by Paul Cormacain
IN the sand dunes we came across a wheatear. In the right sort of countryside this bird can be common enough.
It prefers dry, open country, particularly where there are dry stone walls. It does not need hedges or trees, which means that the wheatear lives in countryside that would be remote, and where there would be no large flocks of cows.
Sheep country would be more to its liking, or sand dunes along the coast, or at the seashore. They are seldom gregarious, and are usually seen singly, or, in pairs at courting time.
They are among the earliest birds to arrive from equatorial Africa, inhabiting a strip of land from the south Red Sea west to the west coast of Africa during the winter time. They usually manage to reach our shores in mid March.
They also manage to land in other countries, in Europe and the middle east.
Here is where we preach confusion. The black wheatear can be seen in the Iberian Peninsula, Sicily, Sardinia and north west Italy. The odd bird turns up in Britain and Bulgaria!
The black eared wheatear can turn up from time to time in Britain, but is more likely to be seen in the Iberian Peninsula, south of France, all over Italy and Yugoslavia. There have also been few sightings in Austria and the Netherlands.
The pied wheatear is a summer visitor to south east Romania, where it breeds.
The wheatear has got a bad name! Its name comes from old Anglo Saxon words meaning "bare bum". Well, I did say that it had a bad name!
Sometimes you will see wheatears on the north coast of Ireland and Scotland, and they will be slightly different in appearance from the local birds, These are frequently called `Greenland wheatears' and these birds would be heading north. In fact, they go so far north and west that they breed in Canada and Arctic America. Quite a little traveller.
I mentioned the timing of the appearance of the wheatears. By about August most will have returned home for the winter. Some do stay on into September, and the one I saw in the latter half of that month would fall into that category. It has been known for a few birds to linger on, and apparently there have been occasional winter records for the bird. Central Africa would be warmer.
Wheatears may be, heading south, but heading towards our coast from the north are other birds. By our standards, our weather is much less inhospitable than the weather further north, and consequently we represent a winter haven for our northern visitors.
Having seen a pair of Whooper swans lately, I was hoping that other birds from Russia, Iceland and Greenland would have put in an appearance. But it was all a bit disappointing.
The Irish brent geese were missing, but then you can always hear about them from James Orr, at the Lisburn RSPB meeting on the 25th October. James has been heavily involved in the tracking of these geese, and will talk about their satellite tracking. Should be fascinating.
The brent first go to Strangford Lough. There they feed and feed, then start to slowly move around the country. Even when they make a landfall in Antrim, Derry or Donegal, they seem to head for Strangford as quickly as possible.
That is the place where you are liable to see the greatest concentrations of them.
From there they move south and west, but invariably by next spring they will all reappear on Strangford Lough. After that is the long flight home to Arctic Canada.
Our own redshank may have already started to move south, but their place is being taken by birds who have fled, or are fleeing,
Iceland. The redshank we saw may have been in either category, but in any case they were strutting about before the incoming tide, probing the sand tirelessly in their incessant hunt for dinner.
These medium sized waders are brownish in colour, and their most distinguishing feature is a pair of orange red legs which positively twinkle as they run. They are expected to increase in numbers as more and more northern birds join us, even if our own birds are heading south.
A walk in the blowy countryside can still be one of the most rewarding of experiences. Why not try it, and see how many birds you can see.
Sunday 26th September - Harvest Home, a celebration of the harvest at Tannaghmor Gardens, details from Museum Services 3834 1635
Monday 27th September - Lisburn RSPB start the new season with Birds of the County Down, with Ian Jackson, contact 4062 6125 for more details.
Wednesday 29th September - If you want to hear about the Gardens of the French Riviera, your big chance is at the Ulster Museum at 7.30, details from 9038 3000.
Saturday 2nd October - Lisburn RSPB have a trip to Ramor Head and Bann Estuary, more from 9266 1982
Saturday 16th October - RSPB Members' Day at the Greenmount Campus. Talk to the RSPB for more information.
Monday 25th October - James Orr will talk on Satellite Tracking of Irish Brent, at Lisburn RSPB meeting at Friends' School, at 7.30pm.