BIRDS - Through Irish Eyes
Anthony McGeehan talks exclusively to Stephen Rutt about his new book
|Anthony McGeehan, from Belfast, has been watching and photographing birds since childhood. Today, he works with BirdWatch Ireland on bird surveys and monitoring schemes, and leads bird tours. His first published articles date from 1980 and he has since written widely for magazines and journals, in Europe and North America, as well as regular newspaper contributions. His book, Birding From The Hip, attracted much favourable comment. Anthony's Facebook page.
My first introduction to Anthony McGeehan's writing came from his columns in hand-me-down copies of Birdwatch magazine. Consistently they proved one of the most readable and stimulating parts of the magazine to that nascent birder. They still do, even now to a fully-fledged and committed member of the flock: they burst with ideas and humour in clearly put prose. His latest book, 'BIRDS Through Irish Eyes' is an enjoyable but also provocative exploration, species-by-species, of the Irish avifauna. I took the opportunity to ask him a few of the questions it raises on some of the topics he explores.
Stephen: Anthony, let's start with an easy question: what's your favourite bird?
Anthony: The thought crossed my mind that by applying a test - what bird do I always stop to look at - I might come up with a novel insight. The answer was Song Thrush. Coincidentally, I love their song too. I think Song Thrush has a Cinderella innocence about it. Always hiding away, avoiding the limelight but absolutely gorgeous, if only it knew!
Stephen: And a slightly trickier question: you've been across the world, so what's your favourite destination for birdwatching?
Anthony: Luckily there are many parts of the world that I feel will remain unspoiled, so I will never be stuck for places to dream about. But my favourite is Iceland. I have been there three times and the weather was kind every time. I know people who have been there and had dreadful weather. The reason I like the place is because of the scale of the landscape and the overwhelming impression of Mother Nature having the upper hand on Homo sapiens. Everywhere I went I felt small, part of a natural scene that beat to its own rhythm: a great and humbling feeling. But the birds were familiar and they roamed free and unfettered by the trappings of humanity: no buildings, fences, traffic. So, Iceland has the birds but also the scenery, the tranquility and the 'right' people. Perhaps bizarrely, my son Tom and I got drunk on the freedom of it all and went off 'waterfalling' as the majesty of those was so uplifting. Godafoss is breathtaking. The vicinity had Harlequins on the river, breeding shorebirds all over the grasslands, Gyr overhead. But the experience was the Full Monty, not just one or more of the constituent parts.
Stephen: What made you write BIRDS Through Irish Eyes?
Anthony: BIRDS Through Irish Eyes was conceived to tell the birds' stories and present the subjects in a visual way that was a 'portrait for the wall' and not a passport mugshot. Because I have worked in interpretation almost continually since 1978, I know what people find 'entertaining' or absorbing. But I also feel that I know the important facts about most birds and can weave them into a narrative that 'sells' the species. By that I mean, if a perfect stranger walked into a room but you then discovered that the person had walked over the Himalayas to freedom and had escaped from a Chinese detention camp for dissidents, you'd be impressed! So narrative is important. Having had my imagination ignited at a very young age by a schoolteacher (not even one from my own school) I wanted to 'put something back' and, if you like, discharge a duty to the birds of Ireland, among which I grew up. Seeing so many of them AWOL is gut-wrenchingly depressing. But what can I do? Nothing really. But I can put everything down between two fairly flimsy bits of board and the contents will look nice and maybe be a good read and the paper will even smell nice! Ah, the spoor of freshly-printed pages. I don't want to think of the trees that were cut down to produce the paper, however. But trees can be replanted. One thing that is not being replanted is the seed of learning that I got when nature study was taught at school. Sadly, my own teachers knew nothing of the subject. But exposure to that one bloke, to whom the book is dedicated, did the trick. And not just for me: a whole flipping school!
Stephen: I love your writing style. Do you read much nature writing and whose writing do you feel has influenced you?
Anthony: I'm not aware of any style. I guess it is best not to think about such matters. I don't read much nature writing. I'm not a fan of anything 'flowery' and I don't like any writing that hangs about and doesn't keep up interest. I love Garrison Keillor's short stories but not his full-length books. I guess that my attention span is short. But he was a definite influence. So too DIM Wallace, Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray and Flann O'Brien's Third Policeman.
Stephen: You've been watching birds since your childhood. Do you think birds can appeal to the younger generation today? I've been seriously birding since the age of fourteen, and I'm not sure any attempts at 'selling' birds to kids will ever work, especially with the current, patronising way it seems to be done.
Anthony: I look at my two kids (26 and 22) and their mates. All razor sharp and a credit to the human race. But none of them got one atom of exposure to the natural world at school. I was watching, closely. Tom is not a birder, although he enjoys birds. His main interest is photography. It is a flaw to go down a tunnel vision route that concentrates on birds and excludes everything else. I lead birdwatching tours and people enjoy the birds because I can 'narrate' and fill in everything from their ID to their life stories. Seeing and hearing them well is really important but the experience sticks because of the story that goes with each species. It is like hearing Attenborough talk about fossils. You don't have to see the fossil to be captivated. From the earliest age, kids love stories. But wonderment appeals to all of us. Therein lies the key to presenting the natural world, or any other 'interest'. Far too much has gone into the promotion of birds as objects to be identified. The ID route is fun but also not helpful when most of the participants in the game look on ID as the main event. Even Field Guides fail to woo the public to the aesthetics of birds, let alone convey any sense of appreciation or passion. The Jonsson guide was good in that respect. The Collins Guide is elitist.
