News archive

May 2007

Sunday, 27 May 2007

Newcastle RSPB Local Group Tour to Northern Ireland 27th May - 2nd June 2007

Newcastle RSPB Local Group Tour to Northern Ireland 27th May - 2nd June 2007

Day One
Well everyone turned up on time, in fact I felt sure some had camped out overnight so as not to miss the coach. A quick count of heads on the back of coach seats came to thirty-one as expected so we left Newcastle upon Tyne at 8.45 am on a rather dreary day. It wasn't long until we were into Dumfries and Galloway and everyone was admiring the coastal scenery and counting the Common Buzzards. Thoughts did come into mind about a future group tour of this very beautiful area of South West Scotland. Swallows, Swifts and House Martins were seen in number during the coach journey. After a short break and a panic by staff as we all wandered into a cafe for coffee, we were quickly on our way to the ferry terminal at Stranraer. The ferry was soon off for the extremely smooth ninety minute crossing to Belfast. The sea was calm and weather improving as the keener members started birding in earnest. Seen through rather grimy windows were Cormorant, Shag, Eider Duck, Black-headed Gull, Herring Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Sandwich Tern, Common Tern, numerous Black Guillemot, which had been a lifer for me only this year on my visit to Mull, and a star bird for some including myself, the Manx Shearwater. The Shearwaters, which were seen in two small flocks shearing the water, were a lifer for me and some other members. A very good start to the trip, which was a first to Northern Ireland for the vast majority of members. We were soon approaching Belfast Lough and admiring views of the Mountains of Mourne through Irish mist.
Well we were soon at the Chimney Corner Hotel on Antrim Road and checking into our rooms. Some help arrived eventually, if a little too late for most who had struggled upstairs and along very long corridors with luggage. Time for a rest before it was down to dinner and I have to say the food was very good if at times a little slow in arriving! By the end of the week some of us agreed that the service had been amusing and had helped us socialise at dinner as we had plenty of time to chat. I'm not sure if everyone in the group found it amusing, but there you are, no one said life was perfect! Some of us chose to walk after dinner and I had hopes of Owls but it wasn't to be. Kestrels were still hunting and calling however and I suspected they had a family to feed and the song of Song Thrushes was constant. I did note that the area seemed rich in Song Thrushes. Couldn't help wondering if they have fared better in Northern Ireland than in the rest of the UK? Then it was off to bed and for those on the front of the hotel the chance was available to listen to noisy traffic for several hours. I can vouch for that! I believe at least one member resorted to tissue paper in the ears. I am trying to imagine what she looked like. Best not!
Day Two
I had planned the tour to take in as much of the varying habitats of Northern Ireland as possible in such a short time, and to offer a glimpse of other natural history, although the focus was always going to be bird-watching. Today we were heading for County Fermanagh and the Marble Arch Caves in an area of limestone and peat bogs which lie within what is a European Geopark. My plan was that the stronger walkers would attempt the walk up Cuilcagh Mountain in search of highland birds, whilst those less able walkers could visit the caves and try out the shorter walks in the varied and interesting area near to the caves. This I had felt would have been a good way to end our tour, but because of difficulties with dates of other visits it became the beginning. Well there is never a real problem in changing plans, and in this case the stronger walkers, me included, were attracted by the chance to visit the cave complex. We were not to be disappointed by the caves and settled for shorter walks.
