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Capturing the Shot: Jim Wilson & Mark Carmody on The Birds of Ireland – A Field Guide

Writing.ie | Magazine | Interviews | Non-Fiction
The Birds of Ireland

By Jim Wilson & Mark Carmody

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After completing his second book with his nephew Mark Carmody, Freshwater Birds of Ireland, Jim Wilson was being asked ‘what’s next?’

Jim explains, “I have always wanted to do an ID guide to the birds of Ireland that would bring something new to the existing library of guides and so did a bit of thinking and came up with the idea of using the format of successful ‘traditional’ ID guides which use illustrations on a plain coloured background and see if this tried-and-tested format would work with digital photographs instead of illustrations.

jim wilson irish birdsI put the idea to Mark and he immediately jumped at it, despite my warning of what he was letting himself in for. I wanted it to be a guide that anyone could use, regardless of their level of knowledge of bird identification and also be pocket-sized, suitable for the coat pocket, rucksack, car or boat. With over 460 different bird species on the Irish list we knew it would be impossible to include them all and still keep the guide usable in the field (and not prohibitively expensive!). With a couple of exceptions we decided to describe all species seen more than 300 times in Ireland since records began over 200 years ago. That meant we were excluding only species that are seen on the whole island of Ireland only a couple of times a year or only once or twice ever. This resulted in a pocket guide that covers all of the species you are likely to encounter normally on a day’s birdwatching anywhere in Ireland. Unlike other guides to the birds of Ireland, we wanted to include images of as many different plumages and poses of each species.”

Mark Carmody reveals just how much dedication went into ensuring all the chosen species were represented: “The challenge for me was that any gaps I needed to fill would be dependent on getting those images at the weekends, holiday time and also on the weather being kind on those days. I also had exams to study for! Piece of cake.

mark_carmody cropI had been back in Ireland for three years after spending time in Japan when Jim asked me to get involved, so I had a decent portfolio of images of Ireland’s common, scarce and rare birds at that stage. One thing that Jim had drilled into my head since I returned, was to get as many images of ‘classic’ poses of the local species as possible and then concentrate on the images illustrating action and the rare and scarce. I always wondered why he said that …

So, from the 50,000 to 60,000 or so images I had (coming in on well over 1 TeraByte of storage), I began the task of selecting the images depicting each of the views for each species, and then duplicating that process and duplicating it again so that we had a number of choices for each view of each species. In all, I probably chose about 4,000 images to select from. Of course, the beauty of this process is that the holes in my portfolio suddenly become canyons and the need for certain species or certain images of species became quite apparent. This is a great way of determining what is missing from a portfolio of wildlife images! For example, to my amazement I had no images of the Long-eared Owl, Common Scoter in flight, Collared Dove and Woodpigeon in flight, Brambling, Yellowhammer, Tree Sparrow, juvenile Starlings, winter plumage Starling … the list was looking endless. At the end of putting the finished book to press, we ended up using over 1,600 images. Thankfully, I had provided over 90 per cent of those and filled some of those gaping holes in the process. I was delighted to have been able to supply the vast majority of images required for the book. However, it was not all plain sailing and there was some hard work, perseverance, patience and luck involved in obtaining the missing pictures.

For example, I sat for six hours in one spot in Cabinteely Park in County Dublin during the (very cold) winter of 2010 as there was a large flock of finches at a public feeding station. There were Greenfinch, Goldfinch, Chaffinch, and importantly Brambling and Siskin. I had no images of Brambling so this was a golden opportunity to obtain the ‘portfolio of classic poses’ Jim had spoken about for this species. Fast-forward two years later and I realised I had no image of Brambling showing the characteristic white-rump! After the painful six hours in Cabinteely Park, I had never captured this profile image … what a mistake. Brambling are not always guaranteed every winter so I thought I had missed the boat on that. Luckily, a large flock of a dozen birds spent the winter in north County Dublin but despite four or five visits on successive weekends (I work Monday–Friday) I still did not capture the image I was looking for … extreme frustration did not come close to describing this. Thankfully, we were able to use an image from a friend. I still need to get that image though for my portfolio.

Collared Dove in flight was one I was also missing. Despite having the species feeding on my bird table, it proved difficult to obtain flight shots. One weekend in Cork, when visiting my parents, I noticed that the doves in their garden always landed on one particular spot before coming to the birdtable. I set up my camera on a dull, dull day to focus on the spot. The camera was set up manually, focused on one spot and a remote trigger attached to the camera. I sat indoors with a cup of coffee and waited. Four coffees and five hours later, I had managed to take a couple of hundred images, but only a dozen or so were keepers. Of those, only a few were useable for the book. Another image I need to improve upon!

