Sunday 5th April
Now how much fun can one have at an RSPB reserve? Answer a lot! I'd got up early and cycled, after a breakfast seated at the table with two young Germans from Bremen, To Belfast Lough RSPB reserve. A new visitor's centre greeted me as did a delightful Polish girl named Monika. Once inside I met Heather and Hilda and they were soon joined by Pete and Pamela. No Chris, the warden. It was his day off and gutted as I was that he was not there, as I had had a brilliant time with him last time back in 2010, there was nothing to be done about that and so we all had a good natter, a coffee and a look at the birds. Monika went out to the front of the centre and put out a lot of corn. This brought in around 50 black-tailed godwits, many in summer plumage. They were so close. Brilliant. I don't know of any other RSPB reserve where you can see so many of these wonderful birds just yards in front of you.
As high tide approached I searched through the gull flock as Monika reported that there had been a glaucous gull present during the week. No glaucous but I did find a sandwich tern, the first tern the reserve had had this year. A new bird for the year list. Number 177.
Another birder found a second year Mediterranean gull, a few black spots on the primaries and a not bright red enough bill.
A family arrived and I gave my camera to the children to take some photos. Blow me if both Mum and son, Scott proceed to take brilliant photographs of the godwits!
Other than the birds we all had a lot of fun and I would advise anyone in the Belfast area to visit the reserve.
Monday 6th April
Having cycled the Greenway from Belfast to Castle Espie the evening before, and after having camped beside the scenic Strangford Lough with a stunningly Turneresque sunset, I arrived at Castle Espie WWT reserve just before opening time.
Immediately met by the tall and beautiful Sarah, the manager; photographs were taken with the bike and the staff and breakfast followed. There can't be a better view from a nature reserve cafe than the one here at Castle Espie. With a blue sky and views over to Strabo, the Rapunzel-like tower atop a hill to the east, the view is superb and the red-breasted and rooss' geese added to the scene.
Easter Monday and fun of a different sort to yesterday. Today was hunt the Easter Bunny, a not too difficult task meant for children but I had to win a lolly! Cryptic clues led to each of the 3 feet tall bunnies subtly hidden around the reserve. I collected my clue sheet and pencil from a wonderful member of the WWT staff, Audrey and set off on the hunt.
Number one was beside a large stand of pampas grass in the bird feeding areas, number 2 beneath a bridge. The laughter and enjoyment of hundreds of kids with their families was great to see and so what if the WWT choose to engage children in such a way, with the emphasis on families, I for one applaud them. Get the families and kids to enjoy being outside instead of being in a box watching a box.
Of course it is a nature reserve as well and at the first hide there was a black-tailed godwit with 4 colour rings on, two on each leg. That was on a man-made scrape. Out over the lough from the same hide there were a good number of pale-bellied brent geese and 8 whooper swans, both remnant flocks from much larger numbers in the winter. Castle Espie has over 35,000 pale-bellied brents in winter, Now that would be both a spectacular sight and sound.
Through the stone age area with it's beautifully made stone age house, it was full of people enjoying a story-telling session and a queue outside showed how popular this attraction was.
Back in 2010 I was given a real middle stone age flint arrowhead. I ended up keeping it for all of 6 days. A wonderful family, the Irwins from Portadown, put me up for the night. This was after they'd met me at Oxford Island where an American ring-necked drake was on the immense Lough Neagh. They had gone home from there and brought me a picnic! Anyway I stayed with them 2 days later after visiting Portmore Lough and their young son was fascinated by the arrowhead. I gave it to him. I'd always wanted such a relic and here I was giving it away. You never know though, spark a child's interest and where could that lead. Much more important than me having it in a box or pocket.Over to a beautiful new since my last visit glass box atop a hill. With a terrace outside and superb views over the Lough, Inside there was a long queue of children waiting to have their faces painted. I had wanted mine to be done but instead I counted the geese. There were over 150. The tide was rapidly coming in and the geese were along the water's edge.
More bunnies found, I moved the factory into position and looked into the chimney base.Up into the woodland area with it's playground facilities covered with children, the area I wanted to explore was unfortunately cut off for development purposes, a new attraction for this superb place.
Along the path with masses of wood anemones, little grebes on the lake and back to the centre to claim my prize for having found all Easter bunnies, a lollipop soon given away to a child making an Easter bunny for herself with one of the staff, Bayley.
