As temperatures plummet and the days darken it can be tempting to nestle down indoors and dream of sunnier times ahead.
But as the weather changes and the leaves sport stunning shades of russet and gold, our Portmore Lough nature reserve outside Aghalee, County Antrim is at its most magical.
Winter migrants are on their way, including goldeneye ducks from Russia and redwings from Scandinavia. Last year the first whooper swans from Iceland touched down on 7 October so we’re excitedly awaiting their return!
It’s also a great time to raptor-watch on the reserve, as young buzzards soar overhead, hen harriers begin expanding their range and sparrowhawks race though the tree cover to pluck an unsuspecting bird off one of the feeders.
Stand on the raised viewing platform an hour before dusk to experience huge starling flocks, known as murmurations, whoosh overhead and from all angles heading for the Lough. Even after the display has finished you can hear the raucous noise generated by their conversations reverberating out of the reedbed until dark!
The Irish hares have produced lots of leverets this year, thanks to the (some!) sunny weather promoting plenty of tasty sweet grass growth and the badgers are busy cleaning their bedroom chambers and snuffling through the meadows for tasty meals. They can be seen late in the evening wandering their well beaten paths under the viewing platform.
Although there are not many flowers in bloom during autumn it is the best time of year to see fungi. The mushrooms and toadstools you see poking up through the leaf litter and on dead wood are the fruiting bodies. You can spot dung fungi on the meadows, growing up through the konik pony poo, jelly ear fungus dangling like old men’s ears off trees in the woodland and lots of different varieties of bracket and unidentified fungi too!
If that wasn't enough to entice you, just take a look at this gorgeous photo and start planning your visit now at www.rspb.org.uk/portmorelough!
Whooper swan and geese at dusk at Portmore Lough. Photo credit Amy Burns.
Driving home from a lovely stroll along the Lagan towpath the other day I noticed a sure sign that summer is nearing an end.
Perched neatly on a telephone wire (like this little fellow) were about a dozen swallows, almost as if they were queuing for their long journey back to warmer climes!
By this time of year our swifts have already departed for the southern hemisphere, a mammoth 6,000 mile journey during which they will never touch the ground – it’s little wonder their Latin name Apus Apus translates as ‘without feet’.
However, depending on the weather, swallows (and house martins) tend to hang on into September or even October.
But when they do take flight to Africa, they can cover around 200 miles a day and reach speeds of up to 35 miles per hour!
Sadly, these amazing birds are now amber-listed (of medium conservation concern) in the UK and Ireland. It’s thought changeable weather conditions, as well as factors like modern agricultural practices, have affected populations right across Europe.
But as we bid farewell to summer visitors like swallows, it won’t be long until they are replaced by winged wonders from the north, like whooper swans from Iceland and goldeneye ducks from Russia.
For me, one perk of the darker days and tumbling temperatures is the whirling, swirling flocks of starlings which take to the sky at dusk – their numbers boosted by migrant birds from the continent. The Albert Bridge in Belfast is one of the best places to spot a ‘murmuration’ and the sight certainly makes rush-hour traffic much more pleasant!
Our reserves are great places to watch wildlife all year round – visit www.rspb.org.uk/northernireland to find a haven for nature near you.
Craic, ceol agus caomhnú (fun, music and conservation)
On Saturday 8 August, we, along with 170 other people, pitched our tents for the most westerly Big Wild Sleepout in the UK.
The setting for this magical night was the Ulster American Folk Park, where the journey of Irish emigrants from Ireland to America is brought to life. Campers were given exclusive access to the museum after hours to pitch up and enjoy a night under the stars with the RSPB.
From a 3D space show with the NI Space Centre to a batastic night time bat walk with the Northern Ireland Bat Group there was something there for everyone! We hunted for minibeasts, went on a nature trail with Omagh and Strabane Council, made popcorn over the campfire with Cotswold Outdoors, and learned all about where our food comes from with White’s Oats (while trying some tasty samples as well). Phew!
Campers also had the chance to enjoy a yummy BBQ with hotdogs, burgers and soft drinks, while enjoying the sounds from a traditional Irish fiddler and accordion player from the All-Ireland winning Knockmore Ceile band.
As the sun set, we gathered round the campfire and toasted our marshmallows, before some very tired campers headed off to their tents for a good night’s sleep (in some spectacular tents!).
The event was the third Big Wild Sleepout event held here in Northern Ireland – two weeks earlier we had pitched up at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum for even more fun!
We’re very grateful to our partners – Cotswold Outdoors, National Museums Northern Ireland, and White’s Oats, as well as our team of fantastic volunteers (which included some incredible Girl Guides!) for helping us make this event happen, but the biggest thanks go to all our campers who by supporting the event, are helping to give nature a home here in Northern Ireland.
See you all again next year!