Extinct in Ireland, 20th September, the Woodlark

From Pádraic Fogarty‘s Whittled Away:


Formerly common along the Eastern counties, it had disappeared as a breeding bird by the start of the twentieth century.

Gerald Manley Hopkins attempted to turn the Woodcock’s song into verse:

Teevo cheevo cheevio chee:
O where, what can tháat be?
Weedio-weedio: there again!
So tiny a trickle of sóng-strain;
And all round not to be found
For brier, bough, furrow, or gréen ground
Before or behind or far or at hand
Either left either right
Anywhere in the súnlight.
Well, after all! Ah but hark—
‘I am the little wóodlark.

I am a big fan of Hopkins, but this does not strike me as one of his more successful efforts. Robert Burns made a more successful job of his Address To the Woodlark:

O stay, sweet warbling woodlark, stay,
Nor quit for me the trembling spray,
A hapless lover courts thy lay,
Thy soothing, fond complaining.
Again, again that tender part,
That I may catch thy melting art;
For surely that wad touch her heart
Wha kills me wi’ disdaining.
Say, was thy little mate unkind,
And heard thee as the careless wind?
Oh, nocht but love and sorrow join’d,
Sic notes o’ woe could wauken!
Thou tells o’ never-ending care;
O’speechless grief, and dark despair:
For pity’s sake, sweet bird, nae mair!
Or my poor heart is broken.

However, spoilsport Wikipedia suggests that Burns may have been writing about the wrong bird:

The Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote of the bird’s “melting art” in his poem “To the Woodlark”.[17] As there are currently no woodlarks in Scotland, and Burns never travelled south of Carlisle, many have speculated that Burns never came in contact with the bird and was in fact writing about the tree pipit, which was commonly referred to as the woodlark in Scotland.[18] The woodlark’s song is also thought to be melodious[11] while Burns’ poem has an “underlying sense of grief” which may be attributed to the languishing notes at the end of the tree pipit’s song.[18][19] However, the woodlark has been spotted in Scotland on occasion[20] and it is possible that Burns was writing about this bird. This is backed up by the entry of a minister from Clinic, Perthshire in the Old Statistical Account, which reads “The notes of the wood-lark are heard, delightful along the banks of the Lunan in spring and autumn; its nocturnal song has a dying cadence peculiarly melodious and has often been mistaken for the song of the Philomel [nightingale].”[18][21]


Extinct in Ireland, September 19th, Spotted crake

From Pádraic Fogarty’s Whittled Away:

Spotted crake
Probably common up to the mid-nineteenth century, there was a record of them breeding on the once extensive marshes around Dundalk, Co. Louth, in 1892.

I must confess I had not registered the spotted crake before reading this. Of course, I am very aware of the corncrake, which is fortunately not (quite) extinct in Ireland. From the RSPB fact sheet on the spotted crake:

The spotted crake is similar in size to a starling. Breeding adults have a brown back with dark streaks, a blue-grey face and an olive-brown breast – all covered with white flecks and spots. The under tail is a warm buff colour.

Spotted crakes tend to skulk in thick cover and walk with their body close to the ground and tail flicking. They swim with a jerky action like that of the moorhen. If surprised in the open, they run for cover or jump up and flutter away with legs dangling.

With a mere 28 British breeding pairs, the spotted crake is evidently under threat in Britain also. It is evident that it is a rather secretive bird, like the Water Rail, an inhabitant of my favourite habitat, reeds.

I also love the formal name – Porzana porzana. Wikipedia tells us that this is derived from Venetian terms for small rails.

Extinct in Ireland, September 18th – the Osprey

From Pádraic Fogarty’s Whittled Away:

Breeding in inland lakes including Lough Key in Roscommon in 1779 but no records thereafter, save for the odd vagrant. Given its relatively abundant status elsewhere it is somewhat of a mystery why ospreys have not bred in Ireland in recent times and many suitable nesting sites are keenly watched each summer for activity.

