by Paul Cormacain
THE tide was well in when we took a trip to see Strangford Lough. A fascinating place for wildlife at any time, huge numbers of northern visitors make it even more spectacular in the winter time.
Waders like to run around on sand or in shallow water, so there were no waders about when we arrived. What there were, swimming in the sea, were many shelduck. These birds belong to a group of birds whose place in the animal kingdom is roughly between typical geese and typical ducks, and in many ways they are very different from other European wildfowl. Their flight is slower than that of typical ducks, but their wings beat faster than geese wings. Shelduck can be seen resting on the sea, and I usually see the occasional bird around the coast, but on the Lough they must have been feeling sociable.
In the breeding season, the adults frequently move off and leave the young. A number of parents would do this, and two adults, sometimes more, will take all the young birds in a large group, look after them and encourage and train them.
I do not know why they do this, but one advantage may be that the birds learn to be sociable. As adults, the birds tend to congregate in large numbers to moult. One such famous spot is the German Bight, and perhaps being left by their parents when young helps them to prepare for this.
Shelducks like molluscs, in fact these creatures are their staple diet. The small Hydrobia seems to be the favourite. This is a tiny snail, and it has to be said that it is much loved by many other birds. I am sure it could do without such popularity! Researchers, or people with nothing better to do, have counted the number of Hydrobia in shelduck tummies, and counted an amazing three thousand.
Waders who like the mollusc tend to forage for them in the sand. Shelduck would also do that, but they have the advantage of being able to up end in shallow water for their dinner. Many of the molluscs retreat into the mud at low tide, and only emerge when the water covers the sand again, this means that the shelduck are more easily able to take advantage of a large food supply than are the waders.
The shelducks have red bills, and the adult male has a distinctive red knob at the base of its bill. The head is greenish, the wings are greenish brown, the body is mostly white. What makes the bird very easy to distinguish is the chestnut band across the shoulders, and this can usually be seen from some distance away.
An unusual practice of these birds is that they build their nests in the disused burrow of a rabbit. They will also use a rock cavity, or may just lay on a pile of stones. The nest is a pretty sparse affair, and will usually consist of leaves or pieces of wood. Or they use some down. Only the female incubates, but the male is usually in close attendance. I have come across the nests in burrows sometimes, and have known the bird to hiss at anyone coming too close.
The shelducks have a good range. As well as living in Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales, they also inhabit Scandinavia, Denmark, Germany, Nederland's, France and the Black Sea. Then you can travel further afield if you wish to see some more of the birds. You could go to Afghanistan, (not recommended at this time), or you could travel as far as central China (this marvellous country is highly recommended!)
Personally, I just think I will go to the Irish Sea or the Atlantic Ocean to see these birds in future.