A Life in the Trees: A Personal Account of the Great Spotted Woodpecker, Reviewed

I began to hear the blackbird some weeks after my eldest daughter was born. In the dark of night, that bird would sing from a nest somewhere in the attic space or rafters.

It wasn’t long before the sound of chicks arrived. Listening to their demands for food, I would think how, for those few weeks, two couples were sharing more than just a house.

Even now, whenever I hear The Beatles’ song “Blackbird”, I’m brought back to that nocturnal routine, a time when something so new and so fragile made everything seem so solid and right.

Interactions with wildlife like this can be few and far between when living in a city. Of course there are the scatty pigeons that get under your feet and the manic gulls that heckle you from rooftops, the odd trespassing mouse that always leads to shared apocalyptic stories from colleagues or friends.

“Eat through your wires, they will.”

“And Jaysus, don’t get me started on the diseases they carry.”

But the likes of Declan Murphy don’t wait for nature to come to them. An avid bird spotter and wildlife lover, he regularly ventures into the valleys of Wicklow armed with teabags and a flask of hot water, a packet of Hobnobs and a wonderful gift, one which is becoming rare – the ability to be comfortable when in your own company.

In his book A Life in the Trees: A Personal Account of the Great Spotted Woodpecker, published by Lilliput Press, Murphy shares his experience of the trials and accomplishments of the great spotted woodpecker in Ireland over the past decade.

Sheltered in his make-shift hides, constructs of wood and towel, he follows the comings and goings of this fascinating bird, the little carpenter who creates a home by drumming out a hole in a tree using beak and strong neck muscles alone (14 drums per second, if you’re quick enough to count).

Still classed as a vagrant in Ireland when first spotted in Wicklow, the author tells us how, apart from strays, these birds only really began to settle and breed in this country sometime around 2009. What has followed is a “golden age” for the woodpecker enthusiast, with first sightings of courtship and mating, soon followed by that of breeding and the first departure of a youngster from the nest.

A detailed and well-crafted account, for so much of the book you feel as if you’re right there with him: the early morning February chill, the swishing of the branches above, the snap of the twigs underfoot, just like “cornflakes”, as the young Declan liked to imagine when his love of nature became apparent to his parents, who nurtured it as best they could.

From spring when “the hedgerows alongside the river [were] now veiled in a gauze of green as the buds on the hawthorn trees start to swell and burst”, right through to winter when “footsteps splinter the icy puddles”, the trials of the watcher vary from season to season.

The landscape is often transformed by the weather conditions, sometimes drastically in the case of flooding and storm. Even in milder weather, the height of summer, when a person might think they are safe from the elements, the midges sweep in from the rivers and streams and try to eat you alive.

A Life in the Trees was an education for me, veering off into the burrows and corners of Irish wildlife, from the animals who share the woodlands with the woodpecker to the trees where they make their homes.

The author tells us how stag-head formations are formed on oak trees. We learn that Ireland is the winter home to over half the world’s population of the Greenland white-fronted geese, and how life in oak woods is so much richer than to that of conifer forests.

Just like his vocation, the book is a patient one. Beautifully written, it lulls you along like a river on a calm day. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its moments of drama though.

Focusing on a woodpecker pair who are drawn to a Spanish chestnut tree, there’s a courtship and a love affair. We see how these birds build a nest together, an act that works to strengthen the bond between them.

When the young eventually hatch, they struggle as a unit to feed the hatchlings. As these young develop you can’t help but root for this family, one question always at the back of your mind - will they survive?

The author’s intense love of this environment shines throughout and there are moments when we see how emotionally invested he is in the birds, like his reaction to an empty nest or when describing the intimacy of a courtship display or those times when tragedy strikes, which is inevitable in a world such as theirs.

The environment is a harsh one. Aside from the weather conditions, there is increasing competition for nesting sites. In Great Britain alone there’s been a 400 percent increase in these birds during the past 40 years.

In Ireland, there are growing numbers of pine martens, a natural predator of the woodpecker. There is also the human factor to take into account: the animals lost to roads and to pets, countless killed from colliding with windows.

I remember, a couple of summers back, my youngest daughter barged into the kitchen, red cheeks, out of breath. She had found a sparrow in the back garden, dead, most probably due to an accident such as this.

Possibly weighing less than the cardboard shoebox I put it in, the bird was given a temporary spot on the window ledge. Curious, my daughter went to that box a number of times that afternoon. Lifting the lid ever so slightly, she’d have a good look inside.

Not long after, she came into the kitchen and drew a picture of the animal. “Dead bird,” she wrote above the image. “Died on Saturday. June. 2017.” To the right of the bird, she drew a moustached figure. It was her grandfather. He had passed away four months earlier.

I can’t help but think that interactions like this help to ground us in the natural rhythm we are all a part of. These connections with nature can nurture empathy. We are reminded that there is so much we can learn from the fellow critters on our spherical habitat.

This book, charting these new arrivals to our shore, captures the honesty and harshness of the life-cycle so well. If anything, it shows how even in the most arduous of environments, immense beauty is to be found.

There are no changelings or wildlings spoke of in the woods that Declan Murphy visits. And if you’re looking for a love triangle between a human, a werewolf and a vampire, you won’t be in luck.

But if you want to visit Ireland’s wildlife from the comfort of your own home, this is certainly one for the list. Who knows, it might even inspire you to get those hiking boots on and take a good look for yourself.

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Author:

Daniel Seery: Daniel Seery is a writer from Dublin. A regular contributor to RTÉ’s Arena, his work has appeared in a number of anthologies and magazines. His stage play Eviction was a winner of the Shadow of the Rising competition in 2016, and his debut novel A Model Partner, originally published by Liberties Press, is due to be released in the US by publisher Melville House.

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