As this 2012 Irish Examiner piece points out, the Osprey is “the wildlife filmmakers favourite bird” and has come back from the brink of extinction in Britain:

With ospreys breeding again in Scotland, England and Wales, Ireland is the odd man out. Birds, from Scotland and Scandinavia, pass through on their journeys to and from Africa, but there’s no direct evidence of nesting here. It’s almost certain, however, that ospreys did so in the past. Gordon Darcy in Ireland’s Lost Birds notes that bones from two individuals were found during excavations at Fishamble Street in Dublin. They were dated to the 10th or 11th Centuries; were ospreys persecuted by Medieval game-keepers protecting fish stocks in the Liffey? Gerald of Wales, who visited Ireland twice in the 12th Century, describes the bird, but some of his other claims are so outlandish that nothing he says can be believed. A description in a manuscript attributed to the 17th Century naturalist William Molyneux is more reliable. Darcy claims that the illustration of an eagle, representing St. John in the Book of Armagh, looks suspiciously like an osprey. There is a reference in Irish to a bird of prey catching salmon in its talons and some Irish bird names seem to refer to ospreys. The Irish Rare Breeding Birds Panel lists the species as an ‘anticipated’ or ‘possible-probable’ nester. Their most recent report, which covers 2010, lists three sightings for ospreys between May and August.

Nineteen records, involving about 11 birds, appear on the Irish Birding website for the same year. So, will the bird return to Ireland of its own accord? Should we build platforms at suitable locations to encourage them? Would the Scots give us some of their chicks? Now that our introduced red kites are breeding well, golden eagles have nested and white-tailed ones are holding territory, ospreys re-colonising would be the icing on the cake. Come back, fish eating hawk, all is forgiven.

And let’s have some videos to show just why the Osprey is such a favourite of filmmakers:

“The Forgotten Beasts in Medieval Britain: a study of extinct fauna in medieval sources” Ph.D thesis by Lee Raye

Over the course of my September posts on extinct species in Ireland, the importance of archaeology and literary scholarship in determining which species have been extant in Ireland is striking. I came across this in Kieran Hickey’s Wolves in Ireland, with its analysis of medieval trade records in pelts.

Via Medievalists.Net, I came across this 2016 Ph.D. thesis from Cardiff University by Lee Raye

Here is Raye’s summary:

This thesis identifies and discusses historical and literary sources describing four
species in the process of reintroduction: lynx (Lynx lynx), large whale (esp. Eubalena
glacialis), beaver (Castor fiber) and crane (Grus grus). The scope includes medieval and
early modern texts in English, Latin, and Welsh written in Britain before the species
went extinct. The aims for each species are: (i) to reconstruct the medieval cultural
memory; (ii) to contribute a cohesive extinction narrative; and (iii) to catalogue and
provide an eco-sensitive reading of the main historical and literary references. Each
chapter focuses on a different species:

1. The chapter on lynxes examines some new early references to the lynx and
argues that the species became extinct in south Britain c.900 AD. Some hardto-reconcile seventeenth century Scottish accounts are also explored.

2. The chapter on whales attributes the beginning of whale hunting to the ninth
century in Britain, corresponding with the fish event horizon; but suggests a
professional whaling industry only existed from the late medieval period.

3. The chapter on beavers identifies extinction dates based on the increasingly
confused literary references to the beaver after c.1300 in south Britain and
after c.1600 in Scotland, and the increase in fur importation.

4. The chapter on cranes emphasises the mixed perception of the crane
throughout the medieval and early modern period. Cranes were simultaneously
depicted as courtly falconers’ birds, greedy gluttons, and vigilant soldiers.

More generally, the thesis considers the levels of reliability between eyewitness accounts and animal metaphors. It examines the process of ‘redelimitation’ which is triggered by population decline, whereby nomenclature and concepts attached to one species become transferred to another. Finally, it emphasises geographical determinism: species generally become extinct in south Britain centuries before Scotland.

The gannet photos of Richard Shucksmith

The gannet photos of Richard Shucksmith

As always, the Bird Photographer of the Year competition has produced a crop of stunning images. The most striking of which for me was one of a familiar bird, the gannet. Richard Shucksmith won the Gold Award and the People’s Choice Award for this amazing image.

