by Paul Cormacain
EVERY year you are bound to hear folk complain about the birds, about the lack of wheatears, about the lack of cuckoos, about not hearing the willow warblers and chiffchaffs.
Some folk even talk about the swallows and swifts, but I have to say that I am finished complaining for this year.
In a recent survey, there were very few house sparrows about. This is a bird which used to live in every house, so it seemed, was so common as not to merit a mention. It was ubiquitous in town and country, there were so many of them that many people could 'turn off and not even see them. Now they are so rare that many folk never do see them!
I keep a close eye on wildlife in our garden. At times a week would pass without ever catching sight of a house sparrow. Yesterday there were seven of these birds at one time and all close. They were male and female, and I do not think there was an immature one among them. This would seem to suggest that in the not too distant future there will be masses of house sparrows. But I will believe that when it happens.
So I heard a chiffchaff. This is a bird more easily heard than seen, and indeed it is reckoned that many folk go through life without ever seeing a chiffchaff.
The bird derives its name from its monotonous, but unmistakable song. It is a small warbler which lives in the Mediterranean area during our winters, but heads over here early in the year.
It usually arrives about April, and the first indication of its presence is its monotonous song. People love it. It usually acquires a perch high on a tree, and pours forth its spirit in monotonous song!
Most people would rarely see the bird but it is even more difficult to find its nest. It is one of the few birds to build a roof over its nest, others like the magpie, wren and dipper spring to mind. The nest is on the ground, in undergrowth, and made of grass and moss, lined with feathers. Here the lady chiffchaff lays five or six white eggs, with purple brown spots.
The bird is green to olive brown in plumage in its upperparts, with a yellow tinge on the breast.
Then there is the willow warbler. It looks similar, in fact it is reckoned that the breeds cannot be told apart, well, not by looking at them anyway. But the song is different, thankfully.
So we heard willow warblers as well. They live in west Africa when they are not here, and arrive in England and Ireland a short time after the chiffchaff. They leave a short time before he does.
We have heard willow warblers, in fact if you locate a male it seems to sing from early morning to late evening. It is seeking a mate.
Like the chiffchaff it goes for a prominent perch, but the difference is you can usually see the perch, and the bird. So at different times we were looking at a bird, not knowing what it was. Then it started to sing, and we knew immediately. Thank goodness for song!
Recently we were bemoaning the fact that we had not heard a cuckoo this year. Now I seem to be hearing cuckoos all day, every day, and the sound is terrific. That is enough for cuckoos. Treasa and Phillip had told me about hearing the corncrake beside their home. It had been been calling every night for a fortnight, although they had yet to see it. Treasa also heard one at Baile na mBo. Now this was interesting.
When had I last heard a corncrake? Would I like to hear a corncrake? Would you believe, I always seemed to be busy, listening to cuckoos and willow warblers and chiff chaffs. But I went to their home in Baile an Teampall on the evening of Wednesday 4th May. You may notice I am only giving townland names at the moment.
When we arrived, we chatted for a short time in the evening sunshine. Outdoors. Suddenly our conversion was interrupted, by a corncrake. It was magic. I had not heard one for years, was beginning to despair slightly of ever hearing one, in spite of all the good work being done by individuals and organisations to encourage the bird to return. I cannot say where this bird was, just to say it was on the mainland in the north of Ireland. You may be aware, some birds may yet hit Rathlin, Tory, and other islands off the north coast.
If there are more developments in this story I shall be delighted to keep you informed.
Thursdays in May - Guided Walk in Mount Stewart to see the flowers and plants, talk to 9751 2351
Sunday 15th May - Annual Bluebell Walk in Colin Glen Forest Park, phone 9061 4115
Friday 20th May - There will be a May Spring Weekend, courtesy of Lisburn RSPB, going to Speyside. Contact Peter Galloway on 9266 1982 for more.
Saturday 21st/Sunday 22nd May - Annual Garden Fair at Mount Stewart, contact the National Trust 97512351