On route to Marble Arch Caves we of course drove through Counties Antrim, Tyrone and Fermanagh and the later part of the journey was indeed very picturesque. During the journey our first Hooded Crows of the week were seen and also numerous Common Buzzards and a Kestrel. Sadly, both a dead Badger and Fox lay on the roadside. On reaching the caves we broke into small groups each going separate ways. A few of us chose to walk down into the wooded reserve where we first of all heard, then eventually spotted, Willow Warbler, Blackcap, Great Tit, Coal Tit and Blue Tit. A Chiffchaff was heard and in this area some members caught sight of Goldcrest. Pairs of Grey Wagtails and Pied Wagtails were soon spotted on the banks of the stream and then a pair of Dippers was seen visiting a huge nest, built on the far bank of the stream. On each visit to the nest youngsters could be heard calling for food. During the day I think almost all members heard the calls of a Cuckoo. I wished I had had more time to explore this area which I believe holds Otters and Pine Martins but we had to make back for our guided tour of the cave system. Seventeen of us were led around the caves. As we descended we reached the underground river where we were taken by boats further into the caves. Then there is quite a bit of walking to do, but well worth the effort as you pass various rock formations in the limestone. The highlight of this experience for me was the area of very still water which reflected the roof of the cave and the stalactites. I can only describe the sight as if it were a golden city seen in a dream. It looked as though you could just walk onto it. Fascinating! If you ever visit Fermanagh don't miss this! I don't think anyone could have been disappointed with this tour. Nice centre too.
When we were back out into daylight again we were able to have our packed lunches before setting off on a walk. Rather a shorter walk than originally planned but a good one none the less. Butterflies seen included Small White, Orange Tip and Small Copper and a Cinnabar Moth was seen too. Not such a rare moth I suppose, but a first for me and a beauty. Not long into the walk I disturbed an Irish Hare which jumped up a few feet in front of me. Another first! The botanists in the group were kept entertained and I certainly remember the Early Spotted Orchids. We climbed to a reasonable height and had good views over a wide area including the Cuilcagh Mountains where I couldn't help feeling there would be some exciting birding. Maybe next time! In any event birds found included Swift, Swallow, Meadow Pipit, Skylark, Song Thrush, Blackbird, Wren, Garden Warbler and some excellent close views of Ravens. Jays were seen by some members. It had been a very good day and a good start to the holiday. We returned via Enniskillen and the River Erne and more Common Buzzards!
Confusion at dinner tonight. There seemed to have been a mix up in numbers and the chicken had come out on top! Yours truly, who had taken the orders on the coach, managed to keep his head down until all was sorted, before disappearing for an evening walk. A couple of glasses of red wine had ensured all was well with the world and we had missed the showers today too!
Day Three
Our first stop today was the RSPB reserve on Belfast Lough. For some reason I had expected a very large central and viewing area. This was not the case although the three hides do give really good views across this reserve where a great deal of work has been done to make this an oasis for wildlife within the industrial area. We were met here by Anthony from the reserve and Derek Polley, local BF member who joined us for the next three days. Derek's knowledge of the area was most valuable and we all enjoyed meeting up with him. Birds seen at the Lough included Cormorant, Grey Heron, Mute Swan, Shelduck, Mallard, Water Rail, Moorhen, Coot, Oystercatcher, Lapwing, Turnstone (not Ringed Plover as a local birder had tried to convince us), Dunlin, Redshank, Black-headed Gull, Common Gull, Herring Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Common Tern, Arctic Tern, Black Guillemot, Swift, Swallow, House Martin, Willow Warbler, Sedge Warbler and Reed Bunting et al. We spent an enjoyable couple of hours here before moving on to Bangor for packed lunch and more Black Guillemots.
The stopover at Bangor was arranged especially for targeting the Black Guillemots in the harbour and to devour our lunch. Both were done nicely despite a small shower of rain, the only one to really catch us during the trip. We had exceptionally close up views of the Black Guillemots so if anyone has gone home saying they have not seen one I 'wanna' know why! Eider ducks were seen too. Oh and House Sparrows which were not seen too often during the trip.
