Big thank you from

The mysterious birds that had me baffled

by Paul Cormacain

THERE were ten birds swimming in a harbour on the north coast and I could not for the life of me identify them. They were all similar, but all were dissimilar from all the other birds there.

As they dived at intervals I was busy poring over my duck section in a bird book. Well, they had to be diving ducks, didn't they? A great northern diver put in an appearance, so that distracted attention from the ten diving birds for a time.

The great northern is a large powerful bird and can be seen off our coasts during the winter. Our birds usually come from Iceland, but well-lost ones could be from as far away as Greenland and north America.

In their winter finery these divers are dark above and white below, but their dominant characteristic is their large head and bill. It is usual to distinguish these divers from the red throated and black throated divers by the size of the bill.

These latter two are similarly coloured in winter as the great northern, but the black is smaller than the great, and the red is smaller than the black.

The red throated diver has a slightly up-tilted bill, which may help with identification, especially in the winter time.

Some blacks and reds breed in Scotland in the spring. One or two pair of red throated divers breed in Donegall annually, and I am one of the few lucky people who have seen them.

Those ten birds could have been smews, I thought. It was difficult to estimate the size, but it could have been right. They were in their winter plumage, of course, all shades of grey, and they could have been the smallest of our mergansers. Then again, they could have been too small for smew.

There were some waders on the shore, the usual oyster catchers, redshank, curlew and a few peewits.

They were mostly, winter visitors, were waders, not diving birds, so could not have been our mysterious birds.

About 20 shelduck were very prominent and colourful. At over 60 cms they are large, and at first glance look like large black and white birds. On closer inspection the head turns out to be bottle green, and the birds have orange chest bands. Then it has a blood-red bill, and the male has a prominent bill knob.

Wrong colouring and too large for the birds which we were trying to identify.

Pied wagtails were quite common on nearby rocks, and seemed to be getting good feeding. Rock pipits were also out and about, and I got the distinct impression that both these birds were getting loads and loads of food. But neither looked remotely like the ten birds on the water which I was trying to identify.

About 50 or 60 Irish brent were feeding along a little inlet some distance away. They looked happy and contented, did not fly off as we approached. That's a sure sign they were happy with their lot.

A black guillemot appeared offshore, and I was trying to figure out where it might live. Apart from the north and east Down coasts, I am not aware of any great surplus of the guillemots. Then I seemed to remember Waterfoot or Cushendall being very friendly to these birds.

I was trying to check this out in one of my bird books when I came across a picture of some immature black guillemots. Yes, you are right, the birds were the same as the 10 birds in front of me, so of course I suddenly became very knowledgeable when I found out what birds they were.

So the "smews" turned out to be last year's black guillemots. Ah well, when you stop learning you are dead from the neck up.

Coming Events

Monday 23 February - Jill McAdam will talk about Wildlife of the Falklands, and for that you can go along to the Lisburn RSPB meeting at Friends' Meeting House at 7.30. More details from David on 4062 6125

Anthony McGeehan will talk of Bird Postcards at RSPB Belfast Harbour reserve at 7pm, details from RSPB 90491547

Saturday 28 February - Willow Weaving for your garden to 1pm, at Oxford Island, phone 3832 2205

Sunday 7 March - Wildlife Trust wants you to roll up your sleeves, grab a spade, etc at Glendun Tree Nursery, at 11am. More from Malachy Martin on 4483 0282

Monday 29 March - Anthony McGeehan will talk about the seabirds off our coast, at 7pm, at IN/'B hide in Belfast Harbour, mare from RSPB on 90491547

Ulster Star