5Oth Anniversary Celebrations – Cape Clear Bird Observatory
Readers will be interested to hear that an important local institution devoted to natural science and located in a remote part of West Cork celebrates its 50th Anniversary this year.
I refer, of course, to Cape Clear Bird Observatory which was first established in 1959 and which has continued in its own unobtrusive way to support a resident bird warden on the Island and to compile year on year detailed records on bird migration, species change and the various rare birds which frequently appear. The Island owes its importance to being the most south-westerly point in Ireland as well as a defined geographical area.
Before the establishment of the Observatory little was known of the staggering numbers of Shearwaters, Auks and Petrels which regularly pass by in their thousands. Since then many ornithologists have spent long, happy even if uncomfortably wet days scanning the seas and being rewarded not only by the astonishing numbers of seabirds but also by frequent sightings of whales, dolphins, porpoises, basking sharks, sunfish and in one memorable year over 100 sightings of the massive leatherback turtles. Few birdwatchers are so dedicated to ornithology that they can ignore these magnificent creatures and their care and attention to recording sightings over the years has, over time created a very valuable and detailed record. Indeed it is interesting that last year saw six dedicated Harbour Porpoise surveys which revealed a resident population of 160 in the Roaringwater Bay area and which has been designated a candidate SAC.
Visitors to the Island will also see folded nets strung up in various wooded areas. These are used by qualified and licensed ringers to catch birds under controlled conditions which are ringed and released unharmed. As some of these birds are subsequently caught in other areas valuable information is gained about bird movements, breeding habits, lifespan and population levels.
The Observatory has also since 1969 provided formal training courses for aspiring ornithologists but more important perhaps the ‘informal’ training provided by the companionship and patience of the ‘old timers’ who give generously of their time and energy to any and all who show an interest. This year, for instance sees
seven weekend and two week long courses provided by resident warden Steve Wing, under the auspices of Birdwatch Ireland. In addition observatory friend Dr Geoff Oliver who is also a full time resident provides an annual week long ecology course in cooperation with Dr Paddy Sleeman. UCC. The Irish Whale & Dolphin Group also provide three weekend courses in whale and dolphin identification. Further details available at www.birdwatchireland.ie, www.iwdg.ie and www.oilean-chleire.ie
The founding date of the Observatory is considered to be the 19th August 1959 when four young birdwatching enthusiasts, Lin Conwallis, Brian Dickson, Humphrey Dobinson and Mike Sheldon arrived on the Island having arranged the hire of a house in the South Harbour which later became the An Óige Hostel. They were joined nine days later by J.T.R. Sharrock, first president of the Irish Wildlife Conservancy and later editor of The Natural history of Cape Clear Island 1973. Together they maintained a presence on the Island for 11 weeks until the 2nd November which proved to be such a spectacular success that they decided to establish a permanent observatory on the Island. Shortly afterwards the house was put on the market and being unable to raise the asking price of £300 they were delighted when Paddy Leonard came to their rescue by offering the famous ‘Stroma’ building in Lissamona which served as an observatory for the next three years. In 1962, however the Group managed to purchase the present admirably located building in North Harbour, only 3 mins. from the ferry which has served as the Observatory ever since.
For most of those 50 years the work of the Observatory has been carried out by dedicated enthusiasts, voluntary labour and fund raising and by wardens happy to spend years at a time existing on a shoe-string. Until very recently the building was owned and managed by a voluntary trust but is now under the management of Birdwatch Ireland.
Speaking as an observer, that is of the birdwatchers themselves I am reminded of the great 19th century tradition of natural science being largely the preserve of intelligent, enthusiastic and gifted enthusiasts. So much of the pioneering work in so many fields has been carried out in this fashion and the many interesting and well rounded personalities who have been attracted to Oileán Chléire over the years have left an unseen by nevertheless indelible mark on the social and community fabric of the Island. Many friendships have been formed that have endured over long years and the birdwatchers or ‘twitchers’ are accorded great license as they tramp the patchwork of fields, boreens and gardens in search of rarities. They are often rewarded by sightings such as Yellow Warbler, Solitary Sand Piper, Northern Water-thrush and White-throated Sparrow all from the Americas and a Red Brested Flycatcher from the East, all these recorded in 2008 alone.
In recent years resident warden Steve Wing has worked diligently to make bird watching accessible to a wider community not only through the regular courses already mentioned but by hosting various talks which are open to the public.
True to form the 50th Anniversary celebrations which commence on 15th August next are a series of talks, walks, pelagics and other social events which will take place on the Island over a two week period until the 28th. The highlight is the Bird Observatory party and Bar-b-q which appropriately takes place on 19th August, 50 years to the day when the first group of bird watchers arrived on the Island. Most mornings will see organised walks around the bogs, sea watching or ringing and will be a great opportunity for less experienced enthusiasts or those unfamiliar with Oileán Chléire to learn more about the various aspects of bird watching on the Island. There are a number of pelagics (sea trips planned) for the 17th, 23rd and 25th August. These take place in the afternoons and the first trip will be guided by Pádraig Whooley of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group while the others will focus more on sea birds. The various talks in the evenings will cover topics such as bats, choughs, predators and slides/anecdotes from past bird-watching experiences on the Island. The full detailed program is available from email@example.com and represents a unique opportunity for any budding naturalist to experience one of Irelands best bird and whale watching destinations in the company of the foremost authorities in their respective fields.
Congratulations to the present and longest serving warden Steve Wing, to Birdwatch Ireland and not least to all those bird-watching enthusiasts who have both supported and enjoyed Cape Clear Bird Observatory over the years. One hopes that the infectious enthusiasm, joie de vivre and dedication which has been a fine feature of the Observatory gang will still be found on Oileán Chléire in another 50 years time.
Séamus Ó Drisceoil.