Monday, 10 February 2014

PatchChat: James O'Neill on Lough Neagh

Winter birding on south Lough Neagh

Before I was introduced to Next Gen Birders in September 2013 by the illustrious Jonnie Fisk (-you're making me blush James-JF), I had always been interested in birds in a way – I would often go out birding and on the occasional twitch – but my main passion was for invertebrates, especially Lepidoptera, Orthoptera, Odonata and Hymenoptera*. Admittedly there isn't much to do with these in the winter. However, very quickly after becoming acquainted with the young birding crowd of the UK (and further afield), I began to get into birding in a more serious way. I learned the new terminology (some of which is still highly confusing – what is a toilet duck?), have been developing my ID skills, and the birding craic is ninety. I even joined Birdtrack and am inputting lists and records when I can.

One of the concepts I have become familiar with is the idea of having a patch; a local area or site into which a birder concentrates his efforts. I liked this idea, and, having plenty of suitable birding sites near me, proceeded to define the borders of my new patch. I’m still a bit undecided about a couple of places, but it’s more or less the stretch of the south shore of Lough Neagh from Bannfoot in the west to Oxford Island in the east, plus however far I can see a bird offshore. It’s a reasonably large area but easily doable in one day, especially when, like me, you mostly use a bicycle to get about #ecobirder!

Most of you from Great Britain aren't familiar with Northern Ireland in any way, let alone Lough Neagh and my specific birding spots. So I’m here to fill you in a little. Lough Neagh is the largest freshwater body in the British Isles, has a surface area of 383 square km, a mean depth of 8.5 metres, and supports a rich biodiversity, including the endemic dollaghan (a brown trout variety) and pollan fishes, eels, salmon, waterfowl, aquatic insect life, and reedbed, wet meadow and wet woodland habitats. The diversity is partly a result of one of the most important species found in the lough – the Chironomid midges, or known locally as the Neagh flies. These breed in the shallow waters along the shores, providing food en masse for fishes, birds and insects alike. When they hatch as adults in the spring, they are so numerous that they create enormous plumes into the air, and swarm everything and anything. Spiders’ webs collapse under the weight. Swallows can’t fly because they are too fat. Take my word for it. It’s proper crazy.

Since I only started properly patching in January 2014, I have compiled only a modest list since then. Right now it stands on 73 but that should grow over the year. A large number of species can be found at Oxford Island, near the south-east of the Lough. This is a wonderful peninsula protruding into Neagh, designated as a council nature reserve, and features native woodland, swamp, wildflower meadow, reedbed and a vistor centre. The woodland is excellent for small birds, many of which are so tame that they happily come onto your hand for food. Many times I have walked into the forest with my scope and camera and been immediately attacked by a gang of great tits demanding sunflower seeds. They aren't too particular where they poo, least it makes them easy to photograph. Bullfinches are a constant delight here, as are treecreepers, siskins and the odd glimpse of a sparrowhawk heralded by shouting blue tits.

The reedbeds along the shore and in the bays are important for coots, great crested grebes and little grebes, all of which winter in reasonably high numbers here – except for coots which are present in very large numbers. Kingfishers squabble as they chase each other up and down, and occasionally an otter will appear. Starlings murmurate every evening, roosting in the reeds, while the occasional marsh or hen harrier can be seen quartering over the beds – in fact the first pair of marsh harriers nested in NI a couple of years ago – yay!

In the sheltered Kinnego and Closet bays to either side of Oxford Island, large numbers of diving ducks will collect to roost and feed, mostly pochard and tufted duck. Lough Neagh is an internationally important wintering ground for ducks of all kinds, with an estimated number of 40,000 birds at any one time in the winter (admittedly, this number has suffered an unfortunate decrease from 100,000 birds in 1990). They mostly consist of tufted duck, pochard, scaup, and goldeneye with smaller numbers of teal, mallard, wigeon and gadwall. While the bays are popular with some ducks, others prefer to stay offshore. scaup, goldeneye and pochard form massive rafts off Ardmore point and Bannfoot, numbering well into their thousands. It’s a proper spectacle when they all take flight as a peregrine flies over! 

Moving west from Oxford Island, we come to Ardmore and Reedy flats. These are exposed shorelines with no reedbed cover and the meadow simply disappears into the Lough. Offshore there are always a good few goldeneye, grebes and tufted duck. However, it is the wet meadow which is of interest here. Large numbers of greylag geese graze, usually with a pinkfoot thrown in here and there. Wigeon join them, while teal remain in the vegetation by the shore, giving away their presence with their cute little whistles. Whooper swans, while being more common inland, during the day, on more fertile pastures, are also frequent, and also roost on the Lough. Thousands of golden plover mixed with lapwing, joined by smaller numbers of curlew, snipe and passage redshank, dunlin and black-tailed godwit, feed on the abundant prey in the muddy fields which are more often covered in water than not. Gulls, which never stay around for too long, are usually black-headed, with the occasional black-backed, herring and common.

Slightly inland, there are a number of stubble fields and flaxfields. These are excellent for large numbers of linnet, chaffinch, tree sparrow, yellowhammer, reed bunting and pheasants. With the number of small birds, it is no surprising to see sparrowhawks, kestrels, buzzards and merlins regularly making an appearance – indeed I saw all these species within an hour!

As far as rarities are concerned, there are usually one or two around. There has been an american wigeon present at Reedy flat for the last couple of months, and a ring-necked duck at Oxford Island (which I dipped). A glossy ibis, rare for NI, has also been seen at Kinnegoe, but it dodged me 4 times and seems to have gone  – I’m seething at the awesome pics some people have of it.

So there you have it. A brief (OK, maybe not so brief) description of the birdlife to be found in winter along the south shore of Lough Neagh. A whole different cast of characters come into play in the summer, not least the invertebrates, but that’s another story for another day.

(* For those of a non-insecty nature: Lepidoptera = butterflies/moths, Orthoptera = grasshoppers/crickets, Odonata = dragonflies/damselflies, Hymenoptera = bees/wasps/sawflies/ants)

-James O'Neill
Hailing from Norn Iron (that's Northern Ireland to you), James, 18, is interested in most branches of nature, especially fish, invertebrates and birds. A wildlife artist and, more recently, photographer, he likes nothing more than to spend a sunny day out at his patch, Lough Neagh, with his scope and camera. He enjoys travelling and aims to visit every region of the world to suss out its plethora of wildlife.

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