Friday, 8 January 2021

Early days of 2021

Up and out before dawn for a socially distanced two car birdathon round the northern and western side of Strangford Lough. We went anti-clockwise and kept to minor roads as much as possible but we still hit 68 species. I am not going to list them all, just mention the highlights which were many. We started at the Flood Gates in the NE corner wher we had up to 2000 golden plover in the air, a nice flock of knot and pintail. All photographs of our jaunttaken by David Miller.

Dawn with flying golden plover

Golden plover and green plover


Islandhill next for tree sparrow and then round to Castle Espie for kingfisher.

Comber river at Islandhill

Egret at Castle Espie

Whiterock gave us shag, black guillemot and little grebe as well as snipe and buzzard

Teal and snipe if you can find them

Then to Killyleagh which we nearly left out and were glad we didnt as we ticked grey wagtail, red-breasted merganser, guillemot and three overwintering sandwich terns!!

Always check your gulls!!

Terns on New Year's Day

Finally to the Quoile for the overwintering bufflehead, redwings, shoveler, gadwall, goldeneye and sparrowhawk. By that time the light had gone, and we finished there and headed home.

All redwings, not a fieldfare among them.

The local patch is ticking over nicely and  the garden added bullfinch, goldcrest and blackcap to the 2021 list as well as all the usual suspects including five linnet. I even managed a buzzard along the coast being mobbed by hoodies. WOW is closed apart from Hide 2 and we are not supposed to leave home except for essential journeys. This rule came in on Friday so on Thursday we drove to Belfast Waterworks for our exercise and happened to see an iceland gull - quelle surprise! All photos from here on in are mine.


Waterworks, top pond largely frozen

Iceland gull. We walked past this point five times and only spotted it once.

On the way home we swung round WOW and Kinnegar and added eider, great crested grebe and ringed plover to the list and ticked off 20 other species for the WOW patch. I think there won't be a lot added to WOW until mid-February but the local patch will get a battering over the next four weeks and the garden is always liable to turn up something unexpected. Stay safe and bring your binoculars on your daily exercise even if you are only going to the shops. 


Long-tailed tit


Greenfinch pair

1 - 68 round the lough on January 1st
69: Blackcap
70: Bullfinch
71: Goldcrest
72: Iceland gull
73: Eider
74: Great-crested grebe
75: Ringed plover

30: Goldcrest 
31: Dunnock
23: Ringed plover

Sunday, 3 January 2021

The obligatory review of the year

Glad to seee the end of that one then. Tanya and I sat up till midnight not so much as to welcome in 2021 but more to make sure that 2020 actually left and didn't hang around. There were no last minute additions to the lists despite a few socially distanced walks along the coast. Spent quite a bit of time watching the garden so here is a selection of garden visitors to round off an interesting year.


Male linnet wating in the queue for the feeder


Female linnet

Oi, fill the feeder!!

Annual blackcap appeared on December 22nd

Hoover at work

Below the feeders

The 2020 total of 157 was pretty good seeing as I didn't get on holiday and only had a February trip to Bolton and Northumberland. Other than that everything was local. Mind you there were two lifers on the list in bufflehead and spottted sandpiper. WOW finished on 92 well shy of the 100 target but the observation room has been closed for the guts of nine months so some spring and autumn migrants were missed. Unfortunately it looks like it will not re-open until early February. Stand out birds were the manx shearwaters right up at the Stena terminal and white wagtail on the adjacent waste ground. The North Down patch hit a record equalling 74 and this is undoubtedly due to the fact that in lockdowns (we've had three) it was the default walk so it was better covered this year than any other. Stand out birds were the pheasant in the garden and the 7 shelduck flying along the coast on one of our early walks in May. It all kicked off again on January 1st so I'll do a quick New Year's Day roundup to start 2021.


157: American wigeon

74: Mute swan

92: Stonechat


Sunday, 20 December 2020

Two stunning yanks

And I dont mean Donald Trump and Joe Biden, I am talking about a bufflehead and an American wigeon. Just when you think that the year is meandering to a close and there will not be too many birds to add to lists these two turn up. The bufflehead was a first for Northern Ireland and a fourth for all Ireland and it was spotted on the River Quoile about two weeks ago. Initially it was out in the open but recently it has moved upstream and has to be viewed through a screen of sallow, willow ivy etc.. This makes it hard to get any decent photographs and the nearby Castle Island hide which would give excellent views has beeen locked since March. This link will show you a nice picture the finder took on the day it was discovered out in the open section. 

