Monday 29 November 2021


"I wish was as certain if anything
as Tom Macaulay is of everything"
maybe Lord Melbourne

I've been listening to "Don't die in Autumn" by Eric Dempsey, one of Ireland's champion birders and twitchers. As a Dubliner who left school without doing his Leaving Cert, he'd be uncomfortable with "ornithologist". The title is from an injunction on his parents to stay out of harm's way at the time of year when Ireland is, hopefully, storm-spattered by rare vagrants from North America and Southern Europe. Fifteen years after leaving school to work for P&T, he presented his parents with the first copy of his first book The Complete Guide To Ireland's Birds with "There! that's me Leaving Cert!". They were most extraordinary parents for 1960s Ireland: not afraid of The Church . . . or child-thumping teachers; proud to be trade unionists; proud to be working class; interested, interesting, supportive, literate and generous.

Young Eric was interested in wildlife, particularly birds, from an early age but he was able to build up his "tick list" of species seen during the Post Office Workers strike of Feb-Jun 1979, when the young chap was turning 18. After a bit of picketing in the morning, all the strikers had the day off, and Eric hitched lifts further and further afield from The Bull Island slobs and the Tolka River in Dublin. It's a strange community - birders - intensely competitive but also generous with information and mentoring. Nowadays rare finds are announced on Twitter . . . down to the very field or hedgerow or dune where t'bugger is lurking. In the 1980s, domestic phones were rare as hen's teeth and news would arrive from Cape Clear by letter [except during the post-strike, of course].

In 1990, Dempsey set up a premium rate phone line Birds of Ireland News Service or BINS - a clever play on binoculars - the birder's essential tool. News was collated of any interesting observations from all over the country and updated at 2130 hours every night . . . for 20 years. That nightly report was sorted "by rarity", so that real obsessives could drop the phone after "the emu seen last week in Cork is now behind the schoolhouse in Ballycotton . . ." and set off into the night in the hope of catching a glimpse before sunrise the next day. Like everyone who reads content on the internet today and complains about paywalls, in the 90s, there were plenty of begrudgers who complained that information used to be free before BINS came along. Free maybe, but neither time-sensitive nor reliable.

Dempsey is clear evidence in favour of Universal Basic Income, so he could spend all waking hours pursuing his passion, building his skills and sharing his knowledge rather than shifting the burden of supporting him onto an employer who was heedlessly short-changed with a rota of sick-days, leave-days, personal development days, "training days" in a remote location. I don't think he ever ran out of grandparents that he had to bury because, in Ireland, funeral attendance is expected for aunts, cousins, old teachers, employer's collateral relatives, and anyone from the GAA team at the home-place.

After several decades of mitching off  work to go a-twitching, Dempsey reckoned he could go free-lance and make a living sharing his expertise by writing books, giving lectures and guiding enthusiasts less knowledgeable than himself. In one telling incident, he brought a group of 20 absolute beginners to Cape Clear to see what they could see. It turned out that a Baltimore Oriole Icterus galbula [L] was "showing" in a garden on the island. But a score of well-known twitchers refused to let the tyros see this rare vagrant . . . and even cold-shouldered Eric when he returned alone. It's hard to view this as anything less than begrudgery and passive aggressive indignation at . . . something? That was his Road to Damascus: he abruptly stopped competitive twitching and started to celebrate the ordinary: bullfinch in the grass; choughs on the cliffs; dunlins on the beach.

I was in the yard the other day and heard a raucous cackle from our little woodland. I wish I could, from the sound alone, recognise the species. I wish I was better at sorting out hawks, buzzards and falcons in flight. I delight in the colours of bullfinch and kingfisher. But I'm not going to turn my life upside down to sort out the LBJs [little brown jobs] of which Ireland has a confusingly large number. I'll leave that to Dempsey and my friend Des. Here's a task for you:

identify the species which feature above as thumbnails above
Over the years, several readers have complained about the quality of the bloblistrations: it being true that I do try to save bandwidth electrons. But don't use that as an excuse to disengage from the task. Dempsey and Des could recognise each of them at 100m, half obscured by shrubbery, with the last photons of eventide.

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