Wicklow man Conor W. O’Brien has been fascinated by birds since childhood, when he would tempt them into his backyard with all manner of feeding contraptions. His interest grew as he did, and he has now published a book on his endeavours to track down some of the more elusive species to be found in Ireland.
The frustration is agonising.
I stand between two fields on Donegal’s Tory Island. This is as far as I’ve ever come from home to see a bird in Ireland – and I’m close. I’m so close that I can hear the distinctive croak of my quarry ringing out through the dense undergrowth of silverweed and nettles.
The bird I’m after needs this kind of cover to call from and forage in. It’s in tragically short supply in modern Ireland, so much so that a creature whose call could once be heard on almost every farm in the country is now confined to a few remote redoubts on the north and west coasts.
The breeze swirling in from the Atlantic sends shivers through the nettles. I scan every leaf for a glimpse of the corncrake it might conceal, the bird I’m after. I hope in vain that every twitch in the nettles will betray a corncrake moving through them. But no bird comes stumbling out. Each bout of croaking comes from a different point within the fields. Sometimes it’s further away. Sometimes it’s so close I swear I could reach out and touch the corncrake. I can’t see it – but it can almost certainly see me.
Then, at last, the sighting I’ve come so far for. Towards the north-west corner of one of the fields, where the nettles and daffodils start to thin out, the face of a corncrake melts out of my binoculars. He’s braving the open to call out in the morning sun, as if defying his rival males to abandon the safety of the nettles.
Bathed in light and set adrift amid the green sheen of the grass, at last I get a chance to study his form. Corncrakes are distant cousins of coots and moorhens; subtract the facial shield and lobed feet and adjust the colours and the resemblance is clear.
They’re about the length of a blackbird, though far bulkier; he appears almost jackdaw sized, with a long neck widening into a pot belly. Orange and grey converge along his head and neck, beginning to bar beneath the wings. His bold, spotted back is almost completely hidden. He tosses his head skyward with each croak, revealing the pink mouth as his dark eyes flash grey.