Friday, April 28, 2023

The Great Rush of Birds in March 1911

Roseate terns at Rockabill lighthouse. I have no idea if they are migratory. Photograph  Aidan Arnold

On March 29th to 30th 1911, a great rush of birds was observed along the south and east coasts of Ireland from the Old Head of Kinsale up to Balbriggan. It was apparently so noticeable that newspapers commented on it for days afterwards. The excessive numbers appeared for several days afterwards but the night of March 29th / 30th appears to have been the peak.

Ornithologist, Richard Manliffe Barrington, whose work with lightkeepers in the last 20 years of the nineteenth century had done so much to aid our understanding of bird migration, wrote a paper on the event a few months later. Thanks to his lightkeeping connections, he was able to pinpoint the extent of the bird rush and suggest a probable cause. I quote from his paper.

Turning now to the light-stations on the coast, the most northerly from which any special number of birds was reported is BALBRIGGAN

Mr. E. A. Kennedy, light-keeper, at an interview said :-“A rush of Starlings commenced at eleven p.m. on March 29th , and continued until four a.m. the next morning. Fifteen were picked up dead.” This is a small mainland lighthouse at the end of a pier. Mr. Kennedy states that this was the only occasion during his six years residence that any birds were killed.

ROCKABILL: – Mr. Henry T. Murphy, light-keeper when interviewed said “The night of March 29th was dark ; wind E.S.E light, with drizzling rain, and that about 150 birds were killed, chiefly Starlings, one Woodcock and one Manx Shearwater, and a large number of Blackbirds and several Thrushes. Several Water-rail and Curlew were also observed flying about.

On March 31st I received from this station ;- Four Woodcocks, one Snipe, one Meadow-Pipit, two Water-rail, one Dunlin ; all said to have been killed on the night of the 30th. Possibly they struck on the previous night and were not found till the day after. Rockabill lighthouse is four miles from shore.

HOWTH BAILEY LIGHTHOUSE:- No report has yet reached me from the light-keeper, but the Secretary of the Irish Lights Board writes that the fog-siren was choked with dead birds on the night of April 1st.

No account has yet been received from three lightships all situated about ten miles from shore along the Dublin and Wicklow coasts, namely the Kish, the Codlings and North Arklow.

SOUTH ARKLOW:- Ten miles from the north Wexford coast. Mr. J. J. Reilly, light-keeper writes:-“March 20th, Blackbirds, Starling and Thrushes in large numbers about the ship all night ; from eight p.m. on 29th to four a.m. some hundreds striking, forty killed. Wind light, N.E., hazy. March 31st, Blackbirds, Starling, Thrushes in large numbers about ship all night until six a.m. Wind light, N.E., hazy. Birds going N. N.W., 80 killed striking. The ship was covered with Starling and Blackbirds on the morning of the 31st, and on April 1st Starlings in numbers rested on the ship from eight a.m. to four p.m., and then flew N.W.” Leg and wing of Water-rail received.

A “Chaffinch and Goldfinch” also seen. Two Goldfinches (leg and wing of one received) were killed striking on April 2nd and in this connection it….(Sorry! Missing end of page)

South Arklow lightship c. 1906

BLACKWATER BANK Lightship, ten miles from Wexford, send:- One Starling and one Thrush, killed on the 29th, also Water-rail and Wheatear, the former of which died exhausted, and the latter struck the mast.

Patrick Cogley, A.B., said in an interview that he came on the watch at four a.m. on the 30th, and “never saw so many birds at any night for thirteen years, ten to twenty Starlings were found killed, besides what fell overboard. Thrushes and Curlew were about the light, and two Wheatears, a Robin and a few Linnets.”

LUCIFER SHOALS Lightship:- This station has not yet forwarded any specimens, but Patrick Magrath, A.B., who was on board on March 29th, says that the birds began to strike at 9 p.m. Wind light E., hazy. He was on duty till 4 a.m., and birds were coming the whole time. About 60 Starlings were killed, besides those which fell overboard, also two Blackbirds, a Thrush and a few Skylarks.

