Guest blog by Katie Gibb, RSPB NI’s Conservation Officer for the Antrim Plateau

I have always considered myself a waterfowl biologist. Duck was my first word (it is, of course, a family joke that my parents misheard me!)
My obsession for them guided me towards a career in ornithology. My master’s thesis was centred around them, and at two different universities I have managed to get the title of ‘resident duck nut’. However, after moving to the UK last year, I eagerly started hunting for jobs, applying for anything to get my foot in the very competitive ornithology door. In the dead of the winter, between fossil hunting excursions in the Jurassic coast of the north of England, I came across the job of RSPB research assistant in Glenwherry in Co Antrim.

The position was part of the Curlew Trial Management Project, which involves looking into habitat management to help combat the massive decline in curlew numbers throughout the UK. This priority species has seen an 82% decline in Northern Ireland since 1987.
Having been supervised by a professor obsessed with waders, I had absorbed an affection for and knowledge of these birds. So - with no ducks in sight - I applied and I got the job. So I was off on a boat to Northern Ireland!
It was a particularly exciting role to get as I’d never been on the island of Ireland before.

To say that Northern Ireland is similar to New Zealand feels like a bit of an oxymoron. However, thanks to the colonization spirit of the 20th century acclimatization societies of New Zealand, many of NI’s birds, rolling farmland hills and their inhabitants were beyond familiar.
I felt right at home very quickly and the farmers always had a ready cup of tea on offer!
In the six months I was posted in the Antrim Hills from March to September, I fell little by little in love with the land, the wildlife, and its people. Having hundreds of mini adventures within this field site did nothing but further my endearment. One highlight was finding hotspots of the rare Glenwherry beetle Carabus clatratus (below), once thought locally extinct until this project increased surveys.

I was also overjoyed to see a male hen harrier’s spectacular sky dance. Another simple pleasure was finding my favourite lunch spot (below), high in the heather in the shadow of Slemish with a view of Scotland, where I could watch merlins and kestrels hunt.
The curlew itself - the whole reason I was there - won me over instantly. With their amazing display flights over territories coupled with the echoing call which rang throughout my morning surveys, their frustratingly wonderful cryptic behaviour which resulted in me observing pairs for hours to work out what they were up to, to my conditioned excitement in reply to their ‘yak, yak’ call which signified hatch. Sadly, I also had to watching as some nests and chicks were lost to the elements and predation.

I have been travelling season to season for most of my career, moving from one research project to the next; from hatching and chasing kiwis throughout New Zealand, observing auklets in Alaska, re-establishing populations of scarlet macaws in Mexico, observing eastern loggerhead shrikes impale mice and snakes on their killing hawthorn trees in Canada, to monitoring pollution within New Zealand waterfowl species, to the curlew.
Although these projects at their surface appear so different, the underlining patterns are always the same. Humans have changed and modified the environment to their needs at the expense of other species. And therefore, it was the response of many of the farmers and landowners which surprised and delighted me most within the Glenwherry site.
They knew the pairs that returned year after year to their lands, could give me detailed accounts of not only curlews, but many bird species breeding on their land. Marking nests, changing silage cutting dates or stock rotation so these birds had a fighting chance.

These farmers, who have worked passionately with Senior Conservation Officer Neal Warnock (pictured alongside me, above) and RSPB NI for years to combat the decline of their wading birds, welcomed me with open arms (and often cakes).
They completely inspired me and made my season an absolute adventure and joy even with the disappointing survival rates for some bird species and, of course, in spite of the distinct lack of ducks!

* Katie Gibb will take up her new full-time role as RSPB NI’s Conservation Officer for the Antrim Plateau later this month

Photos by Katie Gibb, except curlew pic by Neal Warnock. Photos taken under licence.