 The great and good of Northern Ireland birdwatching were there on Sunday in our own version of a socially distanced mass twitch.

Apparently the bird is still around and will hopefully stay for the winter like the Barrow's goldeneye of legend. It has drifted back to where you can get good views and also drifted upstream where you can get clear views from a long way away!! Nevertheless it is on my life list.

The American wigeon popped up at the river mouth at Glynn with a small flock of wigeon and is indeed showing well. Glynn station has a nice platform, good access and a shelter to sit while you wait for a train. I have been there several times and there is usually something good to look at plus dipper in the Glynn river. This week there were the usual ducks and waders plus the American wigeon and a female goosander. This is not a common bird in Northern Ireland but we do get a few every winter. 

Apart from these exotic visitors things have been fairly slow. WOW opened for two weeks but will be locked down from Christmas Eve until mid February. Hopefully at least one of the hides will stay open. On my volunteering day I had a bright sunny morning and distant birds apart from mallard and teal. I did my usual list and noted that my two previous visits were on March 19th and October 15th. That is three Thursdays in nine months with a six week lockdown into the new year. I'll keep you posted as to how things pan out next week. I had 26 species including the buzzard. The warden cut down the "buzzard tree" as it was a predator perch according to the RSPB! It now sits on the tallest bush just outside the fence secure in the knowledge that the warden cannot cut it down - clever buzzard.


Distant buzzard on a tree just outside the reserve.

One-legged mallard

Snoozing mallard

Rainbow reflection

There are birds there but they are small and far away Dougal!

No additions to the WOW patch recently but I managed to add redpoll and mute swan to the Bangor West total. The redpoll arrived on the feeder - first in the garden since 2016. The mute swans flew over while we were out for a walk along the coastal path, only the second time I have ever seen them on the patch. Garden birding is interesting as I am trying to do the Birdwatch Ireland garden bird survey. This involves counting the maximum number of species in the garden in a week and then doing this for 13 weeks. First week I had a maximum of 13 goldfinches, next week 7, this week 6. Hardest bit was trying to count coal tits which are everywhere and never sit still. I'll keep you posted in 2021 as with lockdown I may spend more time looking at the garden. I can even compare my spring garden lockdown list with my winter one - how OCD is that?

I have discovered that magpies will eat out of date mince pies, so don't throw them in the bin, leave them on the lawn. Have a safe Christmas and make the best of whatever way it falls. I'll hopefully have a wrap of 2020 at some stage as there isn't much else to do. Before you ask, yes, I am planning to get out birding on New Years Day, for the good of my mental health. Just me in a car with binoculars testing my eyesight!!

155: Great white egret 
157: Bufflehead Lifer!! 😎
157: American wigeon

72: Lapwing 
73: redpoll 
74: Mute swan

92: Stonechat

Friday, 20 November 2020

Great white egret

 Finally finally I ticked one of these in Ireland but in Antrim at Ballycarry Bridge not in Down. Having dipped a couple of times in Castle Espie one popped up at Ballycarry Bridge and as they say in birding circles was "showing well". This is usually a prelude to "Disappearing when Derek turns up", but not this time. No need to labour the point enjoy a selection of pictures and if you want really good ones check out the NIbird blog. 


 Locally on the patches it has been quiet, cold and wet and walks have suffered accordingly. There have been divers seen off the coastal path but not by me, however I finally saw a flock of lapwing in their old spot so some sanity has been restored to lockdown life. The garden has been overrun with coal tits and they are emptying feeders at a tremendous rate. Kibbled peanuts and sunflower seeds are being buried everywhere as they make multiple trips back and forth. I have seen at least 8 at one time but am sure there are a lot more than that. They have been joined by the regular cast of winter visitors albeit in smaller numbers so far. I think it will need colder weather to pull in more birds. 

