by Paul Cormacain
THE Lagan has many small tributaries, and it was along one of these smaller rivers that we walked last week. Always hopeful of seeing a kingfisher, but have not been lucky for ages. We did see a dipper!
The dipper may not be as colourful as the kingfisher, but is a fascinating bird none-the-less. When people first said that the dipper walked under water they were held up to ridicule by the 'experts', who said such a thing was impossible.
Dippers can walk under water. I have seen them do it, and I defy any 'expert' to say otherwise. It is all too simple, of course. The bird always walks against the current, its head is always down on the lookout for food, and the pressure of the water keeps the bird firmly on the floor of the river.
Walking under the water is a good trick. But simple!
The dipper could not walk under a calm lake with no water movement.
When not walking on the river bed, the bird can be frequently seen on a rock in mid-river, bobbing incessantly, or as some books explain it, dipping its head and curtseying. It is then that you my hear its song, if the river is not too noisy.
Dippers build their nests under bridges, in banks, sometimes even behind a waterfall. If a pair gets a suitable site, they will frequently build the nest in the same place year after year. There are still some places I can go to, and find a dipper nest, maybe decades after I first discovered one there.
Like the wren, the dipper builds a domed nest. Come to think of it, there are quite a number of bird species who build a domed nest also. Think magpie, and long-tailed tit, and willow warbler.
The dipper prefers fast-moving rivers. This would partly explain why they are more common in Scotland, Wales and Ireland then they are in England. You may see the odd one along an upland lake, but never too far from a river. Some European birds come to England in the winter.
We did not see any dipper nests that day. We did come across a mallard nest, quite by chance. We were seeing the occasional mallard, sometimes a male, sometimes a female, and sometimes a pair. At one place on the river there was some wild duck agitation, but we did not see a fox, or dog, or even a human that might have been responsible for upsetting the wild duck.
As we moved along, a lady mallard rose from near our feet. Looking into the dense shrubs, we were delighted to see a mallard nest, with eggs. It was very well hidden, and it was just fortuitous that we found it,
The nest was made from leaves and grass, and was lined with nice warm down. There were eleven eggs in it, quite a large clutch, although you may come across the odd clutch that would be larger. As is usual, the female not only laid the eggs, she has to incubate them all by herself. No help there from the drake.
In fairness to the lady duck, we left quickly. It is bad enough for the female to sit on eggs and incubate for four weeks, without any help from the male, without us distressing her by hanging around the nest.
The male mallard is so grand, so very brightly coloured, that if he were near the nest he would draw attention to it. That is his excuse for not helping! Then when the young are born it would be dangerous for him to be near them. So she does all the work.
So we went on our merry way. It would have been nice to see a kingfisher, but was it not nice to see a bird which walks under water? Nice to see a hard-working lady duck. Nice to see the gaily-coloured males also.
Monday, March 29: Anthony McGeehan will talk about the seabirds off our coast, at1900, at RSPB hide in Belfast Harbour, more from RSPB on 028 9049 1547
Saturday, April 3: Julian Greenwood will talk about back guillemots to Belfast RSPB, details from Ron Houston 028 9079 6188.
April 12: Why not go along to the egg-stravaganza at Scrabo Country Park, 1500, more from 028 9181 1491
Saturday, April 24: Why not go to the Belfast Harbour Estate for a walk on the wild side with Anthony McGeehan, more from the RSPB on 028 9049 1547.