I'm so wild about Belfast's RSPB reserve
To describe the RSPB reserve at Belfast Harbour as just a bird sanctuary does not do it justice. It is a sanctuary for everyone; a perfect haven of peace and harmony in the one place you would least expect it.
In order to understand why I'm waxing lyrical, you need to envisage where it is and how close it actually is to our city's industrial heart. Actually, it's not just close, it's right slap-bang in the middle.
Driving along the Airport Road West, towards the city centre, you could easily miss it as it's virtually hidden behind a high hedge, trees and railings with just a small, unobtrusive RSPB logo at its narrow entrance. Resting lorries and vans line the adjacent layby and I wouldn't be at all surprised if none of their drivers had a clue that an idyllic retreat was just a few feet away.
Most of you will have passed it without even noticing, on the way to work, or to the airport, or from the seat of a plane or the deck of a ferry. Directly opposite the Stena terminal, a few hundred yards from the end of the City Airport runway, nestled impossibly between the busiest docks in Ireland and one of the largest and most productive industrial estates ... it seems quite incredible that any wildlife would survive here, let alone flourish.
But it does flourish, to astounding effect. In fact, it's so stunningly successful, it really has to be seen to be believed. The place truly is breathtaking; and I mean that literally. I visited the reserve for the first time last week and my jaw dropped open as I gasped at the wealth of wildlife just a few feet away.
For a life-long birdwatcher and animal lover like me, it was like seeing a glimpse of heaven. So as you can imagine, as I walked inside the observation room with its panoramic bay windows presenting this incredible vista over a pristine lagoon teeming with wildlife, I felt like a kid in a sweet shop. I didn't know what to look at first.
Directly outside on a grassy bank was a family of rabbits basking in the sunshine with their tiny baby bunnies hopping amongst the buttercups and daisies while, above them, tortoiseshell and cabbage white butterflies flitted about from flower to flower. It was like a scene from a postcard.
Immediately beyond the grassy bank, mud flats were alive with waders of every imaginable species. As I approached, a huge flock of dunlin suddenly swooped down in unison and began sifting the muddy sand for worms and crustaceans, ignoring the larger birds including herons, curlews and a pair of magnificent black-tailed godwits. Redshanks and greenshanks, oystercatchers, sandpipers, lapwings, golden plovers, shellducks, whooper swans ... it was just unbelievable what an array was there right before my eyes.
To the left of the lagoon, a dense reed bed hosting a pair of reed buntings swished in the breeze, lining a path down to the muddy shallows from which coots and moorhens chugged back and forth followed closely by their broods of ungainly chicks.
To the right, a thick shrubbery of small trees and bushes attracted goldfinches, greenfinches, blackcaps and great tits who fought noisily over the hanging bird feeders.
But the focal point of that day's viewing was without a doubt the thousands of noisy terns nesting on the floating platforms in the middle of the lake, along with their newly-hatched chicks, all squawking constantly to be fed. Through the various telescopes and binoculars that were freely available, it was a joy to watch as they kept darting up, down and all over the lagoon suddenly plunging out of sight into the water to spear an eel or some other small fry that had glistened momentarily in the sunlight, just for their insatiable young to gulp down in a moment.
While this chattering chaos was going on, just behind them a pair of wild ponies strolled gracefully along a small grassy peninsula that separates the reserve from the open lough. We were told by the warden that these were introduced there by the RSPB specifically to maintain the terrain and to complete the natural ecosystem.
As I watched them so serenely grazing on the grass, co-existing perfectly alongside a giant flock of greylag geese, a gigantic Stena Ferry glided silently and majestically into the port directly behind them.
So I would say that RSPB Belfast Lough has to be our city's best kept secret. Go and see it, even if it's just on your way to Ikea or Homebase.
It's an instant antidote, free of charge, to all your problems and it's right there on your doorstep.