To the Ends of the Earth: Ireland’s place in bird migration

Published on 29 January 2019 in Book reviews

By Anthony McGeehan

The Collins Press, 2018; hbk, 241pp; photographs, maps, diagrams and paintings, all in colour; ISBN 978-1-84889-352-8

£24.99 buy it from the BB Bookshop

This is a small, quite slim book but as a readable interpretation of bird migration it packs an amazing punch. Originally a teasing columnist (widely read in Birdwatch, then Dutch Birding), Anthony McGeehan has matured into Ireland’s most literate ornithological author. This is his third foray into reconvening the histories and current fortunes of Irish birds but its span is much wider than in the first two, nothing short of global. Importantly, its delivery of current migration lore is written in words that happily avoid the obtuse, alternative language of professional scientists. There are, however, no simplifications of the phenomena, just many ready lessons that will suit purposeful birdwatchers and general naturalists ‘keen to keep up’.

The book is tripartite and features 29 chapters or instructive essays. All are aptly illustrated, mostly by Anthony’s own perceptive portraits of birds photographed in their seasonal niches. The main themes are Time to Fly, Mechanisms of Navigation and Days of Wonder. Within the essays the asides to modern discoveries – not least the recent proof of birds using their bodies’ systems to ‘find tail winds miles high’ – are amazingly wide and lucidly mapped. Also included are respectful references to early migration studies in Ireland, e.g. Richard Barrington’s marshalling of lighthouse keepers into a nationwide observer corps at the end of the nineteenth century.

This review is not free of bias. For a decade and more from 1995, I followed the author in his re-exploration of northwest Ireland’s capacity to demonstrate the limits of Atlantic migrants. His diurnal yomping and nocturnal craic were second to none. I did not, however, foresee this ‘gut-busting effort’ (Anthony’s own verdict on three years of research) to distil a fresh brew of Irish observations and link them so adroitly to other studies up and down two hemispheres. The outcome is enlivened by the odd tease. It’s no surprise that his last essay features two birds that – before human malice – had no need of migratory ability, the Mauritius Dodo Raphus cucullatus and Irish Capercaillie Tetrao urogallus – unlike the Earth’s greatest traveller Sterna paradisaea. Rightly, the Arctic Tern is saluted on the book’s cover and mentioned on ten pages. Look for involving tales of more than 130 other migrants on the rest and do not miss the transatlantic saga of the Purple Sandpiper Calidris maritima alias ‘avian Amelia Earhart’!

D. I. M. Wallace