THE BIRD MAN OF WEX­FORD

Wex­ford’s Tacumshin Lake is a very busy place early in the morn­ing – if you’re a bird

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - OUTDOORS - Paddy Wood­worth

We are barely out of our cars when Kil­lian Mullar­ney spots a fe­male hen har­rier, fly­ing rather lazily above the reed beds that stretch out below us. A minute later, a com­mon buz­zard soars above the shal­low, brack­ish wa­ters to our right.

And five min­utes af­ter that, a kestrel lifts over the hedge be­hind us, drops down the hill in front, and sud­denly holds dead steady against the wind, per­form­ing its sig­na­ture hover in search of prey.

The si­mul­ta­ne­ous pres­ence of three dif­fer­ent birds of prey is a good in­di­ca­tion of abun­dance of life in a habi­tat, some­thing all too rare in our coun­try­side to­day.

Tacumshin is a large mo­saic of wet­lands, barely sep­a­rated from the south Wex­ford coast by a spit of gravel and sand. This bar­rier is only oc­ca­sion­ally breached by storms, but con­tin­u­ous seep­age keeps the water mildly sa­line. Its mud­flats are renowned among bird­ers for sight­ings of ex­treme rar­i­ties, lost on mi­gra­tion from the Amer­i­cas and even from Asia.

It is also home to hosts of win­ter­ing wad­ing birds and wild­fowl, to many gulls, to some very un­usual small perch­ing birds and to the afore­men­tioned di­ver­sity of top preda­tors.

Very few peo­ple are as fa­mil­iar with this re­mark­able place and its birds as Mullar­ney is. He is an artist who lives lo­cally but has sketched birds across the world. His il­lus­tra­tions of hun­dreds of species are at once beau­ti­ful and metic­u­lously ac­cu­rate. They helped make the Collins Bird Guide the cut­ting-edge iden­ti­fi­ca­tion man­ual for the whole con­ti­nent in the last 20 years.

And if you’ve ever used an Ir­ish postage stamp with a bird on it, you’ve prob­a­bly touched his art­work.

More re­cently, he has con­trib­uted many il­lus­tra­tions, and also record­ings, to The Sound Ap­proach series. This re- mark­able pro­ject uses ad­vanced tech­nolo­gies to pro­duce a unique li­brary of bird songs and calls. It is break­ing new ground in mi­gra­tion stud­ies through night-time record­ing.

So if, like this writer, your vis­ual bird­ing skills are very lim­ited, and you have a tin ear for bird calls, you might ex­pect Mullar­ney to be rather in­tim­i­dat­ing com­pany.

On the con­trary, he is an ex­cep­tion­ally gen­er­ous and pa­tient com­pan­ion. He painstak­ingly points out dis­tinc­tions be­tween sim­i­lar species that must be blind­ingly ob­vi­ous to him.

He is also re­fresh­ingly hum­ble about his own abil­i­ties.

While we are still in the car park, two small birds fly high over­head, call­ing faintly. Mullar­ney, who seems to hear the grass grow, con­fi­dently de­clares them to be green­finches be­fore he raises his binoc­u­lars. But then he ex­claims, with de­lighted sur­prise, that they are in fact chaffinches.

You might ex­pect an ex­pert to be less forth­com­ing about ap­par­ently con­fus­ing two fa­mil­iar gar­den birds. But Mullar­ney says that the more you know about birds, the more you re­alise how many mis­takes you make. “You must be your own tough­est critic,” he says.

The brain is too quick to com­plete a par­tially grasped im­age, tilt­ing iden­ti­fi­ca­tion to­wards a de­sired con­clu­sion. You must try and see ev­ery bird as if for the first time, as a unique in­di­vid­ual, not a tem­plate for a species.

More­over, bird songs and calls are much less pre­cisely stud­ied than bird plumage. What de­lighted him on this oc­ca­sion is that he found out some­thing he didn’t know be­fore. It wasn’t so much that he was wrong, as that he heard green­finches make a sound more sim­i­lar to a chaffinch’s than he had ever known them make pre­vi­ously.

He is not record­ing sound to­day, but he is car­ry­ing a long lens dig­i­tal cam­era, a tele­scope, binoc­u­lars, and a sketch pad. He had grabbed a series of shots of the hen har­rier, and now he ex­am­ines them closely on the cam­era screen.

There had been sug­ges­tions that some much rarer but very sim­i­lar species, a pal­lid or Mon­tagu’s har­rier per­haps, had been spot­ted here re­cently.

His im­ages con­firm what his eyes had told him. This is the more com­mon bird. He can also tell, by the tone of in­di­vid­ual feath­ers, that it is in the process of moult­ing, grad­u­ally re­plac­ing old plumage with new. In my binoc­u­lars, the bird had seemed a pretty uni­form shade of brown. On his screen, much finer dis­tinc­tions are ap­par­ent.

Dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy has trans­formed ad­vanced bird­ing, and Mullar­ney uses his cam­era pro­lif­i­cally. It helps him spot tiny de­tails on a dun­lin sand­piper that tell him which of three sub­species it be­longs to, for ex­am­ple.

“But while the cam­era is very se­duc­tive, it is no sub­sti­tute for look­ing at birds,” he says. He be­lieves that sketch­ing in the field is far bet­ter way of grasp­ing the plumage and poise of a bird than snap­ping away at it. He re­calls wryly what hap­pened when he took his first long-lens (but pre-dig­i­tal) cam­era on a trip to Spain, where he saw many new or un­fa­mil­iar birds.

“I took hun­dreds of slides,” he re­mem­bers, “but I ab­sorbed far less than had I been sketch­ing them.” His sketches are made in the mo­ment. “You must draw within four or five sec­onds of see­ing a bird. The im­me­di­ate reg­is­ter­ing of what you are see­ing lasts such a short pe­riod.”

He is in­ter­rupted by more calls. “Bearded tits,” Mullar­ney ex­claims. There they are, some 20 tiny birds with very long tails, jerk­ily un­du­lat­ing above the veg­e­ta­tion that gives them their newer name, bearded reedlings.

For me, they are uni­corn birds, stud­ied in bird books and dreamed about since child­hood, but never glimpsed un­til now. And we haven’t even left the car park yet . . .

PHO­TO­GRAPH: RICHARD T MILLS

Kil­lian Mullar­ney’s draw­ings, such as the Grey Phalarope left, helped make the Collins Bird Guide the cut­ting-edge iden­ti­fi­ca­tion man­ual for the whole con­ti­nent.

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