THEY look like a flock of sparrows sitting on top of railings. But these wee birds are a tad more special – and this week Dúlra was privileged to spend 10 minutes in their company.
Incredibly – and tragically – this is probably the total twite population of eastern Ulster all in one place, gathered together to see through the winter in each other’s company for safety. In all the countryside that we now have ownership and guardianship of, we can’t give this innocuous wee bird a place to nest.
It needs hillsides that aren’t farmed or grazed to build its nest among the heather. In our parents’ time that was commonplace throughout Ireland, even On the edges of West and North Belfast. Today their breeding ground has been reduced to an acre or two around Carrick-a-Rede on the Antrim coast.
When winter comes, they leave the hillsides for the warmer coast, where Dúlra caught up with them on the pier at Whitehead a few miles north of Larne.
There’s nothing much here to attract them, you’d think. But there are few inlets more protected than Whitehead, with the ragged rocks of Blackhead a mile away with its famous lighthouse providing an impenetrable windbreak.
And so Whitehead is the place to go if you want to see Ireland’s rarest finch, the gleoiseach sléibhe, the mountain linnet.
When Dúlra arrived at the pier, there was a guy at the water’s edge with an expensive camera around his neck. Dúlra played it cool, guessing this guy too was a fan of the nondescript finch. “The twites about today?” Dúlra asked, hoping he’d guessed right. “Yeah, they were here a while ago. There’s a sparrowhawk about today so they are very edgy,” the photographer replied.
At the pier beside the car park, a boatyard sits surrounded by railings. The boats inside have seen better days – apologies to the owners, but to Dúlra it looks more like a scrapyard. But it’s a haven to the twite – in winter, few arrive to take the boats out, so on this site, the twites feel safe.
Dúlra couldn’t see them, but he knew they were there because occasionally on the wind over the lapping of the waves, he heard this incredible chattering song. It was as if a flock of birds were all talking to each other, babbling away happily.
Dúlra peered through the railings, but there was no sign of life.
The photographer had long gone by now, so Dúlra took a seat on a rock and waited, occasionally thinking he heard the chattering carried on the wind. Then, 20 minutes later, they appeared.
Often it's hard to count birds – but not this time. Just to make it easy, they sat in a line on top of the railings: 15 in total. They all had flashes of pink on their foreheads, like redpolls, and the males had a wee red sheen on their chests.
But other than that, they were just plain brown – if you didn’t know any better, you wouldn’t give them a second look.
But these birds are jewels, the rarest of jewels. Not long ago they lived all around us before intensive farming became the norm. They were driven out, unable to find year-round seeds and denied a place to breed.
Their loss is a price that, apparently, we are happy to pay. On the way to Whitehead, Dúlra spotted with a heavy heart piles of dead wood gathered in fields where hedgerows had been chopped down to make the fields bigger. Near Dundrod, just outside West Belfast, the same thing is happening this week.
If it’s food production we’re after, then we may as well chop down every tree and turn the country into one big field. Is profit to be our only motive?
The twites of Whitehead dropped to the ground to feed. Dúlra walked towards them, taking pictures. And so they twittered away as Dúlra walked among them towards the end of the pier. Eventually, when they ran out of runway, they rose as one, circling overhead and back into the safety of the boatyard.
Fifteen twites – likely the North’s total population – all in one place. In a few weeks’ time they’ll match up into pairs – pity the sole bird who will miss out in this game of find your partner – and fly over what’s become known as the ‘green desert’ of Irish countryside to breed in those couple of acres at Carrick-a-Rede.
Next winter, Dúlra will go again to Whitehead to enjoy this cutest of wee birds. And pray that they are still in double figures.
• If you’ve seen or photographed anything interesting, or have any nature questions, you can text Dúlra on 07801 414804.