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Going wild for Cape Clear

Monday, 2nd September, 2019 5:56pm

Story by Jackie Keogh
Going wild for Cape Clear

An anonymous donation helped to set up the island's bird observatory back in 1959 after Steve Wing saw its enormous potential after visiting as a young man.

The country’s only full-time bird observatory is located on Cape Clear and it celebrates its 60th anniversary this year. To mark this, the island is hosting a unique wildlife festival starting next week, which Jackie Keogh says will showcase the magic of Cape

IN terms of theme and location, Cape Clear’s first wildlife festival looks like it is going to be a winner.

Steve Wing – the wildlife officer at the Cape Clear Bird Observatory, which is run by Bird Watch Ireland – doesn’t know if there will be 10 or 100 additional visitors taking part in the 12-day programme, which starts next Monday, September 2nd.

But there is every indication that it is going to be good – certainly unique – and already it has such broad appeal that guest speakers are clamouring for a spot on the evening schedule of talks.

A conversation with the softly-spoken Steve from Reading – who made Cape his home 21-years ago – makes you think: ‘What could be more perfect than spending a morning out and about on the island – a chance to clamber over headlands, trail behind others on a guided wildlife walk, attend a bird ringing demo, or spend a few hours bird or whale watching from island vantage points, or off-shore on a boat?’

And that’s just the morning schedule. In the afternoon, there’s lots of events aimed at full family participation like rock pooling, or guided walks in search of butterflies – dragonflies too. 

Pádraig Whooley of Whale Watch Ireland will be taking one group out in search of the leviathans of the sea, while Cape resident Geoff Oliver will hold those, attending his flower walk talk, spellbound by the beauty beneath their feet.

There’s even a bird race on the final afternoon on Saturday, September 14th so don’t let back to school blues put you off because with two weekends and a few days sandwiched in between people are going to be talking about the appeal of this festival for some time to come.

The evening schedule – a series of talks on a wide range of topics from biodiversity to the early days of the Cape Clear Bird Observatory – is also jam-packed. 

Steve said the festival is essentially a celebration of the Cape Clear Bird Observatory, which was formed in 1959, and remains the only full-time bird observatory in Ireland. 

It all started when four young lads from Reading School approached the British Ornithology Trust and asked them where in Ireland they should go. They said Cape, an island of the south west of Ireland might be good.

When the young men returned to the UK they told the BOT: ‘You have got to set up a bird observatory on the island’ only to be told: ‘Off you go, you do it, you set up the committee.’ 

An anonymous donation paid for the observatory that Steve now calls home. Guests can stay there right throughout the year, but, usually for the first three weeks of October, it’s full because historically that is when most of the rarities have been found on Cape Clear.

Steve describes his interest in birdwatching saying: ‘It is a deep sense of joy seeing birds and nature – all of it.’ But the biggest thrill he gets is showing the children and seeing the wonderment in their eyes when they see something rare.

Some of Steve’s duties are to ring birds to track their migration patterns, but that is just part of it.

 Everyone knows that the bird list for Cape is incredible – the number of different species seen on the island is 311, of which 38 have come from America.

Steve described his career highlights saying: ‘On three occasions, I have seen three different American birds on the island on the same day. That doesn’t happen anywhere else in the other bird observatories’ – all of which goes a long way to explaining how Cape is one of the top three bird observatories in Britain and Ireland.

Sea bird migration makes Cape special too, although very few breed on the island because the geology of the place means that a lot of the cliff ledges ae downward sloping and not conducive for building nests or laying eggs.

Birdwatching is a passion that was ignited by Steve’s former partner, Mary – who passed away last year.

‘Before we came here, we lived on a little island called Lundy in the Bristol Channel,’ said Steve, ‘then we went to live on the north Devon coast. It’s just like West Cork – it is home from home.’  

But as nice as West Cork is, Steve said: ‘Cape is magic.’

This festival is not aimed entirely at birdwatchers. Steve said: ‘It is aimed at the ‘Capers’ too so we can show them exactly what we do and why we do it.’ 

It is also for individuals and families who might want a bit of island magic for themselves.

See www.birdwatchireland.ie for more details.

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