Big thank you from

The fish catching birds of the beautiful north coast

by Paul Cormacain

IF you miss out the East coast for a week or two, you are invariably drawn to the North coast, to sample the people, the air, and the wildlife. And it has to be said, that one is never disappointed.

Cormorants were fishing, and they were also standing on rocks with their wings outstretched, looking for all the world like some prehistoric creature.

Healthy appetites these birds have, voracious comes to mind, even greedy, for they can consume more than their own weight in fish very day.

Try that, food-conscious reader, and see how you . end up.

The cormorant is a strong under-water swimmer. It puts its wings alongside its body, and drives forward with powerful movements of its large webbed feet. Pity the fish that comes within its ken.

It quite happily catches flat-fish, its favourite, but will eat wrasse, sand-eels, and will stoop to crabs. As the cormorant visits, indeed lives on, fresh water, it also eats fresh water fish.

Cormorants are large fishing birds, generally dark in colour, and with a quite distinctive shape. The birds on the north coast mostly had their summer white face patch.

They could be expected to start breeding next month, so the patch colour change seems to be a necessary prelude to breeding. As for eating loads of fish, that is part of their nature.

Then there were wigeon off the North coast. They were probably winter visitors from north-east Europe and Iceland, here for the holidays.

A few will stay on in Ireland to breed, in Scotland there would be a much more healthy breeding population.

The wigeon always build their nests on the ground, with several ladies having their nests in close proximity. The gentlemen stand guard over the ladies and nests during incubation.

The male of the species is quite eye-catching. He is largely grey, with a red-brown head, with a buff forehead mark.

Although duller, the female is distinctive, with a rich brown plumage and a rounded head shape. Keep an eye open for the wigeon, it can be seen for another while off the coast and also on inland waters. By May they will be mostly breeding much further north.

The oyster catchers were about in numbers, of course, and besides, they_ are one of our more noticeable birds.

In fact, it can be difficult not to see oystercatchers. Having said that, I can remember coming across a lonely rocky spot on the North coast during the bird-breeding season. And I looked for an oystercatcher's nest, and I looked, and I looked, and I looked in vain.

The oystercatcher may be highly visible, but when it comes to breeding time it can become highly invisible.

A shingle or rocky beach is the favoured site for a nest. This may be on the coast, or more rarely, on inland waters.

The nest is a simple scrape in the ground. (This keeps expenses down, if only humans could build so simply). In April or May two or three eggs are laid in this scrape, and this constitutes home, sweet home.

If you come across adults or young at the nest, you have better eyesight than I have.

The only other wading bird about was the curlew.

There is a heavy winter immigration of this lovely-sounding bird, and in autumn and spring large numbers pass though as migrants.

Breeding birds may already be reaching their breeding grounds, so I can only presume that the birds on the coast were migrants.

Plenty of gulls laced the skies, but the only ones I could identify at close quarters were black-headed gulls.

They will also start breeding next month, and as part of their preparations their heads will turn a wondrous startling black colour. All the black headed gulls we saw had, Would you believe it, black heads.

Coming Events

Saturday 9, daily to Saturday 23 - Family, trail around the grounds of Castle Espie, to celebrate Saint Patrick's Day and the coming of spring.

Saturday 16, Sunday 17 March - National Science Week, recycling paper is the theme. 2pm, details from Castle Espie, 9187 4146.

Friday 22-Sunday 24 March - RSPB/Birdwatch Ireland, joint conference. An exiting agenda has been arranged for this conference, to be held at the Great Southern Hotel in Rosslare.

Sunday 24 March - Ranger Ramble at Colin Glen Forest Park, (it 2pm, details 9061 4115
Mothers Day Walk. around the Nature Reserve at Oxford Island, who will tell you more if you phone them on 3832 2205
If you have any energy left you could join the Lagan Valley guy's, discover the Mottes and Men, 10am, more from 9066 2259

Monday 25 March - Lisburn RSPB will hate Anthony McGeehan tell you how to Know Your Birds better, 7.30. Friends Meeting House. phone 9260 1864

Thursday 28 March - Birdwatch Morning, 10.30, Castle Espie, see flocks of birds, call 91874146

Ulster Star