(c) Richard Shucksmith http://www.shetlandphototours.co.uk

I particularly love the eyes, and what could be called the facial expressions of rapt predators.

Richard Shucksmith is a wildlife photographer who, it turns out, runs amongst other tours underwater gannet photography tours.

With a 6ft wingspan, pristine white plumage, black wingtips, yellow saturation to the head and an impressive dagger-shaped bill, the Northern Gannets is not only Europe’s largest but also one of it’s most attractive breeding seabirds. Nesting in colonies numbering into the 10 000’s and occupying some of the continent’s most remote and dramatic sea cliffs and reaching diving speeds of over 60mph on entering the sea in search of their prey, the northern gannet is an iconic species which offers exciting opportunities for nature photography.

Very few images have been made of gannets diving underwater within the UK. Over the last five years by studying the gannet’s behaviour, and understanding the movement of the fish they feed on, I have been able to successfully predict the best times to photograph gannets underwater.

There is a gallery of equally stunning gannet photos on the page. Check it out!

Extinct in Ireland, September 10th, the Great Auk

For the first time in this September’s series on species extinct in Ireland, here is a species extinct not only in Ireland (or Irish waters) but the world. Again, from Whittled Away:

Once nesting in enormous colonies in Iceland and Newfoundland, these flightless birds were hunted to extinction globally. Gordon D’Arcy speculates that there may have been a breeding colony no the Keeragh Islands of the Wexford Coast, but definitive evidence is lacking. Their bones do, however, appear in abundance in middens. A live bird was brought ashore in Waterford in 1834 and nursed for a few weeks before dying. THe last two birds in Iceland were butchered in 1844. There was a plausible but unconfirmed report of two birds in Belfast Lough in 1845.

The Waterford auk is now in Trinity College. as outlined in the linked story on the possibility of genetic resurrection of this species. Incidentally on the  BiodiversityIreland data submitting app the Great Auk is (or was, not sure if it is the case in more recent versions) an option for spotting on the list of bird species.


From Smithsonian Magazine:

In June of 1840, three sailors hailing from the Scottish island of St. Kilda landed on the craggy ledges of a nearby seastack, known as Stac-an-Armin. As they climbed up the rock, they spotted a peculiar bird that stood head and shoulders above the puffins and gulls and other seabirds.

The scruffy animal’s proportions were bizarre—just under three feet tall with awkward and small wings that rendered it flightless, and a hooked beak that was almost as large as its head. Its black and white plumage had earned it the title the “original penguin,” but it looked more like a Dr. Seuss cartoon.

The sailors watched as the bird, a Great Auk, waddled clumsily along. Agile in the water, the unusual creature was defenseless against humans on land, and its ineptitude made it an easy target “Prophet-like that lone one stood,” one of the men later said of the encounter.

Perhaps the men enjoyed the thrill of the hunt, or perhaps they realized its meat and feathers were incredibly valuable. In any case, they abducted the bird, tying its legs together and taking it back to their ship. For three days, the sailors kept the Great Auk alive, but on the fourth, during a terrible storm, the sailors grew fearful and superstitious. Condemning it as “a maelstrom-conjuring witch,” they stoned it to death.

It was the last of its kind to ever be seen on the British Isles. Four years later, the Great Auk vanished from the world entirely when fishermen hunted down the last pair on the shores of Eldey Island, off the coast of Iceland. The men spotted the mates in the distance and attacked, catching and killing the birds as they fled for safety. The female had been incubating an egg, but in the race to catch the adults, one of the fishermen crushed it with his boot, stamping out the species for good.


Migrating birds and the September 11th “Tribute in Light” Memorial

In the summer of 1999 I visited the World Trade Center, going up the elevator to Windows on The World. I often wondered if the jovial elevator operator was on duty that Tuesday morning two years later.

