by Paul Cormacain
IT was a very large flock of birds who were in the same area as the sheep. At times the odd bird could be seen on a sheep's back, and it would have been looking for the odd wee insect that lives in the sheep's wool.
Mostly the birds were on the ground. At times they seemed to be feeding in the most half hearted way, but nevertheless there were hundreds of birds and dozens of sheep all congregated in the same small area.
It was on open ground, with some sand hills in the vicinity, and about one kilometre from the sea. A local told us that the ground was not much good for growing crops but could support some sheep. It also sup-ported some birds.
We could not manage an accurate count what with bird and animal movement, but we reckoned there were about one hundred starlings, fraternising with each other, with the other birds, and with the sheep.
Some of the starlings may well be still have been looking after late young. Others of the bird were early young, learning how to cope with the big bad world, getting lessons from the previous generation or just learning together.
The starling is a busy bird, and it shows a long pointed bill, a short tail and triangular wings in flight.
They are noisy birds, and good mimics, and their song is a mixture of whistling, warbling and clicking. When they start their flocks growing in numbers, their noise level seems to increase also.
I suppose this grouping of starlings was the beginning of the birds forming into larger flocks as the year goes on.
Whether you live in Lisburn, or Belfast, or in the country, you will all doubtless have seen large to very large flocks of starlings.
They can be frequently seen on overhead wires at the beginning of the Ml, or noisily flocking in down town Belfast preparatory to going under the Belfast bridges to roost for the night. In fields, and on trees in the country, they also congregate in a noisy fashion before they settle down for the night.
So why were these starlings gathering in this particular spot? And why were they joined by other species? There were hundreds of gulls about; the large great black backed gull being well represented.
These birds can be distinguished by their large size, and the strong black colouring on the top of the wings. Slightly smaller were the herring gulls, although the strong white part of their plumage contrasted with the darker bits as dramatically as the larger bird. In the case of the herring gull, the wings are a very distinctive pearl grey rather than black.
Slightly smaller again were the lesser black backed gulls. Their colouring is also quite dramatic, but while the great blacked cousin has black and white for major colours, and the herring cousin has white and pearl grey, the lesser has white and pale slate coloured wings.
Which means that you can usually find it quite easy to identify the different gulls, until you get to the immature birds. Then the colouring on different species is usually less pronounced than that of the adult birds and confusion can set in.
Different types of crow also graced this strange combination of bird and animal. It was noticeable that the birds were very wary of humans, nothing unusual in that, of course, and once or twice as walkers approached the birds arose in a large flock.
We ourselves walked to the spot, and the birds swept off the ground in a large flock. The sheep hardly even bothered to look up. We looked on the ground to see if there was any reason for this combination of bird and beast to frequent this particular spot. No clues. There did seem to be some expanded polystyrene in small amounts on the ground, but we could see no reason why either sheep or birds would be attracted to this.
The crow family was represented by the hooded, or European crow, the magpie, and some jackdaws. Why were they congregating here, and why did both animals and birds come to the same spot? There seemed to be no reason for it. We found no clue ourselves.
Later that evening, we met up with a chap I had half known over the years, although we met but little and conversed even less. It was a 'pass the time of day' relationship, long standing but not substantial.
So I asked Ruairi about these birds and sheep. He knew the man who owned the sheep, and knew that the man got leftovers from a local potato crisp factory, and the man fed these to his sheep.
The only thing was, the leftovers consisted of some small pieces of pasta, and this is what the expanded polystyrene was. The sheep liked it. The birds liked it. And I have been trying to figure out since then why we put pasta in potato crisps.