A fabulous lunch of broccoli and chicken bake taken from the cafe with the superb views and around the reserve again as the crowds left in the late afternoon.A thoroughly lovely day. I have always thought that one of the best sounds in the world is that of children's laughter and there had been plenty of that. Lots of families playing together and lots of money going towards the WWT's conservation work. Brilliant.
Now that the clock's have gone to British Summer Time and it stays light until 9.00pm, I have the opportunity to have a full day's birding then get the cycling done later on. Tonight I cycled past Lurgen and after the sun had gone down, find a place to camp that follows my rules.1. No one can see me in my tent.
2. No one can tell I was ever there after I have left the next day.
Now I had a problem with the later because I had been enjoying the cycling so much it was almost dark when I found a place that followed the first rule. I had found a woodland and quickly found a small glade in which to set up the tent. Only problem was, it was full of wild garlic flowers and even I could smell them as I crushed the plants! Oh well, needs must.
Tuesday 7th April.
It didn't take long to get to Portmore Lough RSPB reserve in the morning; another morning of blue sky, sunshine and no wind. Three days in Northern Ireland and I had hardly seen a cloud! I was being extremely lucky with the weather!An Irish hare in a field just by the entrance, a new mammal for the mammal year list as it is related to the mountain hare and not the common variety.
Straight through the gates and instead of the straight ahead stare as last time, I met a face I remembered from the that visit. Laura had been a volunteer here back in 2010. Now she was the warden.“You won't remember me.” she said. I did. She had fallen into the lough when we last met as she pushed the boat that I was in out over the water.
I also remembered the rather pneumatic girl noisily engaged in some sort of energetic, frantic sporting activity on the front seat of a small car and the small man beneath her submerged in her ampleness!
I had just cycled onto the car park late in the evening to be confronted with this sight and had a choice; do I stop to enjoy the free show or cycle past as if nothing was going on. I looked straight ahead and cycled past. It wasn't to be the last time I came across such a display but the funnier one I'll tell you about that time when I come to that part of the world. One clue, it involved a broken glass and a bottle of red wine.
Into the new wooden building where I had camped before and into the office to meet 4 lovely young girls. Now how come it hadn't been like this when I had been on residential RSPB reserves when I was their age. Instead back in the 1970s I had been with a group of all boys at each reserve I volunteered at. Life can be cruel!
Coffee and chat and then out to bird watch. I thought I caught site of a little egret, a very rare bird for the reserve for this time of year but waiting for it to come out of the distance ditch for half an hour didn't give any more views. What were a lot easier to see were the tree sparrows and a lot of them there were too. One of my favourite birds, they were everywhere when I was a young man but now so few are left.
Down the extended broadwalk past many tree sparrow nesting boxes and down to the hide with a Swarowski telescope lent to me by Laura. The views over the almost perfectly circular and huge lough were beautiful with it's blue waters reflecting the blue sky. 2 whooper swans were amongst the commoner mutes and lots of great crested grebes with flocks of the commoner ducks. Visitors came and went and I enjoyed a couple of hours peacefully watching the scene.
Back up to the office, I was going to explore the field edges. Instead I spent the rest of the afternoon cutting the grass around the picnic benches and pathways. This freed up the girl to count the lapwings, over 80 of them. Lapwings not girls.So I had been at Portmore Lough and done work on the reserve again. Back in 2010 I had helped put branches into the lough's mud for the terns to roost on, had assisted with the creation of a ramp way for small tern chicks to climb onto when they had fallen off the tern breeding platforms and had driven the caterpillar tracked vehicle to access the marshy areas where Connix ponies grazed. I had also met Mr Poots, the Northern Ireland Environment minister and his daughter on that previous visit. She had wanted to come and see the ponies.
One last thing about Portmore Lough and something that I think is amazing despite the fact that almost no one knows about it, especially the local people I asked. Portmore Lough, so the theory goes that seems to fit all the data, was made about 1500 years ago by a Men in Black. Superman-like meteorite strike! Yes, this huge circular water-filled hole was made by an air burst meteor. Now if this had happened in England I feel there would be more fuss about it than over here in Northern Ireland. After all it is about the same size as the famous Arizona meteor crater.It's not every day you visit a meteorite crater.
Leaving the reserve after I had booked a night's accommodation at a 29 miles away B and B at 5.30pm, I was a little worried that I might not get there before dark at 9.00pm. I arrived at a superb B and B at 8.00pm despite having a gear problem on the way. Go Gary!
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