We then drove to Murlough Nature Reserve in County Down. Felt strange seeing the signs for Newcastle! This reserve has a 6,000 year-old sand dune system and has been managed as a reserve since 1967, making it the oldest reserve in Ireland I understand. After I had struggled with a gate that did not open we managed to get the coach through and begin our walks. Derek's knowledge of the pathways proved useful here. I am sure I heard a Whitethroat at the beginning of the walk, but we never did see one, although we did have sightings of Dunnock, Robin, Blackbird, Song Thrush, Willow Warbler, Chaffinch, Linnet, Greenfinch, Hooded Crow, a pair of Sparrowhawks and for a lucky one or two, a Cuckoo. There was again much to interest the botanists and we had distant views of the Common Seal colony on the beach. It really is a beautiful beach and we walked back along it with views of the mountains of Mourne coming down to the sea. Thanks to Denise we have group photos to prove that. An excellent and varied day.
Day Four
There was an early start today as we headed for Ballycastle on the northern coast and Sea Treks Boats to take us to Rathlin Island. A very nice drive. We soon met up with Adrian Park of Sea Treks and we were taken in three boats along the wonderful coastline to view the Carrick-a-rede rope bridge before crossing to the foot of the seabird cliff colonies for stunning views from below whilst being surrounded by rafts of Guillemots, Razorbills, the odd Puffin and Black Guillemot and overhead Gannets and Kittiwakes. Fulmars had been seen in numbers near the cliffs, as had Shags and Cormorants as we had set off, and one or two members had fleeting sightings of Dolphin (probably Rissols). I would strongly recommend to anyone thinking of visiting Rathlin that they use Sea Treks. For a little extra expense you have a real adventure and fantastic viewing of the bird colonies! After this exciting experience we were dropped off on the island and taken by coach to the RSPB viewing area. Not without one or two problems here as I had not been told that because of ongoing work the coach could not get right up to the viewing area and one of the coaches seemed not to turn up as planned. The difficulty with access meant that a few less mobile members never made it to the viewing area, but happily it did not appear to spoil what was a wonderful day for all. The wow factor certainly came to mind as we looked from above over the seabird colonies. Putting one's binoculars to the eye and looking down on the cliffs and seeing thousands of Guillemots and Razorbills is quite an experience. Puffin numbers seemed quite low but they were there and good sightings were had. One of our members managed to catch sight of a Peregrine Falcon and we wondered also, perhaps wishfully, if a distant black bird was in fact a Chough! Most of us had our packed lunch at this point before the more able walkers set off by foot for the 4 mile walk back to the harbour. A great walk it was too. There is some wonderful habitat on the island including reed bed, meadow and pools. A botanist's dream I should think. We passed carpets of lilac Heath Spotted Orchids and I really do mean carpets. I have never seen orchids in such profusion. There were large areas of Water Iris and I especially remember the area of Horsetail. Anyway back to the birds, which included numerous Wheatear, Linnet, Little Grebe, Grey Heron, Mute Swan, Tufted Duck, Pheasant, Coot, Skylark, Meadow Pipit, Rock Pipit, Pied Wagtail, Wren, Stonechat, Mistle Thrush, Song Thrush, Willow Warbler, Whitethroat (can't believe I missed that one) Sedge Warbler, Goldfinch, Greenfinch and Reed Bunting et al. Back at the harbour Ringed Plover and Common Seals were about and as we ended our walk we had good views of Oystercatchers and 2 Red-breasted Mergansers in the harbour. All of this on a hot summer's day!
