Friday 22 February 2019

Country Matters: Winking bird walks under water

DILIGENT: Delightful dippers have developed as a distinct Irish sub-species
DILIGENT: Delightful dippers have developed as a distinct Irish sub-species

Joe Kennedy

A long walk along the heather slopes of Mullaghcleevaun and the Liffey Head bog where feeding 'glistening waters' compete for a choice of Anna Livia sources, a grouse may take off beneath your feet, if fortune be with you.

But many walks may bring no inkling that these birds, though few in number, lie concealed beneath heather and heath. (A count in the 1990s estimated a density of one bird (lagopus lagopus hibernicus) per square kilometre)

I never saw one on rambles near Kippure nor, indeed, on Howth Head where a local once proclaimed that the only grouse to be seen on a dinner table would have come from Harrods Food Hall.

But there is another unusual bird where the Liffey reaches wind along through peat and rocks, the delightful and remarkable dipper (cinclus cinclus hibernicus) or 'gabhan dubh uisge' which depends on running water, and, like the grouse, is a non-migrant which has developed as a distinct Irish sub-species. It also walks about below the surface, poking under stones, wings holding against the current.

As a young trout angler, I watched dippers on the Delvin on the boundary line between Dublin and Meath and at another historic stream, the Mattock, which marks the meeting of the archdioceses of Meath and Armagh, an old boundary of Ulster.

Where two courses conjoin and eventually flow into the Boyne there would be a diligent search for caddisfly larvae under rocks for use as bait. There, in a deep pool, a trutta ferox lurked and once emerged in a great leap to startle the human shadows that had disturbed its tranquillity.

The caddisfly larvae are also eagerly sought by the little-noticed dipper, usually seen at weirs and where water falls to shallow pools. The bird is more earnest in its searching than any angler, nodding and bobbing on perching rocks, acknowledging the world with little gestures of courtesy.

It is dark brown, plump and short-tailed with a conspicuous white throat and is almost starling-sized.

When it blinks, its eyelids reveal a striking white to match its dazzling breast. While underwater, the eyes are protected by a third lid which may be seen when the bird is perching: it folds over the eye as if winking!

The Irish bird is a sub-species of a strong-clawed race found in Asia and America, other Celtic cousins in Scotland and the Isle of Man being darker.

The lack of webbed feet does not deter this little plunger. It walks along rocky bottoms propelled by its wings and holds on by those powerful claws seeking caddis larvae, mayflies, stoneflies, crustaceans and small fish.

Icy water is not a deterrent. The naturalist Mark Cocker watched a bird entering ice-fringed water 30 times and emerging with caddis larvae whose cases it promptly smashed off the ice with a few deft blows.

The birds begin breeding in February, building football-shaped nests in riverbanks (once in the boot of an old car in a Co Tyrone river).

They usually roost in quiet places under bridges. An estimated 8,000 pairs breed here.

Sunday Independent

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