by Paul Cormacain
HUGH Tinsley tells me about the large raptors he saw outside Lisburn recently.
They were flying at a high altitude, as raptors do, and were taking advantage of thermals to soar effortlessly. He got the binoculars on them, and was able to supply a description. As you know, at a distance, and depending on the lighting, things do not always seem as they are.
The birds had rounded wings, plus the other attributes as described above, and their underwings were shiny black. Either this was a trick of the light, or we had creatures which I could not identify.
Their shape and flying habits immediately put them into the buzzard category, but their underside colouring made them something I had never seen before.
I searched through different books which showed raptors from near and afar, but could not match up Hugh's description with any of them.
Either I am missing something, or it was a trick of the light and the distance.
We have three harriers here, the marsh, hen and Montagu's harrier. The latter is a rare summer visitor, and a passage migrant, which occasionally nests here, but as a general rule you would not see one at this time of the year.
The marsh harrier was hunted, its habitat was drained and disturbed, and now the bird is only a rare spring visitor. Hen harriers were once common, then became nearly extinct about a century ago. Because of our habit of sometimes planting trees on mountainsides, there are now a few birds in the country but with very little breeding going on.
Hugh's description does not begin to match that of any of the three harriers.
The common sparrow hawk, kestrel and the less common merlin did not begin to match the description, it was agreed.
The osprey and peregrine were likewise out of the equation, as were the night flying birds of prey. Lisburn is not the haunt of sea eagles. So what did that leave us with?
I felt it was a buzzard, while Hugh thought it may have been a golden eagle. The buzzard has been extending its range from the north east, moving both south and west. I have seen them in all the nine Ulster counties, and reports have come in that they have now spread to the south west of Ireland. When one sees a buzzard for the first time, it looks like a huge bird, and it certainly dwarfs most others. The male averages 54 cms in length, the female a more substantial 59cms.
When this large bird is flying, soaring, riding thermals, it does look huge. Its wingspan is even more impressive than its length, usually of the order of 122 to 137 cms. That is about four to four and a half feet in old money. Impressive.
About a century ago the golden eagle was hunted relentlessly by gamekeepers and sheep farmers, till it reached the point of extinction.
Some bright, enthusiastic folk dreamed up the return of the eagle, a seemingly impossible task. Where could you acquire some golden eagles?
They are legally protected in most countries. Where could you bring them to, and release them?
How would you get co-operation with men who had sheep on the hills to not attack the eagles? How do you persuade men with guns to leave the eagles alone, and how do you convince egg collectors that it is better to watch an eagle than steal its egg?
In retrospect, the answer is easy. Get more folk who are bright and enthusiastic, educate the sheep farmers and get them on your side. Make egg collecting illegal and make the law stick. Make it illegal to shot the bird. Get a couple of countries to co-operate at the highest level, convince all that what is happening is good.
So folk from here went to Scotland, with all possible help and co-operation. Folk from north and south took one chick from healthy nests, brought the birds over to the wilds of Donegal, did not let the young see humans. The young birds were placed in large cages, and when they were fed it was done so that they young would think they were being fed by adult birds.
This happened for a number of consecutive years and birds were gradually released into the wilds. Near the spot where they had lived the humans used to leave out food on a regular basis. They did it unseen by the birds, and the birds took this as the norm. But as the birds matured, their old instincts began to return and they started to hunt for themselves.
So now the golden eagle is living in the wilds in Donegal.
Success story? Well, so far I have seen birds across the border in Derry, and even one in the Glenshane Pass. I think it is inevitable that the birds will spread, and they will certainly reach Lisburn. But I do not think just quite yet. I have checked with some experts and have to say there are no records yet. Well, not quite yet, but watch this space!
The golden eagle is about 85cms long, with a wingspan of some 200 cms. Large bird, impressive bird, but then so is the buzzard.
Until I am proved wrong, I will believe it was large impressive buzzards that were seen near Lisburn. Better a golden eagle than a buzzard, but I will be more than happy to see buzzards.
Monday 28th February - Lisburn RSPB has Anthony McGeehan and Sea Bird Detective Stories in Friends Meeting House, contact David McCreedy on 4062 6125
Sunday 6th March - The Dinosaurs of Colin Glen-at I lam, at the Glen Centre, an exploration of the geology of the glen, more from 9061 4115
Ballynahone Bog Day Out, a practical volunteering event, details from Malachy on 4483 0282.
Friday 11 to Sunday 13th March - Birdwatch Ireland and the RSPB get together at the Killyhevlin Hotel, Enniskille, for their Annual Wildlife Conference. Details from 90491547
Wednesday 16th March - Find out what the National Trust has planned for Divis Mountain, at 7.30, in Belfast Castle, call 9060 3466 for more.
Sunday 20th March - Oxford Island to Castor Bay, 3pm, a 'leisurely dander', find out more from Oxford Island on 3832 2205
Monday 21st Marc - Lisburn RSPB meet to hear Anne Marie McDevitt on The Countryside Management Scheme, more details from David McCreedy on 4062 6125.
Tuesday 1st to Thursday 31st March - Castle Espie Easter Trail, contact 91874146 for details