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Birds Through Irish Eyes

By: Anthony McGeehan (Author), Julian Wyllie (Author)

328 pages, colour photos

The Collins Press

Hardback | Sep 2012 | #199271 | ISBN-13: 9781848891623
Availability: Usually dispatched within 6 days Details
NHBS Price: £27.99 $36/€33 approx

About this book

Watching birds is a growing pastime for many people but how much do we really know about them? A lifetime spent identifying and photographing birds makes Anthony McGeehan the ideal guide to show us our birds in a different way, creatures that, to survive and delight us, bear an increasingly heavy load. They are beautiful and clever but are increasingly vulnerable because of modern farming practices, pollution, climate change and hunting.

Birds Through Irish Eyes presents the lives and times of the birds that surround us. Each has a story to tell, from brent geese, who perform an annual round trip from here to Canada, to kestrels that engage ultra-violet vision to detect mice, from vanishing souls such as corncrake and skylarks. People's lives are intertwined with those of birds and the author encourages us to look and listen, to protect and understand and most of all to recognise the beauty of the birds around us. Lavishly illustrated and engrossingly narrated, Birds Through Irish Eyes is the birds' moment and, for some, perhaps, salvation.

"At times utterly brilliant"
- Stephen Moss, BBC natural history producer, Guardian columnist

"McGeeham's prose is superb"
- Damien Enright, Irish Examiner

"An archetypal devotee gives a brilliant understanding"
- Michael Viney, The Irish Times

"Strikingly atmospheric"
- Sunday Express

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"Birds Through Irish Eyes is a coffee-table sized book with hawkish aspirations. Squeezed into just over 300 pages, the author, Anthony McGeehan, tells the story of an avifauna and an ecology ravaged by history, politics and people, and now at a crossroads: the old wood warblers are on the way out but the great spotted woodpeckers are new in. This book arrives at the perfect time then. We are seeing, globally and on a regular basis, the way that conservation projects are being defunded and withering under the austerity of these times: it's more important than ever to make the claim of the importance of birds and wildlife and the environment. Birds Through Irish Eyes then is the balance sheet of Irish birds but so much more interesting than that sounds. Organised taxonomically, species by species for 200 of Ireland's common, rare and extinct species, McGeehan marshals the evidence and points the finger over declines, celebrates the colonisers and laments the disappeared, while puncturing sacred cows (and crows) when needed.

It's a book aimed at everyone. Besides the species accounts are chapters on the best field guide (Jonson not Svensson, curiously) and choosing binoculars; separating chiffchaff from willow warbler; and, for the more advanced birder, a chapter on moult. With such a broad canvas McGeehan's writing becomes more impressive: he is an engaging author, not patronising or full of jargon. I think special mention needs to be made of an author who can use the word 'eisteddfod' while remaining eminently readable and quotable at length. His style is appropriately anecdotal so his chapter on binoculars is still worth reading even for those who have been happily married to their pair for many years. In the species accounts his literary sensibility sits well with his scientific outlook and together they display the author's deep knowledge and experience of his subject matter. Not many writers can bring a bird to life like McGeehan can.

One of the most enlightening aspects of the book was the historical context it situates birds in: I learnt that bean geese used to be the commonest grey goose species on the Solway Firth until the late 19th century, and the links between its Irish and Scottish declines; and that Bewick's swans used to outnumber whooper swans 25 to 1, but barely a handful of the former winter there now. Are we guilty of generally looking at population changes outside of their historical context?

Occasionally McGeehan's writing becomes sardonic, such as: 'overhead, sheep-following crows squawk and peer from sentinel crags, a sight as heart-warming as battery acid in a baby's bottle'. He tackles controversial subjects head on and is to be applauded for having the courage to go deeply off-message on the effects of crows on songbirds and foxes on ground-nesting birds; even when it becomes uncomfortable reading in parts for, in his words, those 'bleeding-heart liberals' (such as myself) who harbour a soft-spot for Magpies. However, his dissenting views aren't developed as a full and fair argument in the limited space of the species accounts. A specific chapter to develop and justify these views properly would've been welcome and become a much more effective critique of the RSPB and what he describes as 'misplaced ethical sympathies' than he manages.

