Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 28 December 2014

What’s that bird?

Comedian Bill Bailey has made bird-watching cool through his new television series, so we sent Conor O’Neill out to see what makes the twitchers tick

Do you know much about birds? Can you tell your curlew from your peregrine falcon? No? Well neither can most of us? But there are people out there who can — the dedicated bird-watchers.

Twitchers, the aficionados of the bird-watching world, are usually portrayed as camo-creamed, mesh-netted loners who’ll drive from Cobh in Co Cork to Limavady to follow up a rumour that another twitcher has spotted a dodo’s descendant bred with a chicken which might just be the picture and ornithological find of the century.

However, contrary to popular belief, the Bill Oddie stereotype of the bird-watcher doesn’t quite hold true, as we found out when we sought out some local twitchers, as they are correctly known.

And we also discovered that they play an important role in protecting the environment for all of us.

Wetland protection, bird counts and the reintroduction of once extinct birds to Northern Ireland are pressing matters which should concern us all. In these ecocentric times, birds are often the barometers by which environmental scientists gauge the health of the country and further afield.

Eimear Rooney (25), from Kilkeel, Co Down, a Queen’s University PhD biology student, has been bird-watching for the past four years. Her interest in all things natural was sparked off by the enthusiasm of her father and grandad for the great outdoors. She said: “I’m a weekender, and while I do carry a camera, just in case something special turns up, I’m not really a twitcher. Twitchers tend to get bad press. My studies involve raptors, birds of prey, and I will go to some lengths to see a red kite, the species which has just been reintroduced into Northern Ireland.

The introduced breeding pair are only two years old and as they don’t reach breeding age until they’re three years old, the project is very much at its beginning. Hopefully, in a few generations we’ll have a stable population.

I find bird-watching to be therapeutic. Even on a stale day, when there’s nothing of interest to be seen, I do enjoy just being away from the hum-drum of everyday pressures, amongst nature.

Exciting finds or spots are sometimes found in the most unusual places. I was once driving through a suburban area when I nearly put my car through a hedge in order to avoid a massive heron swooping past my car. With adrenaline rushing I simply had to get out of the car and watch this most majestic of birds. As with all chance events I didn’t have my camera with me to catch this wonderful sight.”

Adam McClure (25), from Larne, is a duty officer for Carnfunnock National Park in Larne and works for the RSPB documenting bird populations, species and the insects and small mammals they feed upon.

He said: “Though many bird populations are on the decrease, we have had some great successes. The white tailed sea eagle was hunted to near extinction but after being reintroduced to Co Kerry they migrated north and can be seen occasionally around Lough Neagh.

Portmore Lough and Lough Neagh are connected by a subsidiary river and many of the birds inhabiting one lough migrate to the other. As well as the hides provided for the duck-hunting fraternity, some are also provided for those who just want to observe the lough’s many bird species.

The most regularly seen birds are the great crested grebe, the pochard duck, the tufted duck, the widgeon and teals. Both species of duck are at the mercy of the hunters during the open season — September 1 to January 31 — but the population of both hunted ducks appears to be self-sustainable.”

Dot Blakely (50s), from Bangor, is a lecturer on bird-watching for the Belfast Metropolitan College.

She said: “I’ve always had a love and understanding for both birds and wild-life as I grew up. Once my family grew up and I found myself with more time, I started to bird-watch again. That was about 25 years ago, in which time I have been volunteering for 16 years at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust Castle Espie in Comber.

I and a few friends started the Castle Espie bird-watching club 13 years ago. For the club I lead the field trips, survey 52 nest boxes around the grounds, along with other grounds work that needs done. My most enjoyable job is showing the public either the overwintering wildfowl, or even better is when someone hears their first song bird which I have pointed out to them.

I can always tell by the way they say ‘oh yes’ if they have heard the bird or not, as it’s a more emphatic ‘Oh Yes, I hear it, I hear it’ with a big smile.

