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My island idyll to see the precious puffins

By Frances Burscough

Published 14/05/2016

Frances Burscough
Frances Burscough

I had an amazing experience last week, which I’ve been dying to tell you about ever since. I finally got to spend a day on Rathlin Island, something I’ve wanted to do ever since I moved to Northern Ireland 20-odd years ago. And I have to say it was worth the long wait. In fact, it may very well prove to be one of the most memorable days I’ve ever had.

I went as part of a birdwatching field trip with the RSPB, where I work as a volunteer. The organisation has just re-opened their Seabird Centre there, so our mission was to check out the new facilities as well as do a whistlestop tour of the island and view its incredibly

diverse variety of wildlife. To accompany me on this trip of a lifetime was a team of Northern Ireland’s most knowledgeable naturalists (try saying that when you’re drunk!) including the bird experts Dot Blakely and Clive Mellon and the botanist Deirdre Cooper, so I really was in the best company possible and absolutely in my element.

Fortunately we had a perfect day for it, too, with very little wind and a misty blue sky. As we set off on the ferry from Ballycastle, the day’s tally of bird species began as Dot called them out one by one: “Starling, jackdaw, house sparrow, magpie ...” I had a feeling the list was going to get more exciting very soon. And it did. No sooner were we off on our short voyage than the seabirds began to appear. “Gannets – lots of them! Black guillemot, common guillemot, cormorant ... ” This was going to be an amazing day!

Upon arrival at the picturesque harbour we were greeted by our brilliant tour guide, Liam McFaul — who’s lived on the island all his life and knows every inch like the back of his hand. Also among the greeting party were a herd of seals — dozens of them — sunning themselves lazily on the rocks or popping their heads up briefly from the water to see what was causing the wake. From there we were taken for a bracing walk over the headland towards the east lighthouse, during which we added turnstone, sandpiper, wheatear, stonechat, rock pipit, grey wagtail, buzzard, merlin and every imaginable gull to our ever-growing list. However, at that stage of the proceedings it was the gigantic ravens, nesting on the jagged cliff face, that caused the greatest stir among my birding buddies.        

From there it was on to the main event of the day — a visit to the RSPB Seabird Centre, which simply has to be seen to be believed. This is

situated in the most spectacular spot, in between huge jagged stacks that look like the handiwork of  the mythological giant Finn McCool; overlooking the ocean with Donegal, Islay, Jura, the Hebrides and the Mull of Kintyre all lined up on the horizon. That panorama in itself would make it worth the trip, but the place was literally teeming with  thousands upon thousands of seabirds, all diving, zooming, squabbling, fighting, launching, splashing, leaping and soaring in every direction, from every direction. It was incredible, absolutely incredible — not just the sight, but the sound caused by this colossal colony all squawking, squealing and chattering at once. 

There we added shearwaters, kittiwakes, razorbills, shags, fulmars, great skua and the piece de resistance: Rathlin’s own nesting puffins, possibly the most fascinating and distinctive birds in the British Isles and certainly one of the most popular species in the world. We were lucky to see them because they were only just arriving that week from north Atlantic, where they stay over the winter months.

So my day was just about complete, although I would have been chuffed to see a chough, too, but it was a bit too early in the year for them.

Regrettably, our visit came to an end and, thanks to the expertise of my fellow twitchers, we amassed a total of 55 species in just one afternoon. 

Post Script: Since then, another bird has been spotted on Rathlin — the elusive and endangered corncrake (as reported in Tuesday’s Belfast Telegraph) so there’s my excuse to go back again!

Belfast Telegraph

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