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Animal

Country diary: lockdown quiet suits the skittish redshank


I’ve lived in this bit of the city for years, but lockdown has morphed it into a strangely new habitat. My morning exercise walk begins by slinging my binoculars around my neck as if I were going out on a proper birdwatching trip. I head for the River Lagan. Between the Grosvenor and Ormeau bridges, I scan for regulars. Out on the water, a pair of great black-backed gulls fussily dip their bills. The resident heron holds its nerve long enough to eye me speculatively. Finches bauble the canopy on the bank, names chiming in my head like a song for the seasons: green for spring; gold for summer; chaff for autumn. Long-tailed tits might quicken from a pink and white parade of cherry blossom.

A few weeks ago, shrill piping had my brain scrambling for the species. I spun around to catch, flying upriver, a small wader with white arrowing its back and trailing the edges to its wings. A redshank – my first sighting of Tringa totanus, the “sentinel of the marsh”, along this thoroughly urban stretch. It seemed like it was new territory for us both, and the bird’s typically skittish and alarmist response to our encounter didn’t augur well for any lingering. But, against the odds, it stayed. As fine weather persisted, it became a talisman I had to see. For I could no longer depend on my ears to detect it. The redshank was adapting to lockdown: alarm calls had ceased, and there were no more frantic dashes into the air to skim away to the opposite bank.

A redshank, Tringa totanus.



‘The redshank was adapting to lockdown: alarm calls had ceased, and there were no more frantic dashes into the air to skim away to the opposite bank.’ Photograph: Our Wild Life Photography/Alamy

I leaned cautiously over the railing to follow its small elegant figure, head jerking like a clockwork toy as it probed for invertebrates along the river’s edge. While lorries noisily offloaded the day’s fresh supplies at an adjacent supermarket, I’d find it standing on one cinnabar leg, already regarding me sidelong. I’d stare into its white blink: dawdle over the bill’s deep orange, the herringbone of its coverts, the tail’s delicate barring.

The tidal river plummeted under the Lagan Weir’s adjustment, and then rose again. Traffic remains quiet, but the weather has turned. Cherry blossom silts the pavement. I’m still enjoying my doorstep birdwatching, but it’s not the same since the redshank left.



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