The photos aim at realism over 'unnatural close-up portraits' despite many of them being close-up portraits: the beginner may think storm-petrels have a tendency to show much better than they actually do. They are generally of an excellent standard, though, and the commitment to realism helps you look afresh at the subjects. We've all seen many teal, but rarely stop to consider the absurdly good looks of this pocket-sized duck.

The downside to books such as this is that they become out of date almost as soon as they are published, although this is as up to date as to include a passage on the Iceland gull influx of last winter. Priced at £35 this book is an excellent resource and reference text for the state and context of Irish birds, as well as being an enjoyable and provocative read. Let's hope the next edition can bring better news of Irish birds."

Steve Rutt, www.birdguides.com, Thursday 1st November 2012

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"At first glance the large format and really impressive photographs might suggest that this is another typical coffee-table publication which exists primarily as a compendium of visual images. This is true. But even more impressive is the text – eloquent, evocative and packed with interesting observations. Indeed, the book could as accurately be entitled '... through an Irish mouth', so continuously arresting and strikingly original is the flowing prose for which Irish writers have long been famous. A Gannet 'hits the sea and detonates blue water into white'; compared to a Whooper, a Bewick's head is 'less Concorde, more jumbo jet' and the yellow on the bill is a 'butter pat' rather than the Whooper's 'wedge of cheese'; on the bill of a Pink-footed Goose 'the patch of pink resembles a sticking plaster'; an Eider has a 'people carrier' stature compared to a Goosander's 'streamlined coupe'; a Grey Heron has 'inky-black locks sweeping back along the side of the crown and culminating in a neck plume, like a balding bloke with an embarrassing pony tail'; a Black-necked Grebe is 'the Michael jackson of the tribe: lightly built, petite nose-in-the-air bill and heavily made-up face'; a Lapwing looks as though it has 'sneezed into a bag of soot'; the song of Common Sandpiper is compared to 'a security alarm designed for a doll's house'; Greenshanks are 'catwalk material'; the tertials of Ring-billed Gull 'flutter gently like a prayer flag'; jackdaws in autumn have 'dull, chain-smoker eyes'; a Skylark's flight is 'like a skateboarder cresting invisible ramps'; a Sand Martin's call evokes 'cicadas or the sizzle of an Irish Breakfast'; a Blackcap's song ends abruptly 'like phone credit dying in mid sentence'; a vocalising Wren is 'the Edith Piaf of the understorey'; feeding Siskins 'like a car mechanic spend a lot of time at odd angles'; the 'bloodied bandage' of a Goldfinch head .... Only by quoting so many examples can Anthony McGeehan's totally original and vividly evocative images be fully appreciated. The text is a joy to read and the author's love of his subject shines through. Even the humble House Sparrow is seen through Anthony's rose-coloured spectacles: 'burgundy head plumage abutting a nimbus-grey crown'.

But all is not sweetness and light. The author is forthright in castigating the blameworthy. Discussing wind farms and their harrier casualties, he criticises 'reports whose recommendations masquerade as holy writ when dubious conclusions suit commissioning paymasters'. The interbreeding of Goshawk subspecies also occurs, 'contaminating Mother Nature's supreme handiwork' – a criticism of 'a repugnant trade located near Dublin'. Scaremongering fuelled by the over-weaning Health and Safety Order leads to the unnecessary eradication of 'vermin'. Cranes are unnecessarily 'repatriated by PR zealots who fill the ears of a gullible public with warm pink fluff'; 'Belfast International Airport committed an atrocity in 2010 when a thriving colony of fifty pairs [of House Martins] was deliberately festooned with wire mesh to prevent the birds returning to renovate, rebuild, and replenish increasingly imperilled populations'. 'Cat owners behave irresponsibly by allowing their mollycoddled moggies to wander neighbourhood gardens and slaughter wild birds that the rest of us try to nurture and enjoy'. 'Wearisome sloppiness [of recorders] means that a mapped distribution for the species is wrong'. He also has harsh words for 'dewey-eyed conservationists', 'gobbledegook obscuring valient appraisals' and articles 'written in the impenetrable patois of academia – jargon that excludes interested readers – and is waffle balderdash masquerading as fact'. Even the RSPB is accused of stating 'balderdash' (in regard to songbird predation by Magpies) and preferring to 'hide behind a fog of research findings that purport to be definitive'. Such passion. Such craic.