I started a bird-watching class at Belfast Met College, Castleragh campus five years ago. Again it is all about making people aware of their environment. We have great fun on the field trips and there is always plenty of tea on hand.

In the winter season twice a month I am a counter for the Webs, which is a Wetlands Bird Survey organised by British Trust for Ornithology, Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and RSPB, Joint Nature Conservation Committee. Hail, rain or snow lots of us are out in the wilds with counters walking their zones counting all the wildfowl and waders.

I also volunteer with the Woodland Trust. On summer guided walks I tell people about the importance of trees both for ourselves and birds. People ask me if a never get bored bird-watching, and my response is always the same, ‘Never’. It opens your eyes to just what a beautiful country we have.

The RSPB’s Belfast Harbour reserve is another of my favourite places to go. Here you can see wildfowl, waders and all the small birds you could wish for. The little egret, once a rarity in Northern Ireland, is a common sight now due to our warmer climate.

I would recommend bird-watching to anyone with an interest in the natural world. Not only is it exciting to see birds in their natural habitat, but a day away from traffic-noise and other pressures is a great way to relax.”

Brendan McMahon (33), from Lisburn, an environmental scientist who worked on the Belfast’s Wetland Ulster Wildlife Trust’s reserve at Bog Meadows beside the M1 motorway in Belfast in 2007.

He said: “During my year there my duties involved the removal of Japanese knotweed. The knotweed’s notoriety has led it be be included in the World Conservation Union’s top 100 worst invasive species.

Apart from dredging the marshes of the Japanese invaders, my work also involved water sample-testing and bird counts.

Among the most common varieties at the site are the mallard, the coot, the moorhen, the little grebe and the grey heron.

The rarest, and obviously the species most sought after by the hobbyist bird-watcher, are the warbler species, reed bunting, and the tree creeper.

I also volunteered to monitor bird populations on Rathlin Island in 2009. Rathlin, which lies six miles off Ballycastle, is a popular destination for those wishing to see puffins, quite possibly the most photogenic birds to inhabit the British Isles. My time on Rathlin was a real eye-opener. My job as a laboratory scientist really didn’t prepare me for the vast differences and difficulties faced by those out in the field. Birds tend to move around so getting exact counts are near enough impossible.

Rathlin is home to hundreds of thousands of birds, who don’t tend to sit in orderly queues waiting for people with clipboards. The visitors we had were passionate about both birds and their environments.

Back at the accommodation, after a windsept day hoping to see guillemots, puffins, fulmars or the highly sought-after razorbills, drinks would be poured; tales, sometimes a little too tall to be believable, exchanged and pictures produced for identification of rare breeds.

I expect to be a bird-watcher all my life. Another trip to Rathlin is on the cards at some point in the near future, and my dream job would involve some sort of conservational fieldwork.”

Beginners guide to bird-watching

  • Do follow the scouting creed of ‘being prepared’.Wear suitable clothing and tell people if you’re heading to a isolated or maybe dangerous area.
  • Do keep your distance, disturbingbirds simply to catch the perfect picture runs contrary to the bird watcher’s code of ethics
  • Always get the permission of the landowner. Check with the Right to Roam guide as to where is open to public access or you could find yourself on the wrong end of a shotgun
  • Do respect the environment. Birds and other animals are frequently found dead tangled in discarded litter
  • Do join a local group or buy a bird guide. Both will prove invaluable in developing your skills
  • Don’t expect to see the rarest of the rare in your first 20 minutes. Patience is a virtue
  • Don’t assume bird-watching can only be done in rural areas. Birds are as adaptable as human and some exciting finds can happen on your doorstep
  • Although joining a group can be beneficial, keep numbers to a minimum when going out on a watch. A crowd of 30 is unlikely to yield the best results
  • Don’t tell the world of where you spotted a pair of nesting Bald Eagles. Egg thieves will use this information and threaten already endangered species

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