AT midnight on Monday, when you’re in your bed like most sensible people, Dúlra will be on the shores of Lough Neagh fulfilling a lifetime ambition. Oh, and finally getting even with this newspaper group’s editor Robin Livingstone.
Because a few years back, it was Robin who got the chance to ring the chicks of what must be the most stunning bird this island has even given a home to: the barn owl. And Robin admits it was the nature highlight of his entire life, to actually hold one of these amazing birds while doing his small bit to bring them back from the brink of extinction.
This Monday, Dúlra has been invited to help out as owl champion Ciarán Walsh rings a brood that he coaxed to breed at his home by the lough. Ciarán has single-handedly saved this iconic bird as a local breeding species and, after erecting a network of nest boxes with the permission of farmers and landowners, is helping them make a remarkable comeback.
He knew that the greatest impediment to the barn owl population was the lack of suitable nesting places, and he set out to rectify that.
And at the success rate he’s having, who knows, we may one day even see these nocturnal birds swooping down on our city streets.
With the help of cutting-edge technology, he was able to watch as this pair laid a total of six eggs, a big number which reflects how healthy their diet has been in the area – again thanks to Ciarán who, instead of trying to rid his land of mice, actually feeds them!
One of the smaller chicks didn’t make it as it was sadly eaten by its siblings, a grim but common fate of smaller chicks in the world of raptors. But the other five will soon make their first foray into the wild. Their parents brought them an incredible selection of delicacies which they gulped down whole, including rats, mice and even baby jackdaws!
Way too often we just ‘let nature take its course’, shrugging our shoulders as a species declines. But it’s not good enough and it never has been. Just a couple of years ago, a Hannahstown resident told Dúlra that lapwings were breeding in a field there, and indeed Dúlra saw them flying over the same field during breeding season. It was full of rushes, like much of the land up there.
This year, that field has been drained and turned into a pristine green pasture – a desert for wildlife. And the rare lapwing – ironically our national bird – has been denied what must be one of its last nesting places in the whole of County Antrim.
Three pairs bred this year down at Belfast docks, but again nothing was done to protect their eggs on the ground. They managed to incubate their brood on the gravel as people walked dogs nearby. Somehow, the chicks made it.
Soon that land too will be built on, and you can bet that even the presence of eggs there won’t stop the developers. The work will begin, the damage will be done, and, if you’re really lucky, you might get a retrospective apology, for what it's worth.
Sadly, the draining of land and the removal of ancient hedgerows is continuing apace all around the outskirts of Belfast. Even this year, many fields around Dundrod and Hannahstown that Dúlra used to plod through, frogs jumping around his waterboots, have been turned into green deserts. It’s not the farmers’ fault -– they’re trying to make a living. But the authorities can’t talk about protecting our countryside and biodiversity while overseeing a disappearing habitat.
And so it falls on individuals to step up to the plate. Dúlra spreads his wings too widely, feeding any and all birds in his garden. But luckily, a handful of other nature buffs have honed in on a particular species. In Ciarán’s case it was the barn owl, while Mark Smyth of Antrim devotes every waking minute to promoting the vanishing swift.
Ciarán’s enthusiasm and expertise has rallied a small army who have also fallen for the charms of the barn owl and are sharing the workload. The network of nestboxes is multiplying exponentially and each summer’s newly fledged chicks are able to travel further to find a mate and a safe home for the next generation.
On Monday, Dúlra will hopefully be on hand to personally help the scréachóg reilige – the ghostly screecher of the graveyard. Oh, and finally get even with Robin.
• This bird at Dúlra’s feeder (above) mightn’t appear to be remarkable, but it has really made Dúlra’s year. The greenfinch, glasán darach in Irish, was all but killed off by a mystery disease which struck a decade ago.
Before this, it was a regular at garden feeders, using its heavy beak to prise out nuts and also using its relative bulk to push off lesser rivals.
This male bird and his duller mate managed to raise at least one brood in a hedge somewhere nearby and the family are on or near the feeders every day.
It seems that each year, now that the disease has apparently been overcome, just as we appear to have done with Covid, and their numbers are creeping up. So keep an eye out– those chicks will hopefully be appearing in a garden near you soon.
If you’ve seen or photographed anything interesting, or have any nature questions, you can text Dúlra on 07801 414804.