Ur­ban bird­ing

While the city of Belfast may not be at the top of ev­ery­one’s list of birdwatching des­ti­na­tions, it of­fers some real bird­ing treats

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents - WORDS: DAVID LINDO

David Lindo en­joys some great bird­ing closer to home in the city of Belfast

BELFAST IS NOT the first city that you would cite as an ur­ban bird­ing Shangri-la but, as ever, it is of­ten the least ex­pected places that of­fer the best sur­prises. With a pop­u­la­tion of fewer than 300,000 peo­ple, it is a small city, de­spite be­ing the sec­ond largest in Ire­land. The city is near to a wealth of great bird­ing sites, such as Lough Neagh, Rath­lin Is­land and the Copeland Islands, so vis­it­ing bird­ers would be for­given for mak­ing a bee­line else­where. An in­ter­net search on the bird­ing sites within the city will only read­ily call up one site, the RSPB’S Belfast Lough, so hol­i­day­ing bird­ers would fur­ther be for­given for think­ing that Belfast was an or­nitho­log­i­cal one-trick pony. To be fair, Belfast Lough is prob­a­bly the gem in Belfast’s crown. It is sit­u­ated on the western edge of the city and sand­wiched in the mid­dle of a dock­land in­dus­trial es­tate, right be­neath the flight path of the nearby Ge­orge Best Belfast City Air­port. Don’t ex­pect a mas­sive wet­land ex­panse though, as the site it­self, which lies on the shores of Belfast Lough, is a sur­pris­ingly small square­shaped lagoon. De­spite its in­signif­i­cant looks, over the years it has gar­nered an im­pres­sive tally of rar­i­ties. Nearc­tic waders like Pec­toral and Semi­pal­mated Sand­pipers are prac­ti­cally an­nual, and 2016 was no ex­cep­tion, with Baird’s and White-rumped Sand­pipers among the star birds. As for gulls and terns, it is more a case of what hasn’t turned up. Be­ing tidal, the best time to ob­serve the build up of waders is at high tide, so check the timetable be­fore you ar­rive. Get your tim­ing right in the early au­tumn and you may be treated to un­ri­valled close-up views from the WOW (Win­dow On Wildlife) Hide of Black-tailed God­wits feed­ing just a few feet away. More fre­quent these days are small num­bers of at­ten­dant Ruff and Dun­lin among the god­wits, also oc­ca­sion­ally within touch­ing dis­tance. It truly is in­cred­i­ble to be this close to these usu­ally jumpy and un­ap­proach­able waders. Sum­mer is a good time to ob­serve breed­ing birds

at Belfast Lough. A Swift tower has re­cently been erected and, de­spite the pres­ence of large num­bers of Swifts that visit the site to swoop for in­sects over the wa­ter dur­ing late sum­mer, the re­serve is yet to wel­come its first breed­ing pair.

A few pairs of Lap­wing and Red­shank have started to breed but it is the terns that steal the

show. Some 500 pairs of Com­mon Terns (above) pa­tro­n­ise the two tern rafts that are in place. This is re­mark­able given that in 2005 there was only a soli­tary pair nest­ing. Black-headed Gulls have also been re­cent colonists, with hun­dreds of breed­ing pairs present. In 2016, two pairs of the far rarer Mediter­ranean Gull bred amongst their num­ber. Just down the road and down the shore from the RSPB re­serve is Kin­negar. In days gone by it was a good spot for wa­ter­fowl like Red-breasted Mer­ganser and waders. Sadly, num­bers of all the species that fre­quented this spot seem to have plum­meted for some in­ex­pli­ca­ble rea­son. Small num­bers of Brent Geese still pass through, as does the oc­ca­sional Lit­tle Gull and rare wader. How­ever, the rar­i­ties also have a habit of turn­ing up at nearby Belfast Lough. Di­rectly op­po­site Belfast Lough on the north­ern shore of lough is White­house Lagoon, where the mud­flats are be­ing man­aged by the RSPB. This is a good wader and win­ter gull spot, that boasts reg­u­lar Ice­land and Glau­cous Gulls. But it is not just all about Belfast Lough. There are other ar­eas within the city that could pay div­i­dends for the in­trepid birder. Un­for­tu­nately, sig­nif­i­cant in­for­ma­tion on the ex­pected birdlife for most of the city’s po­ten­tial sites is at best scant. How­ever, some of the more po­ten­tially in­ter­est­ing sites to ex­plore in­clude Ormeau Park, Belfast’s old­est mu­nic­i­pal park. It is also the big­gest, and ap­par­ently the most species rich, park in the city. It con­tains some very pleas­ant ar­eas of wood­land that at­tract tits and Treecreep­ers, along with a good num­ber of Mis­tle Thrushes (right) and win­ter vis­i­tors such as Red­wing and Field­fare. It is also woe­fully un­der­watched, as is the beau­ti­ful Belfast City Ceme­tery, east across the city on the once no­to­ri­ous Falls Road – more than 100 acres of mixed wood­land, scrub in­ter­spersed by some sur­pris­ingly or­nate tombs and head­stones. It is def­i­nitely an area worth scout­ing and could no doubt, at the very least, pro­vide ob­servers with views of com­mon wood­land species, as well as the oc­ca­sional Spar­rowhawk. Lit­er­ally ad­join­ing the ceme­tery to the west is Falls Park, where there is the pos­si­bil­ity of see­ing Grey Wag­tails and Dip­per fre­quent­ing the stream that runs through it. If you’re look­ing for other ac­tiv­i­ties to do with the fam­ily while in the city of Belfast, then go to vis­it­belfast.com for in­spi­ra­tion.

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