by Paul Cormacain
AT Soldierstown the day was sunny, dry, clear-skied and cold.
Real healthy weather, conducive to walking and exercise, and definitely not the sort of weather you would want to hang around in. Unless you had your Eskimo clothes on. Or should I say Inuit clothes?
Because there is a good length of canal there the place never seems to become crowded, except for coots and waterhens, but more of that anon.
There were families around and about, couples out walking and enjoying life, folk with dogs, children with bicycles, even a couple on the thirty-second year of their honeymoon.
Reed mace stood tall but old. It was, after all, last year's growth we were looking at.
Green will start to show soon, fed from thick underwater roots, and their growing power is reflected in the fact that the reedmace can grow to the height of over two metres. It flowers from about June to July.
In the past the fluffy seeds of reedmace were used to stuff mattresses. Somewhat like the down of the eider duck, I suppose.
They used to weave baskets and chairs from the leaves, although I can not ever imagine them being very strong. And because reedmace leaves were waterproof, they used to make boats out of them. I would not want to get too far from land in a boat like that.
A pair of swans flew over the reedmace. They were mature mutes, friends for life, thinking about starting to build a nest. They flew low, and close, and looked huge.
They are large, and heavy, with a size of 160cms not unusual. The weight can go tip to 13 kilos, which must make it our heaviest bird. We sighted them just beside the bridge near the carpark.
As soon as we started walking along the tow path we were struck by the numbers of coots and waterhens.
In fact we started to count them, and came up with the number 20, 20 birds, along the first 100 metres of pathway. They were concerned about the presence of humans, but not too concerned. They moved out of our way, but not too quickly, and did not go too far away.
Then we realised that in the next month most of these birds will be starting a family, and the area will be even more dense with coots and waterhens.
There were many more waterhens than coots, and their breeding season is much longer, so in theory there will be an even greater number of waterhens this time next year. In a distant field a small flock of whooper swans rested and grazed. Winter visitors from Iceland, they were enjoying our weather, and most of them just sat on the ground.
They would pick at the nearby grass, and eat it. Very energetic they looked, and because they kept their distance from humans they were not going to be disturbed.
In a sedge-covered field in the vicinity, a man wearing camouflagetype clothing mostly stood, or walked slowly, apparently blowing a whistle.
If he had a dog, we could not see it in the large growth. If he was raising birds to shoot them, we could not see a gun. If he was trying to get away from it all, we fail to see how his clothing could do other than attract attention to himself.
We saw some snipe rise in the vicinity. Maybe this guy was counting the number of snipe in the field, and that was his hobby, or maybe he was doing it for research.
In my experiences, I would normally be walking through a field, and a snipe would rise from almost at my feet.
Its erratic, whirring flight was accompanied by a rasping call, and if I was very lucky I would find the nest at my feet. Fully occupied, there would be four very pointed eggs in the nest, and the thing to do was to note the details and move off.
It is too early for the snipe to start nesting, and the birds we saw might well have been Euroean visitors.
A pair of swans sat on the grass just on the other side of the water. They were local birds, more used to humans, and they eyed us as we eyed them, not unduly worried about us but glad of the water between us.
A lovely day, enhanced by the weather, the exercise, the people and the birds, we vowed to repeat the experience more often.
Monday 24 February - Lisburn RSPB is hosting its monthly meeting at 7.30 at Friends' School, where Dermot Hughes will talk about the Ulster Wildlife Trust.
Sunday 9 March - Try a Lagan Canal Walk, starting at 2pm, from Lough Neagh Discovery Centre, phone 3832 2205
Wednesday 19 March - Learn about Butterfly Recording in the south, with David Nash, Ulster Museum, at 7.15
Saturday 29 March - Trip to Coney Island to watch the herons, at 10.30, details from Lough Neagh Discovery Centre, 3832 2205
9 May - Preliminary notice of Bat Night at Bog Meadows.