WE might think of ourselves as the smartest animal of them all, but sometimes you just have to admit defeat when it comes to nature. This week, Dúlra returned home chastened just hours after leaving with high hopes that he’d finally achieve the lifelong ambition of finding a grasshopper warbler’s nest.
 
Find its nest? He didn’t even manage to spot the bird itself!
 
For three hours he traversed the lonely hillsides around Slievenacloy along with fellow birder Geordie Hynes. We walked through rushes and bog, along riverbanks, through ditches, eyes always scanning for movement.
 
Anybody else would come to the sensible conclusion that there simply were no grasshopper warblers here. But as we’d discover later, they were there all right, skulking in the undergrowth. But while most birds fly away when disturbed, they’ll run away as silent as a mouse.
 
After our marathon pursuit ended as the sun dipped behind the Sperrins, the grasshopper warblers of Slievenacloy finally appeared and taunted us with their peculiar mechanical-like call that sounds like a turning fishing reel – or indeed a grasshopper. They were all around us as if in stereo and  twenty birds would not be an overestimation.
 
This is a wee brown bird that will he heard but not seen and its Irish name refers to this: ceolaire casarnaí, warbler of the undergrowth. But  by the time they started calling, it was too dark to investigate.
 
The sky was still bright, but the land was shrouded in dark grey. It would be foolhardy to try to walk these hills in darkness, you’d easily find your foot getting stuck in a swamp and you’d struggle to stay upright for long. And anyway, you’d strain your eyes to make out anything that wasn’t silhouetted against the sky.
 
That there are so many of them here is an affirmation that this nature reserve is working. These birds have been driven from most of their former haunts,  including in the wee fields that still line the lower slopes of the Black and Divis Mountains. They like seclusion and swamps and both are on offer at Slievenacloy. When you consider there are fewer than 5,000 pairs in the whole of Ireland, Slievenacloy’s total is pretty significant.
 
Of course, no dander with Geordie is totally unfruitful, this guy is so skilled at locating nests that he actually takes official nest-recording workshops. He managed to find a wren’s nest beautifully woven into a flowering hawthorn bush. Dúlra would never have found it, even if you told him it was there.
 
But the grasshopper warblers of Slievenacloy have outsmarted us for another year. Maybe we’ll just have to settle for hearing that unique call.
 

 

HARD TO MISS: This parakeet stopped off at Marian’s bird table
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HARD TO MISS: This parakeet stopped off at Marian’s bird table

• Reader Marian from North Belfast has sent in an extraordinary picture (above). It shows a parrot feeding in her garden just off the Cavehill Road near the Waterworks. It could be a bird which has escaped captivity. But this is a male ringed-neck parakeet, a native of Africa and India which has recently adapted to outdoor life in England and continental Europe. It first went wild in the 1960s, escaping from captivity and clearly enjoying what it found, and is now established in 10 European countries and around 20 cities. This week we can make that 21.
 
Being non-native, they are considered an invasive species, but as yet experts have found little or no drawbacks to them. It helps that they’re so noticeable – a Europe-wide count was taken in 2015 and found exactly 85,220 birds. In Britain, they established themselves in London before moving north, eventually reaching Scotland.
 
However it’s happened, it seems the pearaicít mhuinceach has managed to cross the Irish Sea. Just as in this picture, they like garden bird tables and will take seeds, nuts or fruit. So Dúlra will be dishing out the scraps and hoping our Waterworks parakeet isn’t the only one to take a liking to Belfast.