
Four of the species accounts give a ‘wee’ flavour:
Long-tailed Duck – A photograph of a winter female Long-tailed Duck is captioned, “To dive, Long-tailed Ducks partially open the wing. Uniquely, they spread the wings alula and use it as a pivot that facilitates a steep, rapid dive.” There in the picture, the alula is suitably displaced (not the photo above which IS in the same chapter!)
2. Ringed Plover – Within just three paragraphs I learn about the reason for foot trembling, the cryptic camouflage, the origin, the calls, nest protection from predators, how to approach for close observation, adult and immature plumages and different migration strategies, all woven into a eulogizing that makes for remarkable prose.
3. Short-eared Owl – Species account vary from 3-4 full pages to just one for the Short-eared Owl with a single paragraph, yet even here I pick up new information and the accompanying photograph by McGeehan includes a bird fresh in off the sea off Co. Galway illustrating that ‘real and often original observation’ precedes the written word.
4. Sky Lark – The chapter begins: “A flickering speck in the blue, pouring out a continuous rhapsody that turns human heads heavenwards – that is how most people encounter a Skylark. Sometimes fat, sometimes slender, occasionally crested, typically shuffling – then suddenly statuesque. Skylark posture is multifaceted.”
The book’s opening section includes comments on the changing environment over several millennia in Ireland, and some basics of birdwatching done in a personable style. Punctuating the species accounts are several short essays such as: Muddled by moult, Willow Warbler versus Chiffchaff (identification) and Migration: a glorious state of flux. The ending includes advocacy and feeding birds , the right equipment for watching and a couple of highly engaging personal accounts of great birding encounters. Something new I haven’t seen before includes a section ‘Personal observations’ page- crediting others with original data, very welcome and should be standard (minor grumble here about a number of times I have shared new interesting observations with others only to see them in print or illustrated but unacknowledged as to source- grumble over!).
Fulmar chick from page 70: Birds through Irish Eyes
It’s one of those occasions in our image saturated culture, where reading the text is a more vital experience than looking at the photographs. As others I have enjoyed McGeehan’s previous writing in such as the ‘Birding from the Hip’ series, but I think the style and context of ‘Birds through Irish Eyes’ bring his highly perceptive observational skills together with a ridiculous talent for communicating on the page, into an optimum work. Ireland has a reputation for producing a disproportionate number of poets and storytellers and for us the story of ‘our’ birds in the 21st century McGeehan and Wyllie joins the ranks of the Irish ‘fili’. More than anything else though I hope the aspirations of all the folk involved in this book are realised: to inspire more people to look and learn and get involved in the salvation of the birds they see can so easily encounter with their own eyes- whether Irish or not.
P.S. And if I didn’t already have copy- I would be delighted, and subsequently very distracted with reading, if I received it as a Christmas present!