Despite having spent five days in Iceland in 2009 during the Common Scoter breeding season, I had managed to get only one image of a female bird with some chicks on a large river. I had images of Black Scoter from Japan but no male Common Scoter images. No images of Common Scoter in flight. I was panicking. I had to take a (sort of) break at weekends for January and February 2013 to study for an exam at the end of February. With the exam completed, I returned to Ireland from the UK and set about the task of getting the Common Scoter flight shots. I went up to Annagassan in County Louth one day before dawn in March, driving through snow blizzards and icy road conditions from Dublin. Once I reached my destination, I proceeded to stand for the next eight hours on a narrow jetty looking out on large rafts of Common Scoter! I was so, so cold at the end of the shoot, despite being well-dressed for the weather. However, I succeeded in getting the images I was looking for and some additional bonus images such as Red-breasted Merganser in flight. Job done. Panic over.

There were also the surprising and fortuitous instances such as stumbling across a winter-plumage Spotted Redshank when home in Cork for St Patrick’s weekend in 2012; having groups of House Martins land in a puddle beside my car in the car park at Lady’s Island Lake in County Wexford while I was having a coffee having arrived there at 5 a.m. to see a Savi’s Warbler nearby; the ‘tame’ Hen Harrier at Rogerstown in the winter of 2011/2012; and the priceless gift of local information from my photography friends who put me onto birds being cooperative, such as juvenile Sparrowhawks perched out in the open in a local park near where I now live.

There were of course, gaping omissions which I just could not fill. Juvenile Lesser Black-backed Gull … I didn’t have any images and time had run out. Stock Dove, Long-eared Owl and Crossbill were other glaring gaps. However, these species are very shy and difficult to photograph in Ireland so Jim and I are thankful to those friends who were able to provide us with these images from elsewhere.”

The selection process for the final images used in each plate was long and hard. Once the images were selected all had to be ‘cut out’ and arranged in a visually pleasing and easy-to-use way on the plate, a process that left Jim with a very sore arm!

The text is designed for quick reference with only key identification features for each species highlighted and also includes cross references to similar species to allow the user to identify their mystery bird with confidence. Jim says, “I also departed from the traditional way of grouping the birds together in strict scientific order. Birds don’t read science books and bird identification for the average birdwatcher is all about visual appearance and not DNA. This meant, wherever possible, I placed similar looking species on opposite pages or very close by for direct comparison.”

The guide also includes lots of information on topics such as bird identification, optical aids, bird photography etc. and Jim and Mark were delighted that BirdWatch Ireland, Ireland’s largest voluntary nature conservation organisation, orgainsing such valuable surveys as the Countryside Bird Survey during the summer or the Irish Wetland Bird Survey in the winter, were  happy to be associated with the guide. Jim explains, “The field guide that Mark and I have produced has always been driven by a wish to help people to get more enjoyment and gain more knowledge of the birds of Ireland and we hope we have managed to do this.”

Jim Wilson, wildlife writer, broadcaster, tour guide, and former chairman of BirdWatch Ireland, co-wrote Ireland’s Garden Birds (2008), Shorebirds of Ireland (2009), and Freshwater Birds of Ireland (2011). A regular contributor to the Mooney Show on RTÉ Radio 1, he has been involved in the study and conservation of birds in Ireland for over thirty-five years, contributing to major surveys and international projects. He leads birdwatching groups both in Ireland and abroad.
Website: http://www.irishwildlife.net

Mark Carmody did postdoctoral research in genetics following his Ph.D and recently qualified as a European Patent Attorney. Co-author of Shorebirds of Ireland and Freshwater Birds of Ireland, his work has featured in the renowned Birding World, WINGS magazine, Birdwatch magazine (UK), RTÉ Guide and various information boards and pamphlets highlighting wildlife in Ireland, UK and further afield. A selection of Mark’s images was recently used in an exhibition compiled by BirdWatch Ireland and Birdlife Europe, which was hosted in the EU Commissions Office in Dublin and in the EU Parliament Buildings in Brussels. A member of BirdWatch Ireland, Mark contributes to surveys and international projects concerning wildlife and the environment.
Website: http://www.markcarmodyphotography.com

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