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.

11 thoughts on “A charm of a day

  1. You touched a swan? Wow. A few years ago, we saw what we thought was a trumpeter swan in Wyoming, but we were at some distance. My father is a birdwatcher who has keeps a life list of birds he has seen, but I do not have his quiet temperament. Sounds like a day with lovely surprises.

    1. Hi Sandi, swans are so plentiful here (the white mute ones mostly, but also the Bewick and whooper), I forget how lucky we are. But the black swan is native to Australia, and I’d never seen one in the flesh before. Probably an escapee from a private collection. What a thrill!

  2. What an amazing day. I’d take that kind of ‘routine and predictable’, Aileen!

    1. Hi Jenny, I think the day was more enjoyable for being so unexpected. I love being surprised, but it happens less often these days.:)

      1. Which makes those days even more special when they do happen! :o)

  3. I like your sentence “I didn’t see it because I wasn’t paying attention.” I’m going to write it on the chalkboard in my bathroom and credit you. You described this bird watching trip so well, I could hear their calls and wing beats. Lucky you to see the bird coaxed out of the water.

    1. Hi Kay, it really was a lovely and surprising day. One to remember! Maybe I’m just getting old, but I regret not paying more attention to nature when I was younger (and my eyesight was better). So much to learn. I’ll never catch up!

  4. Never seen a black swan ! Never touched a swan, black or white! And feeling the pulse of his heart…never! It must have been a special experience!

    1. Hi Robert, it was a great experience, Absolutely! Swans are such lovely creatures. I never imagined I’d get to touch one.
      Thanks for stopping by. I’ve been browsing your site, too, enjoying the photographs. They’re wonderful, Robert. Congratulations!

  5. Loved reading about your birding adventure! So vivid, I felt like I was out there with you. Glad you we’re stopped in your tracks 🙂

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