TUSKAR Lighthouse:- Seven miles from shore. This is a famous lighthouse off the extreme S.E. corner of Co. Wexford. Mr. A. O’Leary, the keeper, writes:_ “There was an enormous lot of Starlings on the night of March 30th ; the rock and balcony were completely covered with them and several hundreds were killed. There was also a lot of Thrushes and Blackbirds.” Mr. O’Leary forwarded a Redwing, Wheatear, 2 Blackbirds, Water-rail, 1 Black Red-start, and a Meadow-Pipit.

BARRELS Lightship:- Turning the corner of the south coast of Wexford, we come to this station, ten miles from the shore, and here, the testimony of Mr. Grant, the light-keeper is most remarkable ; for he states that “no birds were killed during the month of March, and no unusual flights were noticed.” This can only be accounted for by the fact that the sky must have been perfectly clear close to the ship on the night of March 29th.

CONINGBEG Lightship: – This is about fifteen miles west of the “Barrels,” and ten miles from shore. Matthew Murphy, siren man who was on the watch from 8 p.m. and (was interviewed on March 30th) said – that in (missing last line here!! – sorry again). Forwarded was a Water-rail killed striking on March 29th.

HOOK TOWER: – A light at the extreme end of a long narrow promontory extending in a S.W direction at the mouth of Waterford Harbour. Mr. J. Devaney, the assistant keeper, writes, on March 30th. :- “I am forwarding a bird (Water-rail received) which struck the lantern this morning. Thousands of Starlings, Blackbirds, Thrushes and Manx Shearwaters were around the lantern all night and hundreds were killed. It was very dark and gloomy, and wind N.E.”

Hook Lighthouse c.1903

OLD HEAD OF KINSALE:- After Hook Tower there are no south coast lighthouse records until we reach this mainland lighthouse, from which Mr. Martin Kennedy, the light-keeper writes on March 30th, thus :- “I am posting today 6 Robins, 2 skylarks, 2 Wheatears (all received). They were killed at the lantern between 10 and 11.30 p.m. last night. It is most remarkable about the 6 Robins ; I only remember getting one before – at Rockabill. 136 Starlings were found killed or dying, this morning after the night, also 2 Shearwaters.” On April 2nd Mr. Kennedy forwarded a wheatear, Black Redstart, Stonechat, and Meadow Pipit, killed the previous night between 9 p.m. and midnight. He reports that the lantern and balcony were covered with hundreds of Starlings but not one was killed.

Sadly, the names of the keepers does not particularly help the lighthouse historian, as the 1911 census was taken three days later!

It seems that this phenomenon occurred east of the line from Kinsale to Balbriggan with towns such as Waterford, New Ross, Carlow, Kilkenny and Dublin also reporting huge quantities of birds.

Barrington's explanation was that these birds were migrating into Ireland, England and Scotland. It is a well known ornithological axiom that birds, in the Northern Hemisphere, usually breed in the most northerly portion of their range. Immense numbers annually towards the end of March move northwards through Spain and France to their breeding haunts. This year, for weeks previous to the 29th of that month, cold northerly or easterly winds prevailed over France and the British Isles, and birds though desirous to migrate were held back by the weather, and many species which would otherwise have traveled separately, collected in the South of Europe like passengers at a railway station, anxious to proceed upon their journey, but unable to do so owing to a breakdown on the line.

To this cause, I attribute the ‘extraordinary’ number of birds, and as the temperature was much milder on the west coast of France and in Brittany than in central France, they took a more westerly course than usual, unwilling to face the bitter N.E. winds.

Barrington mentions in his article that a similar phenomenon, "The Wonderful Battel of the Birds," was described in the Cork Archaeological Journal as having taking place between 12th and 14th October 1621. Presumably in this case the birds were heading south and the south of Ireland was the railway station where millions of birds were fighting over the last hang sandwich in the buffet, while waiting for the wind to change.

Of course, Barrington may have been wrong. The rush of birds may have been caused by the arrival of two lovebirds in a cage in the Isle of Man....

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