Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 20 August 2014

My bucket list boat trip was incredible

Frances Burscough
Frances Burscough

Never in my life have I witnessed such a chaotic hive of activity Everyone these days has a “bucket list”. In case you haven't heard the phrase before, this is a number of personal ambitions you hope to experience before you get too old, or kick the bucket, to put it more bluntly; which is where the term came from originally.

Well, on my bucket list there is a nerdy sub-category: a list of birds I want to see in my lifetime.

As a lifelong birdwatcher, I have a list as long as your arm of all the different species I've spotted over the years. But, still, a lot have eluded me.

Naturally, these include some of the rarer migratory blow-ins, such as waxwings, that appear from time to time in the British Isles. There's also the shy retiring types, such as the bittern and the osprey, which you have to stalk from a distance.

But there's one species which is neither shy nor rare that is at the very top of my birdy bucket list. It is, in fact, so plentiful that it nests and breeds in vast noisy colonies. That bird is the puffin.

To see any bird you have to be in the right place at the right time. In the case of a puffin, the right place is usually a grassy shelf on a steep rocky cliff face above the sea, which explains why I'd never seen one before. You need a boat, which, sadly, I don't have (that's also on my bucket list).

I'd heard of trips going out to Rathlin Island (where they breed) and so doing that had been added to my list, where it had remained un-ticked for years. I didn't know of anywhere closer.

But then, last week, I chanced upon a boat trip, leaving from my own hometown of Bangor, which was heading around the coast in search of puffins. Apparently, they'd been spotted at Gobbins Head near Larne. As the crow flies, that's just over 10 kilometres from my house. Would I like to go along? Abso-flippin-lutely.

It turned out to be the most exciting and fruitful birdwatching expedition of my life.

The organiser was Dot Blakely, the birdwatching tutor (my dream job.

Who knew there was such a thing? Another one for the list ...), who had hired Bangor Boat Company to bring her and her group out on this special nautical field trip.

The weather conditions were just perfect, the sky was clear but for a few fluffy clouds and the sea was almost mill-pond calm as we set out from the marina onboard the good ship Blue Aquarius.

Even if we hadn't seen a single bird worthy of note it would have been a memorable trip, simply for the picture-perfect views around the bay on such a clear evening.

But down to business: the birds. So far, our cross-channel tally had included black guillemots (the speciality of Bangor Bay) scooting along the surface of the water, sandwich terns, common terns, gannets and all the types of gulls.

And then, as we approached the peninsular of Islandmagee, a pair of fulmars swirled around us overhead and it was clear that we were approaching some serious birdwatching terrain.

But nothing could have prepared us for the sights and sounds which greeted us as we rounded the bend that revealed the crags and caves of Gobbins Head.

Literally thousands upon thousands of seabirds, diving, zooming, squabbling, fighting, launching, splashing, leaping and soaring in every direction, from every direction. It was incredible, absolutely incredible.

Cormorants, shearwaters, kittiwakes, razorbills, shags (ooh, matron), fulmars, arctic terns ... never in my life have I witnessed such a chaotic hive of activity. I was half-expecting to see David Attenborough, or Bill Oddie, crouching on a ledge, whispering into a microphone about nesting habits. It really was like a scene from National Geographic.

And then I saw them, huddled together on a grassy ridge. Puffins. Hundreds of colourful, comical puffins, waddling back and forth, fussing around their nests and their chicks one minute, then suddenly diving off the edge and plunging into the cold sea below in search of eels and small fry for their supper.

What a sight. What a memory. Utterly breathtaking — and not an hour from Belfast harbour.

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