Big thank you from

The birds are back for summer and looking for a soul mate

by Paul Cormacain

HAVE you seen any wheatears yet? Or have you seen any ragged robins?

The wheatears are out and about, and are to be seen in the north. While I used to see them out and about near Belfast, the sighting of a wheatear now is more liable to occur further north, in our mountains and especially near the coast. They can still be quite common if you find the right spot to see them, but perhaps we kid ourselves that they_ used to be more common in the good old days.

Some birds may have returned home as early as April. They had spent the winter in Africa, sounds like a good idea, eating as much as they could lay their bills on.

They also spent the whole time avoiding predators. Now that they are in their summer home, they are still avoiding predators, and for many they are now feeding the kids. When they get a chance, they may also have a wee meal just to keep body and soul together.

Since they returned, they have found a soul mate of the opposite sex, decided to set up home and built a nest. Then she laid the eggs, and when they hatched out the big effort began.

Like all good parents the wheatears are very concerned at finding enough food for the kids, feeding them sufficiently, and protecting them from the big bad world.

In the areas I tend to see the wheatear now, there are also merlins, kestrel hawks, sparrow hawks and even buzzards. None of these birds would refuse a wheatear for lunch!

Some experts reckon that the bird is nearly too conscientious, at times nearly forgetting to feed itself while pursuing its duty to feed the kids.

Their diet would not be too pleasant for our human palates. The wheatear eats insects and larvae, spiders, centipedes and snails. How do the kids get excited about that?

The ragged robin is common all over the country, yet for some strange reason there have been reports of decreasing numbers around the north west. It seems that Magilligan, Lough Foyle and Benevenagh areas are having a shortage of these flowers. And some folk think that ragged robins are birds. We came across a field of ragged robin.

There are fields of barley, there are fields of potatoes, there are fields of corn, and then there is a field of ragged robin. Unusual, but nice.

No field can be devoted solely to one type of growth. Sure enough, in this slightly damp field there were some bog cottons raising their heads, the field even had a few orchids and some sedges. But basically it was a field of ragged robins.

Scientists have to give a Latin, or scientific name to all things. The ragged robin name translates as the 'flower of the cuckoo'. I wonder why! Did its blooming correspond to the arrival time of the cuckoo from Africa? Or as some person suggested, does the name refer to the insects depositing 'cuckoo spittle' on the flowers?

In spite of its name, the flower gets honourable mention in some poems. In one, Marriage of Geraint, by Tennyson, the flower is compared to new bright clothes suitable for wearing at a special occasion. Then Clare writes about the flower in two separate poems, Wild Flower Nosegay, and Noon. If you were a flower, you would be flattered!

Now in the good old days, many plants and flowers had curative properties. This would have been before you could go to the doctors to get a prescription. The 0beliefs about the ragged robin were slightly different.

Children and young maids believed that if you were to pick a ragged robin, thunder and lightening would follow. So it also got 'thunder flower'. And when we are on the subject, did you know that the picking of red or white campion, or greater stitchwort, would bring along thunder?

Long before dating agencies, young girls used to pick a number of the robin, give each flower the name of a local boy and then tuck the flowers under their aprons.

This was as long ago as the 16th century. Then the flowers had a race, although they did not know it. The young girls would check excitedly until the first flower opened. The name on the flower would be the suitor for the young girl. Either the boy wished to, or would, marry the girl, or alternatively that was the boy the girl would marry. And then you think, is the more modern version any more or less romantic, any more or less practical. And did the marriages last longer then than now?

I wonder does the wheatear consult the ragged robin when it comes to picking a mate!

Coming Events

Saturday June 11: Celebrate World Oceans Day at Crawfordsburn Country Park, 11.00am, phone 9185 3621, or Portrush Countryside Centre, at 12.00pm, phone 028 7082 3600
Wildflower Workshop at Crossgar with the Wildlife Trust, at 10.00am, more from 4483 0282.

Saturday June 11, Sunday June 12: Pond dipping at Castle Espie, at 2.00pm, details 91874146.

Saturday June 18: Lisburn RSPB if off to lovely Rathlin, all welcome, contact David McCreedy on 4062 6125.
National Trust is having an archaeology tour at Mount Stewart. Give them a call.

Sunday June 19: Creepy Crawly Trail, at Colin Glen Forest Park, at 11.00am, meet some of the mini beasts that live there, and find out more from 028 9061 4115. Sunday June 26: Guided Walk at the Umbra Nature Reserve with Wildlife Trust, 2.00pm, contact Trust on 028 4483 0282.

Wednesday June 29: Wildlife Walk around Craigavon Lakes, at 7.30pm, details from Oxford Island on 028 3832 2205

Ulster Star