So far, so Irish. And admittedly there is much specifically Irish subject matter. It is fascinating to learn that Quails in the mid I9th century remained in Ireland throughout the winter. Or that Irish Dippers have finer legs (so much so that they require a smaller diameter ring size). Or that thejury is still out on the reasons for the yellow wash on the white plumage areas of 'Irish' Coal Tits (genetic or some mineral or dietary carotenoid?). But, in general, the net is cast so wide and the subjects so varied that there is no discernable Irish bias, nor one page of text which is less than fascinating for any birder in any country."

- Bryan Bland, Birding World 25(10), November 2012

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"Having been occasional midwife during its several pupations, I have awaited this book with some trepidation. Like the 58 other helpers, including the ever-attentive Julian Wylie, I have so wanted it to dispel the strange self-occlusion that Anthony’s totally engaging Birding from the Hip (The Sound Approach, 2009) somehow precipitated. No worry; this larger, more professional but still passionate and not unbarbed paeon for 197 Irish birds hits its target’s bull. ‘Let the birds be’ is the book’s constant anthem.

Typically, Anthony begins a mite shyly. There is no waving of red flag in the rather subtle introduction and, scene set, and he soon switches to guiding the reader into attentive watching. Then with irresistible and increasing momentum, he offers essay after essay (of between 125 and 1000 words) of arresting facts, telling quotes and vivid analogies. The portraits and fates of Ireland’s core avifauna come off the page in a fashion that pleases eye, charges mind and hurts heart. The media are delightful but the message is stark. Far too many of the Green Isle’s once eternal birds are in trauma. And far too often their balloons of conservation are shown to have punctures or specious function.

To insure, however, that his book does not lead the reader into despair, Anthony deploys his customary skills of Keillor-quality prose and lyrical photographs. Of the 400 photographs, three out of four come from his own ‘stalk but be sure to compose before expose’ perceptions and full mastery of Photoshop. None are less than good; most are sheer brilliant catches of birds doing their things, as explained in well-crafted captions. Strategic comic reliefs (his trademark) promote smiles and chuckles.

As for the anthology in the book, its bedrock is William Thompson’s The Natural History of Ireland (1849–52). Wisely, Anthony has used it as his trig point from avian compass readings through all Ireland, Europe and across the Atlantic. References to 30 other works that pre-date the Witherby’s Handbook of British Birds allow the discussion of population trends to be truly telling. With Clive Hutchinson’s Birds in Ireland (1989) long outdated, the accounts are timely, while the many mentions of individual bird journeys explain anew Ireland’s wide harvest of wintering birds. A singular feature is the courteous listing of personal observations by other purposeful birdwatchers. It is particularly good to see the wisdom of Neville McKee, ‘Captain’ of Copeland Bird Observatory, freely distilled. Finally, for ancient believers in some subspecies, the best mugshots yet of Irish red grouse Lagopus l. hibernicus, Faeroese common snipe Gallinago g. faeroeensis, Icelandic redwing Turdus iliacus coburni, Irish jay Garrulus glandarius hibernicus, and indisputable whistleri race of meadow pipit Anthus pratensis. Keep the faith alive.

The essays are leavened with guide texts on moult sequence, the flux of migration and the solution to the eternal puzzle of willow warbler Phylloscopus trochilus versus chiffchaff P. collybita. At their end comes advice on bird gardening and optics choice and of course two witty Anthony McGeehan tales of ‘fine days’. The book’s last gift is a meticulously researched Irish list. It features 466 certains, five ‘honourable’ escape-occlusions and four ‘dishonourable’ introductions. Of the 466, five are extinct, most shockingly the corn bunting
Emberiza calandra, and 117 are vagrants, with the 113 found in the Republic no doubt the reason why the standard joy. Seeking direction of most Ulster birders lies between south and west.

More than all Irish men and women should be moved by this beautiful book and charged to save its subjects. Anthony makes it clear that we all need to do more, quickly."

- D. I. M. Wallace, www.britishbirds.co.uk, 06-01-2013


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