Tweets make headlines every other day; chirps, cheeps and warbles not so much. With the dawn chorus season upon us, Siofra Mulqueen sought out the experts on birdsong for The Business, and met with people around the country whose business and passion is birds. She found out what drew them to their jobs recording, photographing and caring for some of Ireland's most fascinating creatures.
Seán Ronayne is an ornithologist on a mission. He's attempting to record the songs of 200 of the birds that live in Ireland or visit our shores. Seán told Síofra about his passion for birdsong:
"When I hear birdsong, it's the only thing I hear. If there’s somebody talking to me at the same time, they kind of fade into the background. My friend just rolled her eyes at me – one minute I’m here, then a bird sings and I’m gone."
Seán has captured 179 birdsongs so far - all the "easy" ones. He's determined to capture the rest, but some of them present particular problems. Hen Harriers don’t make much noise outside of the breeding season, and Seán has spent a fair bit of time hiding in conifer trees, hoping to come across male and female harriers together:
"It’s come very close on a number of occasions, it just hasn’t happened yet. One day I spent 6 hours there. I’m not patient, but I force myself to be."
Seán says that road noise like the sound of tyres on tarmac can interfere with recording birdsong, as they clash on the same low frequencies. He's happy to record some of the less man-made elements of a bird's habitat along with the song:
"The creaking and groaning of the branches, the crashing of the waves and the roaring of the surf, the sound of the water pushing through blow-holes like a rumbling or sleeping dragon; all of these things come together and give it that extra magic touch."
Seán was full of fascinating lore about birdsong, including the fact that birds can pick up regional "dialects" and that a wren in Cobh sounds different to a wren in Dublin. He explains how the common whitethroat travels thousands of miles every year and its flight trajectory can be ascertained from the sounds it picks up along the way:
"It soaks up the sounds of other birds and even mammals into its repertoire. Every summer it migrates from just south of the Sahara back to Ireland. It’ll stop off in various locations along the way. Through the mimicry of this species, it literally tells you where it’s flown, so you can almost picture it flying from Africa, working its way up through the Meditarranean and arriving in Ireland, just by listening to the mimicry. So it literally sings its journey, like stamps on a passport."
Síofra met falconer Jayden Culligan, who works at the Burren Birds of Prey Centre.She was also introduced to Dyson, a white-backed vulture. Jayden fills her in on Dyson's skillset:
"He is the hoover of the ecosystem, because he will clean up an incredible amount of dead carcasses. He makes a little bit of a dinosaur noise at you. And then when he’s out flying, he’s completely silent, he’s in work mode, he wants to get the job done. It’s quite intimidating. There’s a power in the silence."
Next up is a snowy owl named John Snow and Jayden describes the feature of the bird that make it such a deadly hunter. The adorable fluffiness and cute head shape of the snowy owl have a deathly purpose, as it turns out:
"The feathers are serrated, kind of like knives – a butter knife or something – so it doesn’t cut through the wind as sharply. So he can fly over someone’s head and you wouldn’t even notice, you can’t hear a thing. And the heart-shaped face is like a satellite; it can draw sound back to his ears. He can hear so, so well. It’s all build to kill more efficiently."
Wildlife photographer Eric Dempsey says that birdsong is the defining feature of many Irish landscapes - you can't have one without the other:
"The sound of a red grouse up in the moorland, it’s what captures the wildness of a mooreland. You’ll hear the call going 'goback, goback, back, back, back.’ It’s a bit like the Irish goodbye on the telephone ‘goodbye, goodbye, bye, bye, bye,’"
Eric is a longtime professional birdwatcher and field ecologist as well as a photographer. He tells Síofra that bird migrations and birdsong are the words and music of his life:
"I see my first swallows in Spring. It’s how I measure my time on this planet, is the returning swallows."
You can hear more from the bird experts, including how Jayden solved a talking raven’s cursing problem in the full item here.
The Dawn Chorus is live on RTÉ Radio 1 Sunday 7th May at midnight, more info here.