by Paul Cormacain
THE books all say that great northern divers are common off our coasts in the winter. But for birds to be common they have to be seen, and to be seen the viewer must be in the right place at the right time.
We were in the right place at the right time, and saw no less than three great northern divers.
These are large birds, even more impressive than the other two divers, the black-throated diver and the red-throated diver.
The male great northern is about one metre, with the female not much less. They breed in Greenland, Iceland and North America.
People who love working with figures have come up with some interesting facts. In the winter there are about 1,000 to 1,500 great northern divers off Scotland. Off the coasts of Ireland another 1,000 to 1,500 birds over-winter, and a lesser number would winter off Wales and England.
But in Iceland the number of breeding pairs is somewhere between 100 and 300, most of whom would visit in winter. So where do the rest of the birds come from?
Those who love working with figures now think we get many more visitors from Greenland and Canada than we had previously supposed. We must be doing something right to be so popular!
These divers are in winter attire at the moment. This leaves them dull, with dark and grey colours. A change is setting in, for they are starting to move into their breeding colours. This will show black head and neck, with green gloss and bands of white on the neck. The white spots on the black back are very dramatic.
There is a strange history of sightings of great northern divers in England and Wales. They are sometimes found inland. True, there have been sightings inland in Scotland and Ireland, but these have been few and far between.
This bird is known to prefer deeper water offshore, hence my saying that I was in the right place at the right time to see the three birds.
Thus the sightings inland in England and Wales are noteworthy. One theory is that bad weather drives them inland, but this is hardly likely.
Another theory is that when the birds migrate, they overshoot. If they can fly safely from Canada to England, it is doubtful if their navigation is defective.
The divers may have been on the water, diving into the water, but the gulls were mostly in large flocks on land.
They were all turning their minds to the eventual patter of tiny webbed feet, chatting about it, billing and cooing about it, planning the future, concentrating their minds.
Great black-backed gulls were out in force. They are our largest gull, with a terrifying bill, fierce, fearless, with a diet to match.
One of the gourmet meals could be a young sea bird, swallowed whole and live. They were planning their own small sons and daughters.
The smaller variation, the lesser black-backed gull, was also evident in large numbers.
The lesser is slightly smaller than the herring gull, its close relative.
Both are scavengers, both may follow ships at sea to retrieve and fight over dumped rubbish. Both may search dumps for leftover food, which sounds awful.
The herring gulls are planning their families for this year. To ensure success, they must guard their nests, and more importantly, their young.
Once the eggs hatch and the young appear, a parent must remain in attendance at all times.
Otherwise, a neighbouring herring gull, with a nest less than a metre away, will nip in and gobble up a young bird. And another, if the parent does not intervene. And another.
Yet the herring gull thrives.
The other gull flocking to plan this year's families was the common gull.
It is a smaller gull, not as common as the name suggests. It will eat most things, has the clever habit of dropping shellfish onto rocks to break the shell and expose the flesh.
Although the chat among the common gulls is all about eggs and young, it would devour the eggs and young of other birds without a second thought.
Some nice gulls about! So if you go down to the sea today, look out for the great northern divers, and look out for the gulls.
Sunday 21 April - What about a bluebell walk in Colin Glen Forest Park? Starts at 2pm, more from 9061 4115
22 April - Lisburn RSPB will hear of Butterflies of Ireland from Brian Nelson, details 92601864