SUNFLOWER hearts have extraordinary qualities. They are like manna from heaven for our feathered friends.

They leave any other garden food – peanuts or bird seeds – in the halfpenny place.
And those hearts are the perfect gift for birds on Valentine’s Day. 

You just don’t know which species will be next to fall for their charms and light up your garden. For Dúlra this week, it was this wee green beauty. Siskins – siscíní – were mythical birds just a few decades ago. In those days, Dúlra and a few mountain mates had intimate knowledge of every bird that could be found on the Belfast Hills. We knew the different markings on the male and female, their every call and in most cases had managed to uncover their biggest secret – their nests.

But if Dúlra had been asked to choose a specialist subject on Mastermind, he would have honed in on one particular family of birds – finches. These were the birds that could be kept because they fed largely on seeds that could be bought, rather than insects. Goldfinches, linnets, bullfinches, greenfinches and redpolls were not only admired, they were worshipped. We’d follow them around the mountain, getting as close as possible so we could simply... focus the binoculars on them! Every close contact would add another layer of knowledge: their markings at that particular time of year, if they were migrants (who are always brighter), what wild seeds they were feeding on.

Discussions about the latest sighting of the finches of Black Mountain were as common in the pubs of Upper Andersonstown as the latest political twist or football result!
But one finch was excluded. Yes, that wee green bird pictured this week on Dúlra’s feeder. Siskins remained an enigma. Sometimes the older mountain experts would mention them in passing, but as far as Dúlra was concerned, they simply didn’t exist.

He remembers one winter’s morning on the hillside when the ultimate mountain man – the late Jimmy Garland – called for hush. “Do you hear that?” he said. It was an almost imperceptible high-pitched whistle. Jimmy scanned the grey sky. “There,” he pointed. A tiny black dot undulating just below the clouds. “A siskin.” 

Dúlra focused the bins, but it was too far away to see even a hint of green. And that was as close to a siskin that he ever got.

Jimmy said flocks of siskins fed on the shores of Lough Neagh on the seeds of alder trees. Alders grow on riverbanks and swamps rather than the bone dry Black Mountain. And so on Valentine’s Day, when this wee beauty appeared on the garden feeder, Dúlra was spellbound.

Siskins are birds of conifer treetops, birds that we really should never get a chance to see up close. In their normal lives, they don’t come across people, so in gardens they are tame. The male pictured is bright green, his partner duller but no less stunning.

In a few weeks they’ll be off to breed – their nest is so well concealed in a conifer forest that it’s said it’s pointless trying to find it.

Those sunflower hearts are a bird version of fast food – Dúlra has to fill up the feeder every second day. 

In the wild, seeds always have a protective shell which has to be removed so the protein-rich centre can be eaten. That takes time and energy. But here, the heavy black sunflower husk has been removed, leaving just the ‘heart’.

They only need to eat a small amount to get a maximum amount of energy.
Those sunflower hearts attract many birds to the yard – but there's a special place in Dúlra's heart for the Valentine's Day siskin.

• If you have seen or photographed anything interesting, or have any nature questions, you can text Dúlra on 07801 414804.