After a cuppa it was off back on the boats for what can only be described as a fast, bumpy, and for one or two, wet return to Ballycastle. I felt a bit disappointed when I boarded to find I was under cover, that is until I turned around at one point and saw one member being soaked by not sea spray, but what seemed to be waves. She kept smiling however so I guess she was enjoying the experience and I guess she is not the only person to take her trousers off (to change) in Ballycastle harbour! No wonder she was late for dinner in the evening after that boat ride! A great day and not only a highlight of the trip, but a highlight of my birding career.
Day Five
Well after yesterday's excitement I had lined up a rather more relaxed and sedate day for everyone. I had promised a garden visit, but went one better and arranged a private visit to Clandeboye Estate near Bangor. This estate has a long history, has the most extensive broadleaved woodland in Northern Ireland, and is the home of the Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava. The estate is not open to the public. The visit proved to be a good one and not without some very good bird sightings, although even without the birds the walk through part of the estate led by curator Lola Armstrong was another trip highlight. We visited the garden area, pine and broadleaved woodland and lake. The trees were often very impressive and someone commented after the trip that the birds had not been necessary so much had they enjoyed this visit. We started with good views of Jays and Mistle Thrushes. I understand the Jay numbers are seen as a nuisance on the estate, but it is a bird I don't see enough of. Star birds were the pair of Spotted Flycatchers, another bird I don't often see. We spotted at least one Common Buzzard, which breed on the estate, and on the lake, which I understand is shaped like a shamrock, we saw Great Crested Grebe, Moorhen and Coot. Swifts, Jackdaws and Hooded Crows flew overhead at times. Other birds seen included Blackbird, Song Thrush, Goldcrest, Robin, Wren, Woodpigeon, Chaffinch, Greenfinch and Goldfinch. Willow Warblers and Blackcaps were heard. Perhaps my highlight here was watching the four male Common Blue Damselflies at close range. A beautiful walk rounded off by lunch prepared and served on the estate. We left offering thanks and me thinking that I must get to grips with a little more Irish history and finding out that Alan the coach driver, who had missed the walk, had been rewarded with a Red Squirrel sighting. So he was not asleep after all!
Next stop was to have been Lough Beg but I had a rethink on that one and having taken some advice from Derek I settled upon Oxford Island reserve at the south end of Lough Neagh. It turned out to be a fine and relaxing way to end our last full day of birding. Some good sightings of more Great Crested Grebe, Grey Heron, Mallard, Pochard and woodland birds, the family of Blackcaps being the highlight. The sounds of Chiffchaff and Willow Warblers filled the air. The hides and footpaths are very good here and many of us watched from one hide as a Mute Swan turned her eggs in the nest and then covered them in the loose herbage. Green-Veined White (prob), Orange Tip and Speckled Wood Butterflies were seen and a Grey Squirrel sat on the table near the coach. Apparently it had almost been on the coach! Then it was the drive back for dinner having said goodbye to Derek in Belfast. The wine was getting better as the week went on!
Day Six
A free day today and most took advantage of this to visit Belfast City. Some had their own plans and one member was rewarded with a Whooper Swan in Antrim town and another with a female Garganey near Belfast. Most of the group took advantage of a bus tour around some of the sights in the city. The driver was a Scotsman with not too much knowledge of the city, but never mind! The views of Stormont and surrounds were nevertheless very good, as was the viewing of the murals on Shanklin, Crumlin and the Falls Road. After this most visited the Botanical Gardens (nice but could do with a few more labels on plants!), lunch outside for some and more wine, white this time, then a walk through the city to the River Lagan where I found Black Guillemot and Common Tern. A wonderful city, wonderful people, a beautiful country and great to be there in peaceful times. Personally I can't wait to get back. This time for some winter birding. Thanks Northern Ireland.
Brian Moorhead
A bird list is available.

