The woods, meadows, wetlands, parks and farms along the Lagan are alive with wildlife.
The incredible variety includes many of the most endangered birds in the UK and Ireland. We're working to protect these birds and other wildlife to prevent further declines and make the Park a safe place for them to feed and breed.
Read more about our project
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
ALL PHOTOS FROM THE RSPB
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.
...because they’re good to us!
For bats, March
is the cruelest month. What makes
it so tricky are the fluctuating temperatures. A warm mild spell like we had last week can coax bats out of
hibernation to feed on the midges and other small insects that balmier days
bring forth. But when frost returns,
the midges vanish, and the early risers are left vulnerable, hungry and exposed.
are depleted after the long winter without food. And bats need a lot of food. During flight their heart rate reaches 1000 beats per
minute. So their energy
requirements are huge – a small bat can eat up to 3000 midges in a single night. Two or three days without
food can deplete all of a bat's energy; the bat will be too weak to return to its roost and further
sleep. Sometimes with fatal results. So the recent frosty nights
and warm days are perilous, and the danger won’t pass until the weather settles. But many bats have already emerged, so
now is the time to keep an eye out for any in trouble.
Pest control comes naturally to bats
If you see a bat
in difficulties on a garden wall or grounded, don’t try to nurse it back to
health yourself. Bats need
specialist care. Contact The Bat
Group, then lift the bat gently (using a cloth, not your bare hands), place in
a box with holes in the lid. Put a
jar lid of water in the box, close the lid, keep the box in a cool place like a
garage or shed. A bat expert will
come to the rescue and restore the bat with a diet of mealworms. Robin Moffitt of The Bat Group tells me
she is currently caring for 9 bats; to be freed, she hopes, later this month. The numbers could rise if the weather stays this cold. Their
website is full of amazing bat information and photos and provides contact
details plus an information sheet on what to do if you find a grounded, injured
or orphaned bat.
Robin Moffitt - 028 9185 2239
Donna Allen - 0790 2929 368 (mobile)
Lynne Rendle - 028 9039 5264 (office hours only)
Mid/West Ulster and Donegal: Karen Healy - 028 7136 3133 (office hours) or
Be glad you’ve got a bat
If bats have
chosen to roost near you, happy days!
Bats are ideal tenants on anyone’s property. Unlike mice, bats are clean, don’t multiply exponentially,
rarely roost indoors, and provide a useful purpose, being natural pestkillers.
creatures that feed on insects, bats’ preferred roosts are in trees. However man has felled so many trees
over the years, what can bats do but find homes in manmade structures? Over the winter bats prefer cool spots
to hang out and sleep – old buildings, barns, ruins, tall trees. But if conditions get too cold, they
may wake and seek out slightly warmer shelters. And in spring, search for a summer roost and nursery.
include under slates, tucked along the side of a sash window, under flashings,
in and around chimneys, in crevices in pointing, under eaves, apexes and
soffits. If there is a niche the
size of a finger, bats can use it for a roost. And, contrary to the stories, bats in the attic are rare
exceptions and new houses are often popular choices.
Bats do no harm
to the structure, do not bring food into their roosts, don’t like clutter or
cobwebs and only have one offspring each summer (and not every year at
that). They are social but not
noisy or disruptive. You may hear the females chittering on a warm summer
brilliant for keeping down insect populations in gardens. Midges, moth larvae,
mosquitoes are all gobbled up in their thousands. In fact farmers actively
encourage bat activity – in the US bat boxes are a common feature of
farms. And bats help propagate the
Well roosted - LVRP Volunteers put up bat boxes in the Park
protected by law in Northern Ireland, meaning they and their roosts cannot be
disturbed at any time no matter where they are. If you are planning any
exterior work on your house, be sure to get a bat survey first. If bats are
discovered during building work, by law, all activity must stop until your
builder has taken advice from the Northern Ireland Environment Agency. So it’s best to be sure beforehand.
You know you have
bats – beyond the obvious signs like seeing them flying in your garden at dusk
or their chitterings - by small mouse-like droppings on window ledges and
brickwork, or faint traces of urine on your window ledges.
The Bat Group has
all the information you need about building legislation to protect this
Now in flight
has 8 species of these tiny nocturnal mammals. And along the Lagan is a good place to spot many of them
just as it begins to get dark. Our largest is the Leisler’s Bat. Ireland is the last stronghold for this
bat and numbers have dropped. The
population is smaller than we thought it was. Look out for this high flyer above the tree line. In contrast, the Daubentons Bat skims
across the water surface.
*Illustration by Chris Shields provided by the RSPB. Photo from the LVRP.