A transatlantic hop turns fowl

Vision in Blue

Vision in Blue

I ‘bumped into’ American writer Rachel Stolzman a few weeks ago. We were both participating in Blogging 101, and found each other in the usual technological way. That’s to say, entirely fortuitously.

I stumbled onto Rachel’s blog, or she stumbled onto mine, and we liked what we saw and ended up having a conversation. She had some questions about Ireland that I was able to answer, and the fact that we live three thousand miles apart was inconsequential.

I asked Rachel for permission to reblog the piece she wrote about our meeting. She’d done such a nice job explaining the serendipity behind it. But when I reread her post, I was embarrassed by her kind words about me. I’ve decided instead to reblog a piece she wrote about reading a Flannery O’Connor essay while travelling on the subway in New York.

As it happens, this piece is a further illustration of internet serendipity. I’ve been thinking about birds recently and the Flannery O’Connor essay is a lovely tribute to one of the most beautiful: the peacock. Rachel’s post, in itself charming and pitch-perfect, led me to the O’Connor essay, which in turn led me to a wonderful Pathé video of a young O’Connor showing off her backward-walking chicken.

Which just goes to show, you should always follow the links.


Rachel Stolzman Gullo

flanneryI am very much an urban dweller and probably always will be. I love the city I live in and I love urban capitals in faraway lands. I love learning about the cities of antiquity too. Several years ago I visited what is touted to be the oldest city in civilization in Oaxaca. If I rememebr correctly 100,000 people dwelled on this mountain top, playing an early form of soccer and holding public trials and beheadings when laws were broken.

Like many of us though, I have rural fantasies. For the twenty years I’ve lived in NYC, my sister has lived a rural life in Northern California. The fact that she’s had chickens, goats, alternate high-maintenance power sources, and a cottage made for Snow White, has probably aided me in not succombing to my own rural fantasies. But I’ve decided in advance, in case I go rural, that the animals I want…

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A charm of a day


The exercise says to write down three things that stop me in my tracks over the course of a week. Three things seems optimistic.  My life is predictable and routine. Being surprised even once seems unlikely.

Still, I need to write something, so I decide to give it a go.

Next day, I meet up with my classmates for a bird watching trip. I’ve been meaning to learn about birds forever, and this year I finally enrolled in a course. This morning, our ‘safari’ is along the coast road in Malahide.

There are dog walkers and Sunday strollers aplenty. Still, we see a good range of coastal birds: oystercatchers and greenshanks, Brent geese and turnstones; even a solitary curlew.

We turn our attention inland, walk parallel to the coast. Two stonechats pose on a fence, allow us to come close; a meadow pipit calls from the distance. Our instructor signals us to stop. He trains his binoculars on the grass, indicates that we should do the same. Suddenly, a flock of goldfinches rises in front of us. The birds fly low and lovely, close to the ground.  They settle for a moment, rise again, settle; snack on thistles and teasels.

I must have seen this bird before. (In the wild, I mean. I’ve seen it in paintings, and on the cover of Donna Tartt’s novel.) But I never noticed it. Brown body; red and black head; yellow wing bars. Its Irish name is lasair choille, flame of the wood.

It’s exquisite and it’s tiny and my eyesight is poor. (I’ve only recently taken to using binoculars and scopes.) I imagine I encountered it before but saw it only as a blur.

I like this explanation better than the alternative: I didn’t see it because I didn’t pay attention.

The question of what else I’ve missed stuns me.

Black and White

We pile into our cars and make our way to the Swords Estuary, home to a large flock of mute swans.

They’re a familiar sight to most Dubliners, frequenting the city’s rivers and canals in groups until they disperse for the breeding season.

It would be easy to confuse this flock with any other city flock, except here comes a black swan, unmistakable in his non-Irishness, smaller than his flockmates but equally regal, equally heart-stopping.

My first black swan.

The strange heart beating where it lies

Our instructor Richard is a licensed bird-ringer. He surprises us by producing a bird-ringing kit, then coaxing a swan out of the water.

The swan is a large male, about three years old. (Later, we find out he weighs 12.5kg.) Richard approaches quickly, and before I can raise my camera, he captures the bird and pins him to the ground. A squawk and a flurry of wings and it’s all over.

The swan lies still, quiet and submissive now, its long neck stretched out on the grass. Richard examines its feet, lifting each carefully to search for cuts and calluses. “A country visitor,” he tells us. “No damage from city pavements.”

He takes a ring from his tackle box and fastens it around the swan’s leg. He notes the number on the ring in a small notebook, then checks the bird’s sex and age. Finally, he places a belt around the swan’s abdomen. The belt has a strap attached with a built-in scale, and Richard stands slowly and dangles the swan on the strap.

Before he releases him, Richard asks if we’d like to feel its heart. I place my hand on the swan’s breast, experience its slow and steady heartbeat.

I am stopped in my tracks all over again.