Plethora of birds at Strathbeg

It was an absolutely glorious, sunny day a couple of Sundays ago, and I decided to pay a visit to Loch of Strathbeg.

At this time of year it is absolutely alive with birds and I knew that in the bright sunshine, the water, birds and landscape would be looking beautiful. I was not disappointed and spent all day there.

There is always activity of some kind to watch. On the way to one of the hides, I watched hundreds of golden plover flying around in flocks high above the water. They were acting the same way as starlings, seemingly moving as one, all turning at the same time, flashing bright undersides one second, then the darker backs the next, against a flawless bright blue sky.

It was like watching the creation of some great piece of music conducted by a single instruction. I spent quite a while watching them and thought what a good start to the day it was. All around, I could hear geese calling, invisible to me because of the surrounding shrubs and small trees but, I knew that I would get good views just a bit further along. There were huge flocks of pinkfeet and greylag feeding in the surrounding fields, and, every so often, their numbers would be swelled by other skeins flying in to join them. Then there would be moments, when the whole flock would suddenly leap into the air, all calling and all over the place as they rose into the sky, but within a very short period of time, they would either have formed into the familiar ‘V’ rank or settled back down into the next field.

Out on the water were whooper swans, newly arrived here for the winter. I counted over 70 visible to me at any one time, but there were of course many more in other parts of the loch. I loved it when they flew over me, long necks extended ahead of them, and I could listen to the familiar ‘whooping’ call that gives them their name, a sound so evocative of the winter. They looked flawlessly white with the sun on them against the bright sky, but carefully looking at the ones on the loch, pinkish brown staining was visible on their necks and chests, rusty staining from feeding in the shallow iron-rich foreign waters they had been feeding in during the summer.

There were of course grey young birds there too.

Out on the islets, a group of snipe sat on the grass alongside the reed edges. I love these birds. Their markings are so beautiful with their stripes running from their foreheads over their heads and their dark backs with light edges plumage. They have very long beaks in comparison to their body size and were probing deep into the mud searching for food.

As you would expect, there were many herons around, including quite a number of all grey youngsters and I am always amazed at how different this bird can look depending on its posture. As I looked around, I saw one facing me, standing very upright neck stretched to full extent. As the beak was facing me, it made its head look tiny and its neck and head like a matchstick. The whole bird looked thin and sleek. Further over, another one obviously replete, was sleeping, its head tucked back under its wing and its feathers fluffed out. Had you not known you might be forgiven for thinking that this was a totally different bird. Its long neck was not visible, neither was its dagger like beak, and with its damp, long pointed feathers all sticking out it bore a remarkable resemblance to a rather well-used feather duster. The herons fishing were a different shape again , bodies horizontal, necks stretches out in an extended ‘S’ shape well in front of them and the sleek, slimline head and long beak making the neck look far too long for the body. Great birds to watch!

At one stage, when I was giving my eyes a rest from staring through the binoculars, a small shape zipped past the side of the hide. I just had enough time to identify it as a merlin. I had been hoping to see a hen harrier, but the merlin was a delightful surprise, albeit just a flash.

The loch was full of birds, and the more I searched, the more I saw. I watched flocks of lapwings, both in the air and at rest among the other waders, a plethora of ducks including one of my favourites, the shoveler, with its ridiculously shaped beak - like a normal beak that had been trodden on.

However, it is easy to miss the smaller birds among the huge numbers of larger more obvious ones, but two events just before as I was going, left me in no doubt that they can be just as spellbinding. On the way back towards the car park, there is a small part of a field full of thistles and tall weeds, just full of seeds. Alongside runs a hedge of mainly hawthorn, but with a few other taller trees too. This field and hedge were full of small birds and, as it was late afternoon, the low warm sun was shining directly on the side of the hedge. With binoculars, I stared in awe at the wonderful richness of colours in the small birds feeding among the weeds and the hawthorn berries; greenfinches were the most springlike greens, their yellow wing bars a zestly lemon; male yellowhammers looked like they had been dipped in sulphur and were almost fluorescent in their brightness and their backs an autumnal russet; male reed buntings though not so colourful, more streaked, but some still sported their black caps and moustaches; even the humble robin took on a new look as the red sun made its scarlet waistcoast stand out proudly. Among the red hawthorn berries, he truly looked a picture.

I had been standing companionably talking to and enthusing with a fellow birdwatcher and neither of us could pull ourselves away, but eventually moved on as the sun dipped and the air started to chill.