More than one year on from my New Year’s resolution of 2015, it’s still going strong and is something I’m very proud of. The plan was to become involved in wildlife conservation in some way or another and so, after doing some research into the options available and making some enquiries locally, last January I joined the team of volunteers at RSPB.
As a result I have spent the past year working one day per week as a Visitor Engagement Officer at the RSPB reserve at Belfast Harbour Estate — also known as the Window on Wildlife, or WOW — and I really love it.
I find it deeply rewarding for a number of reasons. For a start, my role is to greet and welcome visitors to the observatory, to show them around the building, to point out all the facilities and to answer any questions they may have. Enthusiasts of any kind like nothing better than to meet new people and to share their knowledge and experiences with an eager audience, and so for that reason alone it is worthwhile. I also love working alongside fellow wildlife lovers of all walks of life and the camaraderie and craic that exists between us as we watch the waterways and scan the skies for new signs of life. One slightly more selfish bonus is that I get plenty of time in between greeting visitors to practise and indulge in my favourite lifelong hobby of birdwatching, in one of the most favourable and fascinating environments in the country. Although the harbour reserve is slap-bang in the middle of one of the busiest ports and industrial estates in the UK, the scope for wildlife sightings there is truly incredible. From one week to the next, we never know what each day will bring.
Last Friday was a perfect example. The reserve’s centre overlooks a large and vibrant freshwater lagoon, fringed by reed beds, mudflats and grassy banks. The weather was a typical January day, with icy rain pelting against the panoramic windows, dark clouds looming from across Belfast Hills and strong, biting wind blowing a wake across the lough strong enough to rock the gigantic Stena ferry moored at its berth directly opposite. Most of the multitude of water birds, the assorted ducks, geese, gulls, waders and divers were sheltering under their wings, huddled together in tight flocks taking whatever scant shelter they could from reeds and grasses dotted along the shoreline. It was a bleak scene alright, but still there were plenty of species for a keen naturalist to identify and observe.
However, at the front of the building, at the south-facing entrance, it was a different story altogether. The cold sun had emerged from behind the clouds, sending a shaft of light down onto the tree-lined path. As I was sitting at the till awaiting visitors, watching the seed feeders hanging from the trees, a flock of small birds landed in a twittering mass. Closer inspection (I had to move slowly, so as not to disturb them) revealed that this was no ordinary flock of common-or-garden sparrows or starlings. It was a multicoloured mix of finches — siskins (lime green, yellow and black), greenfinches (yellow-green and beige), chaffinches (rusty red, black, brown and white) goldfinches (scarlet, yellow, black and white) and redpolls (dusky pink, ruby red and mottled brown). What a sight they were, all flitting and darting back and forth in a blaze of colour.
Now bear in mind that this wasn’t in the centre of a forest or a hedgerow on an idyllic rural country lane. This was Airport Road West, one of the busiest arterial routes through the industrial heartland of Belfast. All it had taken was a strategically-placed hanger filled with sunflower seed kernels to attract these beauties from their normal habitat into the city. Attracting birds is easy, no matter where you live. If you too are as enthusiastic about nature as we are, why not join in with the world’s largest wildlife survey — the Big Garden Birdwatch – which is taking place on the weekend of January 30? For information and a free starter pack, log on to RSPB website or, even better, come and talk to me at Belfast’s Window on Wildlife!