Commentary | Clellie Lynch: Dippers, dunnocks and wrens: The LBJs of Ireland


EAST CHATHAM, N.Y. >> After traveling from the busy, cosmopolis of Dublin across the green checkerboard squares of the center of Ireland to the windy wilds of the west, Danny and I arrive in Easkey, a very small town on the Atlantic Ocean in County Sligo, home of my unknown grandmother.

Our bed and breakfast, a skip and a hop from the high street, overlooks the Easkey River that spills and tumbles over rocks as it rushes towards the sea. Everything is verdant: the lawns, the trees, the shrubs. Wildflowers: red poppies, yellow celandine, pink herb robert, lavender loosestrife, white cow parsley—bloom along the roads creeping into any area not already filled with grasses. Purple-and-red blooming fuchsia hedges line the country roads hiding green fields dotted here and there with complacent cattle and oblivious sheep. By the time we finish dinner and take a quick walk, it is nearly 10 p.m., still as bright as day.

At 4:30 the next morning, as a golden sun slips over the horizon, I awake to the cries of gulls and the sweet song of many other birds. I cross a small stone bridge and see I am not the only early riser. Standing on the rocks is a fisherman slowly spinning his line into the water in search of salmon. The paved path is worn and a little wet, fields on one side, the river on the other. I see one LBJ (little brown job) after another disappear into the tangle of shrubbery, sink down into the tall grass or fade away into the vines covering a crumbling stone cowshed.

Even though I haven't identified a bird yet, the day is beautiful. By the time I reach the mouth of the river though, I have observed a great grey heron (much like our great blue, but bigger), a blackbird (like a goth American Robin with the same bright yellow bill) and a great cormorant (same species as is found along our coast).

The ocean is a'roar, waves curling in over the rocks. A flotilla of herring gulls is feeding just beyond the swell of the waves. Then I notice first one, then another bright white gannet (same as ours) plunging into the sea. To my right, two jet black rooks stand alert on an old stone tower of the crumbling Rosslea Castle.

On my way back I hear a long complicated trill/song that I recognize: A winter wren! Here, though, the bird, Troglodytes troglodytes, is know as the wren in the field guides, and as dreoilín, if your field guide is written in Irish. By the time Danny joins me, I have seen four wrens along the way, each one defining his or her own territory, hopping up to a branch, cocking the tail, belting out that wonderful song and then fading behind a screen of leaves. In recent counts, scientists have estimated that there are five million breeding wrens in Ireland alone!

Like Edith Piaf

One Irish ornithologist, Anthony McGeehan, in his book Birds through Irish Eyes calls the wren, "the Edith Piaf of the understory." Wrens were associated with the Druids and were believed to have magical powers. Was that why on December 26th, the children of Ireland went from house to house begging for pennies with a captured wren? To take away power from those a bit more pagan than they were?

A wren flies into a honeysuckle bush and a sparrow-like brown bird with a distinct grey face pattern flies out. Paging through the guide, I determine this is the hedge accentor, Prunella modularis, in English field guides, dunnock and/or bráthair an dreoilín (brother of the wren) in Irish field guides.

Don't confuse this delicate bird with the female English sparrow. The grey on the face and neck is quite distinct and the bill is much narrower. This very common bird, "the Irish nightingale" often sings during the hours of darkness leading the superstitious to claim the bird sounds like unbaptized babies from the spirit world crying as they search this world for their parents. Hmmm and how would they know?

The prudish Victorians celebrated the dunnock as a symbol of celibacy and sexual rectitude. How horrified they would be to find out that modern day ornithologists have discovered that Ms. Dunnock usually mates with two males and that the dominant male makes sure he destroys his competitor's sperm!

Danny is watching the fisherfolk when all of a sudden he exclaims, "a dipper, there's a dipper!" Now dippers, Cinclus cinclus, in Latin, or lon abhann in Irish, are one of my favorite birds along with the equally unique skimmers. Dippers are unto themselves, belonging to an avian genus with only five species worldwide. This black-brown bird with a flashy white bib is shaped almost like a miniature chicken with a short cocked tail and is known as the water hen.

McGeehan, though, writes that the dipper looks "like an overweight satanic wren." It is quite plump, but I am not sure why "satanic." This creature is definitely not godlike, he does not walk on water, but is able to walk into a rushing stream and paddle about submerged.

Why are they called dippers? Because not only do they twitch, bob and dip as they scurry across wet rocks, but also because they forage by dipping into a fast running steam. Sometimes they just dip the head in. Other times they will walk into and along the river bottom or dive in and scoop up a tasty morsel.

Dippers, nearly as common as wrens and dunnocks, populate the streams and rivers of Ireland and the UK and are easy to spot as they fly bullet-like up or down stream only about a foot or so above the surface.

Every morning for three days we wander down the Easkey — it means water in Irish — River and along the ocean observing many different birds and wildflowers. I suddenly realized that I had not seen one butterfly on this trip. Not a one in Scotland. nor any so far in Ireland very unusual since mid-June through mid-July is the time most wildflowers are in bloom!

Lots of LBJs though in field and forest! And seabirds galore in this, the surfing capital of Ireland.

Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.


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