September 11th (I feel more comfortable referring to it by that name than 9/11, but that’s just me) is here again, a date that is seared on the memory of so many. I know there have been worse disasters, and worse things perpetrated before and perhaps since, but some of the visceral impact of that day was this was a familiar place, a place I could easily visualise.

All this leads me to an interesting article on the Cornell Lab for Ornithology’s All About Birds site, on how the annual Tribute in Light, the scale of which I hadn’t fully appreciated before, affects migrating birds and the steps taken to ameliorate this.

via AllAboutBirds.Com

Even in a city of skyscrapers, the Tribute in Light is colossal: twin columns of blue-white light shining four miles high into the bruised orange-black bowl of the night sky. With clear weather in New York City, the beams are crisply visible from 60 miles away. Illuminated every September 11 since 2002, the Tribute is an iconic and emotional memorial to the lives lost in the 9/11 terrorist attacks and a symbol of New York City’s unbreakable spirit. It is a beacon in more ways than one. Birds are drawn to the lights, at times by the thousands. On September 11th, 2017, I was drawn to the lights by the birds.

At sunset, I join a small gathering of people on top of a six-story parking ga­rage near Wall Street. At the entrance to the upper deck, I pass the event pro­duction staff supervising the display, conferring over a bevy of laptops and switchboards. To the eastern side of the roof, rescue workers and families of the victims of 9/11 congregate near a long white tent over a dinner buffet. Oppo­site, to the west, New York City Audu­bon staff and volunteers gather. Domi­nating the roof are the spotlights: 88 in total, separated into two square arrays to the north and south, twenty parking spaces apart. As lighting technicians check their snaking cables, the beams wink with dust motes and the looping flight of insects. There are few vertical light installations in North America of the magnitude of the Tribute. Only the Luxor Sky Beam in Las Vegas, Ne­vada, compares. I crane my head back, looking for birds, but quickly drop my gaze, dizzy. From afar, the Tribute is a powerful spectacle. Standing below the beams, it’s staggering.

The writer goes on to spend the night on September 11th 2017 with the local Audubon Society members who have access to the site. A protocol has been developed to minimise the disruption to migration:

NYC Audubon started communication with city officials in 2002 and negotiated access to the site, a distinction already granted to the families of those lost in the terrorist attacks. But it was not until 2005 that a partnership arose, with the production team agreeing to turn off lights if need be. In 2007, NYC Audubon proposed the official protocol: If one or more birds crashes to the ground, dead; if the birds appear to be trapped (flying low in the beams and calling); or, if 1,000 birds are in the beams for more than a 20-minute period; then the lights are shut off for 20 minutes, to allow them to fly on.

“It needed to be a big number because we’re asking a lot,” Elbin says, “I can hear our members screaming at me, ‘They’re not asking enough!’ But this is a number that satisfies everyone that doesn’t necessarily care about birds.”

Elbin identifies 2010 as the year that “really drove home the issue” to everyone involved. That year, poor weather leading up to September 11 held up migration. With clear weather the night of the Tribute, birds came early and in huge numbers. Elbin was at a family reunion when she received a phone call from John Rowden, then the director of community conservation for NYC Audubon.

“John called and said, ‘It’s crazy, Susan,’” Elbin recalls. “He said, ‘Birds are so low I can see them directly.’”

That night, NYC Audubon found their first fatality: a Pine Warbler, dead on the street below the parking garage.

The article goes on to discuss the scientific potential of this extraordinary memorial, in the context of an increasingly light polluted world:

To live in New York City—and, increasingly, to live on our planet in the places where most humans live—is to live in light, day and night. Over three-quarters of the world’s human population and all but 1 percent of Europeans and North Americans sleep under the luminous fog of artificial light, most of which is inefficiently used, improperly shielded, overly bright, and often unnecessary. What a loss of stars will mean for human health and culture is still unfolding, but it is increasingly obvious that it is detrimental to the nightlife, sex life, and migratory journeys of amphibians, fish, insects, and especially birds. Birds now navigate a new and deeply confusing world, the guidance of the sunrise, sunset, moon, and stars replaced by a nocturnal landscape dominated by electric light.