by Paul Cormacain
TWICE in the last week I saw small flocks of Irish brent geese on the north coast. They came here in the autumn, enjoyed our hospitality for half a year, but now have decided that it is time to go to their other home.
Folk tend to associate migrating birds as belonging to large flocks, and certainly in the past I have seen large flocks of brent. But I have also seen them arrive on the north coast after their marathon flight from north Canada, and they were in small flocks, perhaps one or two families.
Last week's flocks were small, consisting of one or two families. I did not see them leave our shores, but if one had the patience one could wait and watch and observe the departure. In each case, when I returned the following day, the birds had flown. And no way had they gone down to Strangford Lough.
Some birds are probably in Iceland by now. Soon they will be in the breeding grounds of Bathurst Island, north of Canada.
That is a long way to go for the summer holidays.
At the north coast we were not too far from Rathlin Island. And it is from there that we get the sad news about the choughs. I thought that I had seen them on the island within the last few years, but my Rathlin friends now tell me that the pink legged, red bill crow, has been extinct there for the last fifteen years.
I saw a chough nest with young a few years ago on the cliffs near the Causeway, but the Causeway folk now tell me that there are no choughs nesting there now.
We shall just have to ask them politely to return!
The Rathlin folk miss their choughs. They talk about them in the past tense, and reminisce about them.
They remember the not-quite black crows, so different from the rook and raven and jackdaw and hooded crow. (The magpie is also a very different looking crow).
The folk on the island used to be easily able to see the birds, as they used to congregate in large numbers near cliff tops. They used to feed on the bugs and beetles that thrived in cow pats.
The grass was cropped short by cows and sheep, just perfect feeding ground for choughs. or so it was thought.
These people are reminiscing. But they are also looking to the future.
The RSPB and the island folk can work together very closely at times. So a piece of land came on the market of late. It used to be an excellent site for choughs, land on the top of the south cliffs in the townland of Cnocans.
The land is bordered by the road and the cliffs, has now been acquired late last year, and the thinking is to encourage the choughs back again to this site.
The land will be managed in conjunction with local Braziers, and it is hoped that this will ensure the best of feeding for the choughs.
Between the islanders, and the graziers, and the RSPB, the whole plan just might work, and it could signal a return of choughs to the island. Many people are surely hoping so.
Much research has gone into the problem of the disappearing red legged crows. They used to be the common bird in Cornwall, in south west England, but they all managed to disappear. The folk across the Tamar would love to have their crows back.
The RSPB and Birdwatch Ireland have been doing much research on disappearing choughs.
If the Rathlin Island experiment is successful, we can be sure that it will be copied round the country could ensure a new future for these scarce birds.
The Rathlin folk also tell me that they are going to do more to encourage other birds to live and/or visit there.
Where farmers are encouraged to manage their hay meadows, they say, "with corncrake friendly schemes" the corncrake could thrive again "by careful planning of grazing cycles and creation of early cover and productive grasses".
Nothing like a bit of positive thinking! Those Rathlin folk want both the chough and the corncrake to return!
Saturday 2nd April - Join Lisburn RSPB on a trip to the Quoile Pondage, at 8am, more from Peter Galloway on 9266 1982
Saturday 9th April - Spring Country Fair at Roe Valley Country Park, 11am, details 7777 6532
Saturday 16th April - Listen to the Dawn Chorus at Castle Archdale, early start at 5am, find out more from 686 15882