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Wealth of insect life draws hordes of pied wagtails

by Paul Cormacain 07/11/03

WE had never seen so many pied wagtails together at any one time in one place. There were dozens and dozens of them, some in the car park, some on the beach, some behind the jetty wall, some on nearby ground, and more on the jetty itself. We could not begin to count them.

If you walked along to admire the gulls, or the divers, or the boats, the wagtails flew away from you, but others came over the wall, looked at you for a few seconds, then flew off.

Insects were flying about in the car park, and we watched the pied wagtails feasting on the wealth of insect life in the autumnal sunshine.

Then we realised why there were so many birds around, it was the surplus of insects. And we realised why the birds were impossible to count. They could not make up their mind which was the best spot to gorge, so they just kept moving around from one flock of insects to another flock.

It was just like Christmas Eve for the birds. Oh, sorry, shouldn't mention that word just yet!

Pied wagtails specialise in catching flying insects and they were feasting well that day. They tended to live in farmyards, but the attraction of the yards is decreasing. Farmers are becoming more hygenic, with byres for cows becoming more clean and less insect friendly.

I can remember cow byres of yesteryear, when there was no electricity, and no run-ning water. Indeed, I can remember some houses like that, and it has to be said that houses and cow byres become more hygienic with the advent of water and electricity. That is meant to be factual, not critical!

It used to be more common to have a small pond in the farmyard, where ducks could paddle to their hearts' content.

More water in ponds meant more wagtails. Ponds tended to be filled in. Farmers nowadays use more scientific methods of insect control, which means fewer insects, and consequently fewer wagtails.

Research has found a few anomalies in the distribution of pied wagtails. The researchers found that the wagtail in eastern England was decreasing, and this was put down to hygiene and loss of ponds.

Where there were stone walls the bird held its own, for stone walls are still to be seen in England and are still good for wildlife.

In Ireland there has been some small increase in pied wagtails. Researchers found that on balance there were more of the birds in Scotland and Ireland than there were in England. All I could think of, "must be all to do with them stone walls".

All these birds were seen on the north coast. Another bird in the vicinity in some numbers was the common gull. The common is somewhat like a smaller version of the herring gull, and if they were ever to rename these two birds they would just change their names.

The herring is much more common than the common. The common has black wing tips, as does the herring, but the tips look larger on the common. Are you following all this?

If you want to sort out these birds in your mind, look for the yellow bill with the red spot on the herring, and its pink legs, The common has a yellow bill, and with yellow-green legs.

Personally, I find it easier to identify the pied wagtail, with its ceaseless tail and grey and white plumage.

Ulster Star