Dick Coombes signs off with thanks and best wishes.

April 7, 2023
Dick Coombes

As he retires from his role as Countryside Bird Survey Coordinator, Dick Coombes reflects on the 25 years he has spent overseeing the survey.

Dick Coombes

Dick Coombes on an upland CBS survey square. Photo: Dick Coombes.

As the newly appointed coordinator of the Countryside Bird Survey I didn’t mind the challenge of being thrown into the proverbial deep end in January 1998.

But my brief to find enough people, in just two months, to survey 300 squares was a daunting task, to say the least.

We needed to sell this brand-new survey to a large cohort of birdwatchers who would not only have good bird identification skills but also a willingness to learn and use the survey methods. The net was cast far and wide, but communication in those early days was primitive – you wrote a letter or made a phone call. Nobody had email addresses until four years in.

Clearly, some instruction on how to carry out the survey was required, and so, in the first three years, thirty-six training days were held around the country. My social life at weekends was put on hold in February and March, and many a Six Nations rugby match was missed!

Thankfully, people rallied and, to date, over a thousand individuals have been involved in the survey in one way or another. We hit 260 squares in 1998 and have exceeded the target of 300 almost every year since.

I take with me many great memories of my 25-year stint in the post, especially of all the wonderful volunteers and NPWS Conservation Rangers I have had the pleasure of working with. I will miss that contact. I saw many spectacular dawns, made 730 survey visits and covered 36 squares, most of which I had to set up myself.

Seeking permission from one landowner in Meath nearly went horribly wrong. I swung the car into a farmyard and found two Gardaí talking to the woman of the house, who had just been burgled. Bad timing! Somehow I convinced them I posed no threat.

Tractors regularly slowed so the curious driver could shout, “You are out early anyway!” Polite-speak for “What on Earth are you doing out here at this hour of the morning?”

North Mayo held many challenges, not least an icy river in spate, which had to be waded barefoot minus trousers. And I once sank to my waist in a patch of deceptive Sphagnum. One remote square in the Nephins involved a four-hour round trip across sodden bog, all for a handful of species – but someone has to count those Skylarks and Meadow Pipits! I did that hike thirty-two times.

Finding a Honey Buzzard on one of my transects in upland Wicklow on a bright June morning ranks as my most exciting survey moment.

When it lifted from the heather and soared off to the north- east I guessed it was heading to Scotland, where several pairs of this rare migrant breed.

Of course, CBS is all about monitoring our common and widespread birds and, today, the survey produces robust population trends for some fifty species. No mean achievement – and well done to one and all. With ongoing support from the NPWS, this important survey is set to continue long into the future.

I wish Andrew Lynch every success as he takes over the helm. I’m sure you will all work well with him. Thank you all… and so long.


More information about the Countryside Bird Survey including how to take part can be found here.