Belfast Telegraph

Monday 24 November 2014

How I wish our Buckie boys would take flight

It was with great joy that I chanced upon the BBC's seasonal nature programme Winterwatch this week.

Programmes about the natural world absolutely enthrall me and nobody does them better than the good old BBC. Whatever the season, the format of this quarterly series is as relaxed and comforting as having a few friends in your own living room, nattering enthusiastically and sharing news and views about all the latest wildlife events. It's almost like a chat show for animal lovers, but as well as the cosy sofa format it includes reports, bulletins, films, live video and webcam action from across the length and breadth of the British Isles. Add to that the infectious banter and quirky humour of its three presenters — Martin Hughes, Michaela Strachan and (my seasonal quarterly crush) Chris Packham — and you've got the absolute perfect balance of enjoyable yet informative entertainment.

However, there was one report from Monday's show that caught my attention and captured my imagination like never before. It was all about the Bohemian Waxwing which is, without a doubt, one of our country's most colourful, exquisite and cherished winter visitors. As an avid ornithologist I've spent my life constantly on the lookout for rare birds and the waxwing has always been at the very top of my twitching wishlist.

Normally the species is to be found in greatest concentration across North America, Scandinavia and Russia, where they feed on berries and fruit. However, in particularly harsh winters when fresh supplies are scarce, they migrate in a south-easterly direction in search of sustenance.

This is one of those winters and, as they've been arriving in their vast flocks across the country, the TV crews have been there to welcome them.

On Monday's report, a boy aged 10 who lives on Fair Isle in the Shetlands showed just how easy it was to attract waxwings when they are starving and you have their favourite food ready and waiting for them. He simply took a branch off a tree and spiked an apple onto each twig, then held it in front of him for the waxwings to see. One by one they descended and within minutes he had an entire flock of one of the UK's rarest birds within an arm's length. Absolutely fascinating, delightful to watch and what a precious memory for that wee boy to have forever.

In fact, it reminded me of the time when I was a kid and I tamed a robin to eat from my hand. In my case, though, it was far more difficult to attain. Indeed, it took me hours and hours over an entire winter standing motionless outside in the freezing cold holding handfuls of wriggling live mealworm. It was certainly worth the trouble, but if only it had been so easy back then as waving a few apples in the air!

Another thought ocurred to me as I watched the footage and then listened to the birdwatching experts explain the sudden migrationary influx of this particular species.

If waxwings and other birds will travel far and wide in search of a very specific food type, could mammals — or more specifically humans — be similarly encouraged to move away, en masse, if their favourite item suddenly became unavailable?

We all know what happened during the tragedy of the potato famine, so it has certainly been proven in the past ... but just imagine what might happen if, say for example, Northern Ireland's entire supply of Buckfast suddenly ran out ...

And the government somehow — and for whatever reason — intervened to stop any more bottles being imported from England?

Would all the ‘Buckie boys’ migrate across the sea in search of supplies? Would they find their way down to the south of England, closer to the wine-brewing monks of Buckfast Abbey and then settle down there instead?

Just a thought, like, but it would certainly be an interesting experiment ...

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