Stephen: You write that in Ireland, "few 'get' the natural world". Why do you think that is, and not the case in, for example, Scotland or Wales?
Anthony: The Celtic Tiger was an utter disaster for rural Ireland. I spent ten autumns in (then) beautiful southwest Donegal. Each year the place got worse. Trees cut down, ghastly houses everywhere, mess dumped in previously unspoiled areas. I had enough and looked elsewhere. That led me to Inishbofin. It is an island and fairly 'safe'. Nonetheless, any human-activity parts of it are not pretty. Unfortunately, most folk there do not see the beauty around them, neither the landscape nor the inhabitants of the natural world. If you 'get' one you get both. When you add to the equation the lack of stimulation of young people to the great outdoors then, worryingly, I think it is a case of 'Houston, we have a problem.'
‘Few people’ still means some, however. In fact - and I do not know, of course - the proportions might be the same in England, Scotland, Wales. This is a complicated topic to strip down and look at the nuts and bolts, but I look at the French and the Spanish and even (because I have been in all three countries) Estonia. In each case, a love of country includes a love of 'the look' of the country. Among those nations (and even in USA and Canada) there is a sense of indignation when a shared heritage is maltreated by industry, development or farming. I get a sense of national pride that is lacking in Ireland. Maybe in Great Britain it is easier to think that more national pride exists because the distribution of the population is different, leaving big chunks of the landmass as 'countryside' outside the bailiwick of potential destroyers. In Ireland, human settlement is everywhere.
Everybody wants to have their cake and eat it. "What's in this for me?" is the usual mind-set. Planning is weak. Wilderness is not safe because it is not even seen as such. I find it farcical to see national fervour manifest itself at sports events when all things green are celebrated. But when it comes to the land where everyone comes from - forget it! I piously hope that by attempting to convince people that birds and wild places are special, some attitudes might change. If government wakes up and lends support, things might happen. I firmly believe that there is an appetite for all such improvements. The book might help.
Stephen: In your book you castigate the RSPB for their approach towards Magpies. What do you think they should be doing about them? And about foxes?
Anthony: First, you cannot blame neither the bird nor the mammal. Both are, like everything in the natural world, beautiful. The book's Magpie account addresses, I think, my arguments against Magpies well enough. But your question is a tangent to that. The Irish and British countryside is largely 'unnatural' and has been modified by human activity. In consequence, among its wildlife, there are winners and losers. So much change in the countryside has benefited Magpies and foxes. I'm sure you can think of reasons for the spread of both; such as not being persecuted in suburbia, where populations of both flourish, and having a daily breakfast menu provided (flattened fauna and junk chucked from passing cars - nice!) on the vast number of Irish rural roads. So the mesopredators are out of control. Obviously both species, especially when it comes to rearing a family, will turn their attention to whatever they can get. If I was a Magpie I'd do the same. So the density of both in Ireland is colossal. A lot of the research that RSPB hides behind is based on the impact of Magpies at much lower density in UK. A Magpie with a territory will certainly exploit all that it can within the territory. However, if the overall density is low, then many birds are outside the 'danger zone'. No research focuses on the fact that the Irish situation is different. Throw in oases of ground-nesting shorebird habitat and it is easy to see why predation is a major issue here, as it is on reserves in GB. Magpies are born to be clever. They have an impact and in Ireland their impact is felt. So far, studies have been small-scale but still demonstrate that Magpies have a negative effect on songbird nesting attempts on contemporary farmland habitats.
Poisons are banned and rightly so. But there are still large numbers of ground predators and crows in upland areas where they did not used to be. Afforestation that provides refuges and overstocking of sheep, a great source of carrion, are just two 'unnatural' factors that boost the numbers of foxes and crows in former strongholds of ground-nesting birds, for whom their presence is bad news
There are no saints in this conservation conundrum but if vulnerable bird populations get a helping hand then so much the better.
Stephen: What do you think of the Irish birding scene?
Anthony: I'd rather not say! Basically, it is a case of a hobby consuming itself. I watch birds and seek their company but more and more not of their human watchers. In fact, if you use the term 'birder', then 'watcher' is, appropriately, missing. But I find the company of lay-watchers a treat. Many people are interested and, like me, they find all birds fascinating: if only someone or some book can guide them and take their curiosity and appreciation to a higher level. The Irish birding scene is a tyranny. Nowadays, some sensational new blood is on the scene and, thus far, has not allowed deliberate undermining of reputations to dent ability. So we need an 'Irish Spring'. Slowly, I think that is happening. But I ask myself, what has this got to do with trying to help birds such as Barn Owls, Yellowhammers, Ring Ouzels and Curlews? Answer: nothing. So I'm not part of any (silly) scene.
Stephen: Finally, what has been your biggest birding regret and your finest birding moment?
Anthony: I was always 'hands on' (see Chris Packham's review of the book on his website) rather than 'finger on', by which I mean typing about birds. My biggest regret is not seeing eleven years of graft at Belfast Harbour become a lasting legacy. Not for me, but for the birds I helped protect. I designed and, with others, built tern islands. By 2009, two islands had attracted 250 pairs of Common Terns, 25 pairs of Arctic Terns and a pair of globally-endangered Roseate Terns. Those numbers were built up from zero over eight years. Since I have gone, the colonies have declined due to incompetence and apathy. However, none of those species are in real trouble. Lapwing is a bird in massive trouble in Ireland. Again at Belfast Harbour I spent a decade creating a stunning wet meadow system that attracted almost 20 breeding pairs of Lapwings. Everything was a struggle. So my big regret is for the birds (now largely absent). Your last question: well, I hope it is ahead. Birds are full of surprises!