On the Lagan

Our work

Our work
You might be surprised to read that our work is far broader than nature reserves and Big Garden Birdwatch. Read more about what else we do.

On the Lagan

Find out what we're up to in the Lagan Valley Regional Park...
  • Stepping up for Corncrakes


    Not snap happy - a rare glimpse of a retiring bird

    Old timers, like my parents, have fond memories of corncrakes being a familiar sound in rural parts of Northern Ireland.  And as recently as a few decades ago, the fields along the Lagan would have resounded with their distinctive call. The RSPB has been working hard to bring these vanished farmland birds back.   Starting with Rathlin Island...

     Up until the 1950’s corncrakes were numerous in Northern Ireland – indeed this species was most at home in the northern and western areas of the British Isles.  But their numbers plummeted so sharply that by 1994, no breeding corncrakes were recorded here and only a few lonely birds have been sighted since. 

     Corncrakes are related to moorhens, coots and rails, but unlike their cousins, they’re dry land dwellers. These secretive birds spend their time in tall vegetation, hiding their bright chestnut wings and lanky red shanks very effectively.  Day or night, however, that rasping call gives them away. 


    'Crek! Crek!'   Translation: "I bags this nest site!"

    As summer visitors, corncrakes migrate each spring from Africa, arriving by mid April to nest and breed.  They depart by mid-August. 

    Primarily insect and seedeaters, corncrakes cannot survive without the cover provided by grasslands and meadows.  In spring, nettles and marshland plants like bog irises can provide essential early cover until meadow grasses grow tall enough to do the job.  These farmland birds also go for hay meadows and summer silage fields. Upon arrival, the males seek out a suitable habitat for breeding. Only when they find it do they start singing to attract mates. 

    The loss of this habitat is the primary reason corncrake numbers have fallen so sharply and rapidly in the 20th century.  Since 1970, these birds have suffered a 76% contraction in their range.  Between 1988 and 1991 numbers crashed by 80% in Northern Ireland.  At this rate, corncrakes would now be extinct in the British Isles, if conservation measures had not begun in 1992.    By 1993 - the lowest point -  there were only 480 breeding males left in the UK; their territory had diminished to remote outposts in the Hebrides and Orkneys.


    Coming soon to an island near you - we hope!

    The RSPB is working to encourage farmers to adopt Corncrake Friendly Mowing methods and to delay mowing until later in the season.  In addition, new areas of habitat are being created for corncrakes – as on Rathlin. 

     These programmes are working.  Across the UK, breeding males have more than doubled, to 1140 since 1993.


    Gimme shelter.  Making hay for corncrakes to hide in.

    Here in Northern Ireland, the RSPB has launched a new programme aimed at attracting corncrakes back to Rathlin Island.  Because corncrakes need early cover so they can hide and call for mates, hardy volunteers have spent December – March digging up nettle roots in places where they are abundant (my garden would be a good start) and transplanting them on Rathlin, where nettles are in short supply.   (Winter is the best time to dig up nettles and causes the least disturbance to birds too!)


    Hands-on habitat creation

    The nettles are planted in precise locations around the edges of hayfields to create “corncrake corridors”.  Now we just have to wait until spring and summer to see if this work gets the results everyone is hoping for. 


    Planting nettles is a pleasure...

    Patsy Harbinson from the RSPB, who has been ‘grasping the nettle’, is particularly grateful to the many volunteers who have Stepped Up for Corncrakes.  Next step: listening out for the dinstinctive crex crex call of these elusive birds and letting the RSPB know if you hear one. 

    We’re all looking forward to hearing this once distinctive sound of summer in the country.


    ...when the sun and the scenery are this gorgeous.

    To learn more about corncrakes visit ://www.rspb.org.uk/wildlife/birdguide/name/c/corncrake/index.aspx


    ...and when you're in the company of friends.   Now all we need are corncrakes!

    To get stuck in doing projects like this (among many others) for the RSPB, go to http://www.rspb.org.uk/community/getinvolved/volunteering/default.aspx





  • Happy St. Pat's from the Lagan Canal



    Winter migrant - Fieldfare says goodbye for another year.

    As birds switch gears from winter to spring, it’s all go in the hedgerows, wetlands, waters, trees and skies along the Lagan.  Now’s the time to see the last of the winter visitors disappear for a few months – to different countries, or just a different habitat as they get ready to mate, nest and breed. 

     All winter, lapwings have been content to hang out in the stubbly fields, grasslands and industrial sites along the river, but now they are starting to disperse to breeding sites elsewhere in Northern Ireland, as well as Scotland and Northern Europe. 

     Curlews and golden plovers are upping sticks, so this could be your last chance to catch a glimpse.  In this time of great movement, Arctic thrushes, fieldfares and redwings are starting to head back towards Scandinavia too.


    Prettier and less annoying to look at than a black backed gull.

    Soon the summer visitors will be arriving.  The earliest ‘tourists’ to flock here are not always the most welcome.  The lesser black backed bulls are on their way from the Med, so be warned.  These are the aggressive birds that nest on the tops of buildings and have been known to dive bomb people below having an innocent open-air snack.  So keep those chips covered. 

     Other, more popular summertime birds, such as house martins and swifts, will not be here until May. 

     But meanwhile, there’s plenty afoot with resident populations.  As the flocks associated with winter disperse, two’s now company – not thousands. That’s because birds such as starlings are changing focus from feeding and basic survival to finding a mate and a nest site.  And the pairing off makes some interesting viewing!


    'Just having a wee preen!'

    Check out this reality show!

    Seen along the Lagan:  the lads out in all their finery trying to pull a bird. No, it’s not an episode of Geordie Shore – it’s the wildlife, especially the waterfowl, looking their best and strutting their stuff for the laydeeez. 

     Turn off the telly and saunter on down to the Lagan and you’ll see the coots, moorhens and mallards are looking their best – flaunting their plumage and shaking their stuff (the mating boogie). Also the birds are getting very vocal now that the mornings are bright.   Herons are way ahead of the game – they are already breeding along the Lagan. 


    The guys may be getting tanned, toned and plucking their eyebrows on TOWIE, but they're amateurs compared to these grouse with their red hot eyeshadow and flashy tailfeathers.

    Early birds get the nest box

    Speaking of birds getting the jump on the mating and nesting season, serious ‘swift-ians’ are watching out for starlings trying to gazump swifts arriving back in search of their regular nesting boxes. 


    Maybe this is the year swifts come to stay at the RSPB headquarters, though in 2011 a family of great tits found the accommodation very much to their liking.  That's nature for you!

    Starlings are earlier starters than swifts and the most opportunistic can nab good nest boxes before the swifts have even left Africa on their long journey back here to breed.  Swifts only have until July to raise their families, so if they don’t get the opportunity to nest and lay eggs early, it could be a year lost.  Not good news when swifts have suffered such severe declines, mainly due to loss of suitable nesting places.   Already many swifts are returning from their epic journeys to find that favourite spots they have returned to year after year are gone for other reasons, such as modernisation of old buildings.

    Starlings are now sporting the yellow beaks which means they are in the mood for lurrrve.  So some swift followers who have the birds in residence year after year are taking pre-emptive action and blocking their boxes until the regular tenants arrive. 

    Starlings sometimes take up residence in swift boxes.

    You can do your bit to help swifts find a home at your home, by installing a nest box this spring and see if any of these high-flyers come calling.  They may only be checking out the site for next year, but if swifts show any interest, it could be a great start.  The RSPB website has loads of swift info as does saveourswifts.co.uk.