WHAT an idyllic scene – two majestic swans, he standing guard, she incubating eggs on her massive island nest in Alexandra Park in North Belfast.
Dúlra visited this somewhat hidden and often overlooked park to check up on the wee lake – it’s a stone’s throw from the Waterworks, but it doesn’t get a fraction of the visitors as it doesn’t meet the main Antrim Road.
This week it was jumping with birdlife – breeding season had arrived. The lake is partially surrounded by high iron railings which have allowed trees to grow unhindered. One side of the lake is as much a swamp as a pool and here a ring of majestic giant willows are growing, their drooping branches able to stretch out unhindered. Yellow catkins had just burst from the bare branches and, caught in the yellow afternoon sun, with the spring air already heavy with insects, it was magical.
Although most of our migrant birds haven’t arrived back yet, blackcaps – our only warbler which regularly winters here – were in full song, the wild banks obviously providing enough cover for them to nest in. Blackbirds, robins and chaffinches darted all around, either building nests or already feeding young.
Dúlra followed the stream leading out of the lake where it hits a series of steep concrete steps, changing the calm water into a roaring river.
And then he met the wall.
It might be decorated by colourful graffiti artists, but it’s an eyesore. Worse than that, it’s an embarrassment.
Europe’s – perhaps the world’s – only peaceline that cuts through a park. Built on the day of the IRA’s first ceasefire in 1994, it hasn’t aged well.
Thankfully, the massive steel gate leading to the ‘Protestant’ side was open, so Dúlra dandered through. And he was so glad he did, because immediately he spotted the tamest dipper he had ever encountered.
It was sitting on a rock beside a wee bridge and almost certainly its nest is underneath. This was the male keeping watch while his mate sits on eggs as dippers, gabha dubh in Irish, are amongst our earliest breeders.
Whatever danger the bird was watching for, it wasn’t human, because Dúlra was able to slowly advance on it, clicking the camera shutter the whole time. It finally disappeared downstream when Dúlra was just a few feet away.
Irish dippers – it’s one of only four birds that have evolved into uniquely Irish sub-species – aren’t considered a city bird. They need fast-flowing, shallow rivers, which few cities have. You’ll see them in Colin Glen of course, but Dúlra wasn’t aware of them breeding in our parks. The Irish version has developed a rusty brown band between the white bib and the brown chest, which no other dipper in the world has.
The nest is a work of art, a ball of moss with a side entrance that is somehow attached to the underside of a bridge or among river vegetation. At the back of Colin Glen, tributaries flow through long metal pipes that you can just about get though if you get down low enough, and Dúlra has often found their nests here. But the best of all has to be the nest that is built every year in the lower Glen under the weir waterfall – the parents have to fly through the waterfall every time they visit the nest.
The dipper’s is one nest you won’t find feathers in – feathers are easily soaked, so with so much water splashing around, the birds line it with deciduous leaves which dry out quickly.
Dúlra would have loved to check out the underside the wee bridge at Alexandra Park for signs of the nest, but just as he was about to, a Council van drove up towards the open gate.
The park peace wall was being shut.
This Irish dipper, it seems, was for the eyes of one side only.
• If you’ve seen or photographed anything interesting, or have any nature questions, you can text Dúlra on 07801 414804.