Addendum.........Information supplied by tour member Yvonne Douglas.
Our accommodation in Northern Ireland was the 'Chimney Corner Hotel', originally built as a 19th century coaching house.
A probable historical link to the origin of its name can be found in Antrim, which is the childhood home of Alexander Irvine. He became a missionary in New York's Bowery and eventually pastor of the Church of Ascension on Fifth Avenue.
His book "My Lady of the Chimney Corner" recalls his boyhood years in Pogue's Entry and describes the lives of Irish country folk during the post-famine days.
The 18th century cottage is preserved in its original state as a tribute to Dr Irvine and there is also a memorial park in the area, which was once lined with narrow lanes, alleyways and cottages similar to Pogue's Entry.

Sunday, 27 May 2007

Goosander on water

Local Patches

Now I have come to understand that the term 'local patch' can mean different things to different bird watchers. Whilst a local patch to some may simply be their garden, to others it may be the area close within walking distance of their home which they visit regularly or perhaps an area within easy travelling distance which is visited regularly. To others it may be their county or perhaps an even wider area. Whatever the area it doesn't seem to matter just so long as it is an area that is visited often and has become known really well. In my case I treat the area within easy walking distance of my home as my local patch and never quite understand when someone tells me I have a real good local patch when I tell them of a visit I have made to the Northumberland coastline!
Some members will know that I started taking a keen interest in bird watching by taking careful note of the bird visitors to my small garden. After a short time this led me to making visits further afield and oddly enough I think I knew more about birdlife in parts of southern Africa before starting to take real and careful note of the birdlife on my local patch. It is only in very recent years I have started to walk the patch to some extent almost every day and to begin to notice and appreciate the habitats that lie within it. It is by taking such an interest, watching, listening and noticing changes in season and environment that one becomes so aware of what is around and also begin to feel some share in ownership and responsibility for the natural, or perhaps better to say, semi natural world that lies immediately around us. It is also perhaps the only way to ensure such excellent photographs as the one taken by Cain Scrimgeour and kindly supplied for this newsletter. This photograph of the female Kingfisher was taken in North Tyneside by Cain at a local patch he has visited since a small boy. No, I shan't tell you where it is as I think it best to let members do their own exploring!
Well, getting back to my own local patch I suppose that living in what is a suburban area I am lucky to have so many differing habitats so close at hand. These include hedges, gardens, ponds, parkland, lakes, farmland, scrubland, playing fields, buildings and even a couple of small areas of reed the council are so bravely trying to establish. Sadly one of them often seems to become a dumping ground for supermarket trolleys and such like, but such is life I'm afraid. Then of course there are much smaller habitats within the larger ones. I have now come to know the area so well I know each year which hedge to find the Nuthatches in and which hedge holds Goldcrest each year, where to find the Grey Partridges gathering and in summer where the Blackcaps and Whitethroats build their nests and where the first Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers in the area are to be found. Incidentally the hedge that the Nuthatches appear is one of the best hedges I can remember finding anywhere for sheer number of species it holds. I have just been watching it today in fact. Yes you have guessed, I won't be telling you where to find that either. Find your own!
Now the lake I mention is a wonderful spot that I am pretty sure many bird watchers would not give a seconds thought to. It's a man-made lake of sorts, although I seem to remember that when it was made it was felt a good idea to fill a subsidence area with water whilst building the new town. I won't keep this one a secret, its Killingworth Lake. I wonder how many people know or for that matter really care that at one point during this winter the smaller section of this lake had 25 Goosander on it. Now if we were to find 25 Goosander on a local group fieldtrip I reckon members would get quite excited about it. You can imagine how excited I was on counting up to '25' on a cold winter's day. This was after I had found 30+ Pochard and pairs of Wigeon and Goldeneye and Grey Heron, all very close up, too. The same lake I know will provide me with entertainment in summer too, when the newly arrived Swallows, Swifts, House Martins and Sand Martins gather together to feed over the lake with Common Terns. Also a good area to improve my gull identification skills and to watch their changing plumages. I have found birds such as Black Necked Grebe, Whooper Swan, Pintail and Ruddy Shelduck on this lake. Ok, the latter was probably an escaped bird, but still a beautiful one! Just this week I have been watching the Great Crested Grebes courtship display on this lake. I hope they have better luck with the nest this summer as it was flooded and rebuilt several times last year. Enough of the lake.
Well ok, I know I am not alone in having a local patch to be proud of so where is all this taking us. The point I want to make is that taking an interest in one's local area and watching the birds that appear is one thing, it is altogether another thing getting actively involved in ensuring what natural areas we have left are conserved for future generations. I am sure that many of us live on patches where there are requirements for volunteers to help ensure conservation and I don't necessarily mean we all get out there digging trenches or planting trees. No, there is more to it than that and many of us can be involved without too much effort. We can support local groups in our areas, write letters to the council and other organisations if we note any damage being done by those organisations or others. You can imagine my letter to the council will be strongly worded if I ever see any attempt to remove that hedge that holds the Nuthatches I spoke of earlier. I live within walking distance of two very good reserves: Gosforth Park owned by Northumbria Natural History Society (of which I am also a member) and Swallow Ponds, owned by North Tyneside Council. There's another not so far away at Holywell Pond which is managed by the Northumbria Wildlife Trust and there is Holywell Dene which also has volunteers helping to conserve it. Yes, there are habitats all around me, if not on what I call my local patch, very close to it, and I am willing to bet there are similar habitats near you. As well as volunteering to lead this local group, which seems to be a full time job at times, I reckon I should be doing something else to help conserve nature and I have made my mind up that I'm going to. Watching birds and wildlife is my great love and it rewards me well. I believe I owe something in return. I remain optimistic that conservation will benefit from the many who share my feelings.
Brian Moorhead