The yellow crowned night heron in Belcarra. PHOTO: TRISH FORDE

Twitching is big business as Mayo village is finding out


THE arrival in Belcarra of a yellow crowned night heron was very unusual, and begs the question of how it actually came to be there.

Its home ground is in North and Central America, where it is more common than sightings would suggest, for it haunts marshy places and other wetlands out of reach of most ordinary folks.

Yet here in Belcarra Central, in the middle of Mayo, is this bird that is not renowned for its strength of flight, having presumably made the long and arduous journey across the Atlantic on the back of a storm wind. It is the first ever record of this particular bird in Britain or Ireland.

Speculation is rife. Could it actually have travelled across aboard a ship? Or could it even be an escape from some zoological collection closer to home?

We doubt the latter – the absence of a leg ring would indicate it has not in any way been domesticated. Anyway, the idea of sailing rather than flying more than 2,000 miles or absconding from a zoo is rather appealing.

Another question is this: what will happen to this bird now that it is living here?

It is unlikely to find its way back to its homeland without assistance.

While here it can likely look after itself fairly well for the next few weeks, for there is plenty of food in the Belcarra stream.

Yellow crowned night herons specialise in hunting crustaceans, and many of the limestone rivers of the west are teeming with white-footed crayfish.

In the United States there are several species of cray. We have just the one: the endangered white-footed crayfish.

When I went to see our night heron it was in hunting mode, and swiftly dispatched two of these creatures, which it swallowed nearly whole in front of our eyes. Winter flooding will make such hunting difficult, if not impossible.

While there, I got to talking with others who had travelled nearly as far as the bird just to get a glimpse and maybe a photograph.

Stephen had come from Carlow after dropping after dropping everything on hearing the words 'night heron'.

Andrew hails from Bristol, in the west of England. He had taken the first available flight to Knock and was thrilled to be among the first arrivals.

His friends were scheduled to take the very next flight and join him.

There were others, too, who had travelled the length and breadth of this country and from further afield just to be in Belcarra to witness the presence of this stranger.

'Twitchers' is the term for those avid birdwatchers – and twitching is big business, as local services will be learning to their advantage.

It would be nice if the economic and social aspects of the environment were more fully recognised. Then we might concentrate more on looking after the place we have been given.

Nor is our night heron (the name indicates well the habit these birds have of fishing at night) the only American visitor we have in the county, for a few miles further to the north we have what is known as an elegant tern fishing in the shallow waters off Belmullet.

Like our own native terns, the elegant tern flies swiftly over water, where it hovers at regular intervals to search for any sign of small fish near the surface.

On catching sight of prey it makes sudden, dramatic dives, often from height, in attempts to catch its dinner.

Add to this reported sightings of golden oriole, which hails from southern Europe, and an osprey close to the village of Aughagower, and we have tailor-made holidays for ornithologists.

Once our golden eagle and white-tailed sea eagle populations are stabilised we shall have no end of people wanting to come birding in Mayo.

The very propect has us twitching in anticipating.