Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Soggy Squares

Deadlinus imminentitis, by all accounts, is a not infrequent neurological condition to which those who blithely sign up for Bird Atlas squares are susceptible. The onset is swift and debilitating, invariably occurring a matter of days before the end of the count period. In my case, having goofed off to Spain for the better part of a week in February, I arrived back to discover that those crucial days of the 29th, 30th and 31st that I'd enjoyed at the end of the early winter count period in December had been cruelly lopped off February, leaving me with three whole tetrads to survey in twice as many days. 

Compounding my self-inflicted misery was the knowledge that all three squares nestle in the midst of the Blue Stack mountains, which happens to be one of the wettest places known to man in these soggy islands: rain guaranteed 4 days out of 7 (and usually mist and showers the rest of the time). [Source: Mean Annual Rainfall in Ireland 1961-90: that dark grey splodge in the centre of County Donegal is my patch.] To make matters worse, weather forecasting in this neglected extremity of what was once the proud Celtic Tiger (now a drowned kitten, but that's another story), remains an ongoing challenge to meteorological science and is best left to local postman, Michael Gallagher.

With each passing day more dull and mizzley than the previous, I entered the terminal stages, characterised by an obsession with thinking up ever-more-plausible excuses for the Regional Organiser. Friday the 27th finally came up trumps, with my (by now) delusional mind seeing in the merest glimpses of blue sky, the potential for one of those cloudless winter-in-Madrid days I'd heedlessly frittered away the week before. The occasional savage gust of wind that rocked the car should have brought me to my senses, but by that stage I had those tetrads in my sights: it was today or never.

A steady slog brought me gradually up into the heart of the mountains: it was at this point that I encountered an ethical dilemma in the form of a pile of poo - very fresh poo in fact: the Red Grouse from which it had recently emanated was, of course, nowhere to be seen. Half-an-hour into my square, with little to show for my efforts except for a pair of bemused Hoodies, the temptation to tick this putative grouse was almost overpowering. It was whilst pondering this quandary that my world abruptly diminished and became disturbingly whiter: the cloud that had been scudding overhead a minute ago had evidently fallen out of the sky and was spilling its wispy dampness all around me. With pathological desperation, I set a compass course to take me right across the tetrad to one of the mountain cairns, determined to lay eyes on that grouse - any grouse - in fact any bird would do. 

Nearing the cairn, with visibility now down to a few metres and fearsome gusts of wind threatening to send me and my atlasing career into oblivion over the adjoining cliff, I heard it: that faint, but unmistakable, plaintive call that could only be Golden Plover. With thousands of their conspecifics wintering in ideal habitat around the estuaries of Donegal, it has always been a mystery as to why a few hardy birds choose to spend the winter on such inhospitable mountain plateaux. And here, just as I'd hoped, they had turned up to be recorded. Listening for a while I reckoned on maybe three calling birds - it was hard to tell. I never did see them, or the grouse or any other birds in that gloomy wasteland.

Lunch was a dismal affair, the vengeful cloud contriving to punish this interloper with a steady, bone-chilling drizzle. Nevertheless, with the optimism born of a strong coffee jolt, I knew that tetrad K beckoned across the ridge with untold avian wonders waiting to be recorded for posterity. Two hours and much squelching later, the only avian wonder turned out to be a Wren that took one look at me before sensibly disappearing down a rocky hole in the ground - troglodytes indeed. Reaching the edge of the square and possibly the edge of sanity at around the same time, I glanced up to see two Ravens mocking me from the cliff-top beyond: with typical corvid cunning they had placed themselves just outside tetrad K.

1 comment:

Yoke, said...

Funny, how I'd never realised you are based in Eire! Mind, that dimple looks quite ominous.