Big thank you from

The north coast search for those elusive birds

by Paul Cormacain

ONCE again the north coast called in such a irresistible way that we had to go. The excuse was crows, those large, (mostly) black, (mostly) birds which are so much part of our countryside, and indeed towns.

We were not in position to see any jays. They tend to live in woods and forests, we were mostly on the coast.

I was thinking that the jay is our smallest crow, decided to check and found that the jackdaw is slightly smaller. The jay however is our most highly coloured crow with pink, white, pinkishbrown and some black.

Then there was the magpie and with its black and white plumage it tends to stand out.

I would hazard a guess and say it is one of our most instantly recognisable birds, and a very common bird at that. We saw many that day, not only on the way north but on the coast itself.

The magpie is a blow-in from England and Wales, first crossing the Irish Sea in 1676 when it made a landfall in Wexford. The bird is very adaptable, and takes advantage of whatever is going.

One good aspect of this is that it can clean up motorways and other roads of dead creatures, like hedgehogs and cats, tearing at their dead bodies and pulling off strips of flesh

This ability to take advantage of whatever is on offer works very well for the magpie, and has enabled it to thrive and spread. Perhaps it is the inclement weather associated with western and northern Scotland that the magpie is not too successful there.

In some parts of rural England, where the magpie is unpopular because of its fondness for eggs and young birds, especially game birds, the magpie ha been hunted and shot, and this affects its numbers. But for the rest of Scotland and England, the bird is common to very common, likewise in Wales and England.

Another crow affected by persecution is the raven. Before the early 19th century this bird was widespread, but now its range has greatly contracted.

Ireland, Wales and Scotland has some ravens, but most of eastern England is without them. We were not completely sure, but thought we had seen some ravens in the distance that day.

Folk tell me that they see carrion crows at intervals, officially the European crow with two forms, the carrion and the hooded crow. The hooded is the common version in Ireland and the north-west of Scotland. In England and Wales the hooded crow is non-existent, but carrion crows are common. There were many hooded crows out that day.

Rooks tried to distract us with their aerial displays, but what we really wanted to see were some aerial displays from choughs. 

We would have settled for the choughs, never mind the aerial display, and we sought them out along the north coast. They should live on the cliffs at Islandmagee, I have always thought, although never saw them there.

They should also frequent Giant's Causeway, but the last time I saw them there was some years ago, and from information to hand the though does neither live at the Causeway nor on Rathlin now.

A search along the coasts of Antrim and Derry revealed not a single though

So we moved further west into Donegal, and came upon a pair of choughs in the townland of Macaire Gabhlain, which I am told means 'plain of the treefork' Maybe they should re-name the place the 'plain of the choughs'.

The though is an unusual bird, with red legs and a thin, slightly down-turned, red bill. If you see a crow with red legs, it is a though you are looking at. Please report any sightings.

The though used to be the common bird of, for example, Cornwall, where it used to be called the Cornish crow.

It is now extinct all over England. Wales has some, with the interesting fact that one pair bred 65 kms inland. The Isle of Man has some, and more live

along the west coast of Scotland. We appear to have lost out Causeway birds, but along the west coast of Ireland perhaps there is the biggest concentration in western Europe.

So if you come across a though, I hope you find it in Islandmagee, or on Rathlin, or the Giant's Causeway. If so that is progress. But if you cannot see one there, you may head further west to Macaire Gabhlain.

Coming Events

Friday 9 November - Film of migrating geese, organised by Castle Espie, in Spence's Cinema, Comber, at 7.30.

Tuesday 13 November Waders and Grazers, RSPB Roadshow at Lough Neagh Discovery Centre, 6.30pm, details from 028 3822 2205.

14 November - Butterfly Conservation AGM, Ulster Museum, 7pm, why not go along and see if you would join the swelling ranks of lepidopterists, details 028 9335 5565.

Saturday 24 November Woodland Wander around Necarne, at 10.30,-Fermangh RSPB, who may be called on 028 6632 6654

Monday 26 November Lisburn RSPB have the Spirit of the Raven, a talk by Robert McDowell, at Friends Meeting House at 7.30, more from 028 9260 1864

Thursday 29 November Birdwatch Morning at Castle Espie, 11.30, phone WWT 028 9187 4146.

1 December - Lisburn RSPB outing to Newcastle and Dundrum Bay, enquire further at 028 92621866

Ulster Star