AN attempt to catalogue all of Ireland’s feathered friends has finally paid off for a dedicated enthusiast.
Anthony McGeehan, 56, has spent the last four years of his life finding and photographing every native bird on the island of Ireland.
The result is a new book called Birds Through Irish Eyes, which he is launching at Castle Espie Wetland Centre on Sunday.
He has doggedly stuck to his task, despite a lack of regular work (except for occasional stints carrying out surveys with charity BirdWatch Ireland).
Asked how he supported himself during the project, he said: “I have a very understanding wife, that’s the short answer. I don’t eat much. I’d do with a bag of muesli and some black tea.”
He said the book offers a profile of all of the roughly 200 birds commonly found here – but for some species “it’s a story of doom and gloom”.
A fast-talking enthusiast, he described himself as “Max Clifford for birds”, and regards the book as like a PR brochure on behalf of his avian friends, many of which are under serious threat.
As a child, his interest was sparked by a collection of bird cards that came free with packets of PG Tips tea. Later he got hold of a copy of The Observer’s Book of Birds, which he likened to his “al Qaeda manual” of birdwatching.
“I was off,” he said. “I remember identifying my first starling aged about six or seven years.
“The image has come to life – the real thing was in front of me.”
He bought his first camera at 17 with money earned while working at a Carrick building site, and so began his lifelong attachment to photography.
He took about 380 of the 400 images in the book, beginning about four years ago. Then, two years in, he approached the publisher.
“I’m completely turned off by images that are just mugshots,” said Mr McGeehan.
“The whole point is I regard bird species as individuals.
“It’s meant to be a kind of PR effort on behalf of birds. I’ve turned myself into Max Clifford for birds, so people will be better informed and have a nice image of birds themselves.
“It’s an overused word, but it’s a passion – if you’re going to do something, do it properly. I regard birds as special and I like to see people get the interest or fascination that I get, so why not try and do that to the best of my ability? Unfortunately, so many birds are having a hard time in the modern world. Some species are on the verge of extinction in Ireland, such as the erstwhile commonplace corncrake. A lot of birds have gone into steep decline.”
Such was his drive to note them all that he filled the book with half-a-million words – which the publishers demanded he cut in half.
Many of the pictures didn’t come easy, either. He said: “Some birds, you had to invest a lot of time in. The longest one was a day in a hide for one image, and that was a complete fluke.”
To capture a hard-to-find stock dove, he camped out in a tent on the Copeland Islands, covered in camouflage, to watch a particular rabbit burrow where one was living.
About a day later, he got the shot he wanted. He said: “He stood in exactly the spot I’d picked out, turned, and looked in a perfect portrait for a split second, then bolted down the hole. I had less than a second in 24 hours to get it.”
And all that, he said, was for “one of the more boring birds”.
“The point of the book for me – it sounds a bit cheesy – is to put something back. I’ve been into birds all my life. I’ve got so much out of looking at birds, photographing them, going to exciting places throughout Ireland. It’s nice to think I’ve kind of returned the favour.”
Mr McGeehan will be signing the book and answering questions from 2pm to 5pm at Castle Espie.