A visit to WOW threw up 35 species with all the usual suspects. After one week of opening the observation room closed for 4 weeks and it looks like this will be extended to seven weeks as Northern Ireland locks down on the run up to Christmas. Back of the envelope calculations predict that it might open on Monday 14th so we might get along before the end of the year. In the present way of going nothing is certain so I'll not be taking any bets.  If it does re-open I will try and get a post up to give you some festive cheer. Remember that the light at the end of the tunnel may be a train coming the other way!! Here's a few cheerful pictures from Thursday.

Redpoll on the new feeder

Hard to beat a nice teal

Schnoozing schelduck!!

The swan couple have returned and could well fail to raise chicks again this year

155: Great white egret

72: Lapwing

92: Stonechat

Friday, 6 November 2020

And the nights are drawing in

Not only are the nights drawing in but we are under sort of lockdown again.Fortunately we can get out and about, unfortunately WOW has been forced to close. The hides are still open and we had one glorious week of coffee, heat and toilets, but it was a low tide so there was not a lot to see. Walks along the coasts and local wooded areas have not produced much in the way of birds either. I managed a three mile walk in Clandeboye Wood and the sum total was a singing robin. Even the garden has been on the quiet side with only coal and great tits in any numbers and the feeders have not needed topping up regularly.  I have also attempted to chase a few exotic visitors but that did not work out at all and yellow-browed warbler at Kearney, great white egret at Castle Espie and grey phalarope at Barr Hall Bay all saw me coming and legged it. The birding highlight of the last week or more was three buzzards on Sunday as we went to church. Church is in suburban Bangor West and to see three buzzards over the nearby houses was a bit of a shock, albeit a very nice shock. To be fair Carnalea golf course is just behind these houses and it does have rabbits in abundance so at least there is a rational explanation. I remember having to go to North Antrim in the 1980s to see buzzards and now they are on the local patch. 

I have been to Castle Espie twice to hit the rising tide, the first time we missed it so we had to go back. It's not nice when you look down the path and see water. Well it is nice in its own way but not when you are hoping to see mud and waders. First six photos by my birding pal with the good camera David Miller

What no mud!

Whoops the tide's in
The day was not wasted however as we got to see nature at its smartest. As the tide floods in it pushes through a sluice into the reserve and fills the saltmarsh with water. We noticed a little egret standing on the stones at one side looking intently at the incoming water. It dipped in a couple of times for a small morsel. Swung the binoculars across and there was a kingfisher on the other side doing the same. We watched it dive twice and catch a small fish. On our second visit we had a little egret, redshank, grey heron curlew and greenshank checking out the inflow for a meal. We also managed a smart grey plover and a goldcrest.
Sluice patrol

Distant kingfisher

That's better, mud, waders geese and ducks

50+ great crested grebes with shelduck and eider - very far away!!

Fishing in the creek


Tanya and I did an interesting walk along the northern edge of Strangford Lough from the Flood Gates to the sewage works, an out and back walk of 4 miles. The tide was out but rising slowly and we had good views of the birds of Strangford Lough plus a few species in the hedges and fields. For those of you who do not know this walk it is a raised tidal barrier with Strangford Lough and areas of saltmarsh on one side and Ards Airport and fields on the other side. We had good views of brent geese, shelduck, curlew, redshank, oystercatcher, dunlin, knot, lapwing,  black-tailed godwit and little egret on the Lough and buzzard, kestrel, stonechat, linnet  and skylark over the fields.

Brent on the Lough

Salt marsh  
Dawn record shot from the Flood Gates. This area is good for teal lapwing and pintail.

Tidal barrier

The sign warns of low flying aircraft!!

It is my intention to walk it at high tide as the waders use the fields to roost in while the geese and shelduck float on the water. In summer the lough is virtually empty but the fields and airport support breeding skylark and linnet as well as summer visitors such as swallow and warblers. The airport cafe (Cloud 9) is open to visitors and does scones, coffee lunches etc.. What's not to like about this walk?? The beauty of Strangford and Castle Espie is how quickly the lough changes on a rising tide, these last two pictures were taken about 35 minutes apart.


154: White wagtail

69: Buzzard
70: Stonechat
71: Pheasant

90: White wagtail
91: Raven
92: Stonechat