Big thank you from

The hunt for rare red-throated diver

by Paul Cormacain

MANY times this year we have gone to the haunts of the rare red throated diver, hoping for a glimpse of this bird.

On two of the lakes we visited we were hunted by common gulls, they were even daring enough to dive bomb us. But there were no red throated divers.

We tried a few other possible haunts at times, but never a diver did we see. One of the lakes we visited had a pair of birds last year, and we thought there just had to be more birds there this year. But no.

Then we went to the lake where we had first seen the birds' years ago. When we left the car we walked for nearly an hour, and saw nothing. Not a duck, not a diver, not a gull.

We did hear strange bird noises from a distance, when the lake was on the other side of a hill from us, but at the lake itself, nothing. As we were getting ready to leave, a disappointed exit, we saw two birds in the distance, on the water, swimming, and impossible to identify at that range. So we thought we would walk towards them.

After fifteen or twenty minutes, it began to look as if the birds just might be red throated divers. We walked around a small hillock, and there, miles from nowhere, was agent with binoculars.

So we thought it had to be an ornithologist who knew of this bird's presence. Very few folk have such information, and those who have the information rarely divulge it. So we talked at cross purposes for a few minutes, discovered some well known mutual bird watching friends, then felt quite safe to talk about the pair of red throated divers a short distance away.

It was now easy to identify them with the naked eye. It was a pair of red throated divers, calmly swimming around, diving for food from time to time. Nicholas had been watching them for hours, hoping to learn even more about these rare birds. How rare? On the island of Ireland this year, only three pairs are known to have bred successfully, and if Nicholas could not find more, it is a safe bet that there are no more.

The bird noise we had heard earlier was explained. There had been three red throated divers on the lake earlier, a most unusual sight. The established pair tried to explain, somewhat noisily and aggressively, that this was their lake, and that no other red throated diver was allowed on their lake.

When the third bird did not comprehend quickly enough, the pair became even more aggressive, became more noisy and abusive. The third bird was eventually persuaded to leave, escorted off the lake by the rightful owners of the lake. Then peace and quiet reigned again.

We stayed around for a while and watched the birds. Why were there no young? Had the birds already bred and lost their first family? If that happens, the chances are that the birds will try again.

They only lay two eggs, and incubation starts immediately, so if they were on to their second attempt at breeding, why was neither sitting on an egg or eggs? We tried to ask the birds, but they seemed only able to speak a different foreign language.

You are more likely to see this bird around the coast of Ireland and Britain during the winter. The birds move south to avoid the worst excesses of the cold weather further north.

It has a circumpolar breeding distribution in the tundra zone, and in Europe it is confined to Iceland, Sweden, Norway and Finland. Scotland does not do too badly, and in Ireland, as noted, only three pairs this year. In England and Wales, I have never known it to breed.

Come the winter, and the bird may be seen around Britain and Ireland, and on coasts in the North Sea. You just might see it in the Atlantic, south to Portugal. Or you could come across it in the Mediterranean.

In North America, the red throated diver becomes a loon. Like other divers, the red throated swims low in the water, and frequently its back would be awash. If it feels threatened, it can lower its whole body beneath the water line, only exposing it neck and head. It looks very streamlined, and its bill is very sharply pointed, and thin. This can make for easy recognition at a distance, especially as it tends to hold its bill upwards at a slight angle.

The birds are now in their summer plumage. The head and neck are grey, and the throat is marked with a broad triangular patch of rust red and the hind crown and nape with a pattern of black and white trans-verse stripes. The back is dark slate grey, with some fine white flecking, and the under parts are whitish.

If you see this bird, a) you are very lucky. And b) please report it in confidence to Irish Wildlife, or to RSPB, or to me, or to Nicholas.

Coming Events

Saturdays in July - RSPB dragonfly watching at Portmor Lough, details 028 901 54 7

Friday 1st July to Wednesday 31st August -Castle Espie is hosting a Feathertastic Trail, a self guided trail for all the family, sounds fantastic. Contact Espie on 028 9187 4146 for details.

Monday 4th to Friday 22nd July - Explore rock pools, search for fossils, at ortrush Countryside Centre, contact 028 7082 3600

Sunday 17th July - Ulster Wildlife Trust is hosting a guided walk in Slievenacloy nature Reserve with the emphasis on butterflies. Details from the Trust on 028 4483 0282.

Wednesday 27th July - RSPB guided walk at Belfast Harbour Estate, more from 028 9049 1547

Thursday 28th July - Birdwatch Morning at Castle Espie, at 1030, phone them on 028 9187 4146 for details.

Sunday 31st July - Join the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group for Whale Watch Day, starting at noon in the Portrush Countryside Centre, more from 028 7082 3600.

Tuesdays 2nd, 9th, 16th, 23rd August - Environment Matters Talks at 7930, talks by local experts on environmental topics, in Portrush Countryside Centre, details phone 028 7082 3600.

Ulster Star