Step back in time 

It's February 1944, and a young John Bailey is looking out over the River Lagan. He can hear Corncrakes calling across the field, there are Reed Buntings hiding amongst the marshes and across the river, he can hear the song of the Yellowhammer. There are all the incredible sights and sounds that are noted over a span of several years by nature enthusiast and lifelong RSPB member John, whose daughter Clare discovered his journals locked away just before he died in 2022. 

John's journals are an incredible time capsule that document a time when nature was in abundance in Northern Ireland. It's a beautiful collection of stories, observations and descriptions of birdsong with personal drawings by John. From the curious mind of a child who fell in love with wildlife on his doorstep.  It's easy to forget when reading that it's 1944 and World War II is ongoing, and John is also battling his own grief after the loss of his mother

Image: The regulation note book that John used from his school to start his nature diaries

Dec 16 - 29 1944

"I have noticed recently that some bright feathers are appearing on the Chaffinches' wings, whether it is breeding plumage or not I do not like to say to say, but there has been a decided touch of spring in the air these last few days and birds are singing, especially the thrushes."

March 25 1943

Rare birds noticed (1)

"Curlew – Sandpiper In the summer of 1943 a Curlew – Sandpiper was noticed. It fed regularly among the flocks of Oyster Catchers that frequent at the Sand Dunes and Golf Links." 

"Along with other small birds. The snipe were fairly plentiful and at least one that I saw seem to be in “drumming" even though I could not hear it due to - I think - to the wind. It had its wings have fairly stiff and its tail spread and was diving fairly steeply. Further along I saw a swan flying along fairly fast at a height of 20 to 30 feet. At the Drum Lock I saw a Blue-tit fly across and cling to the perpendicular side of the lock. It seemed quite at home in this position even though the only possible foothole consisted of damp and slimy moss."

"On the way home I went into a field in Dunmurry Lane and saw a semi albino Blackbird. Other birds seen during the ride were Jackdaws, Rooks, who are well on in the task of reconditioning their nests, Chaffinches, hedge Sparrows, Song Thrushes, Robins and a Yellowhammer."

Image: A close up of a hand drawn map by John of Belfast Lough noting the species spotted 

What's truly remarkable is that at such a young age, because it's worth remember that John was around 13-14 years old when he started these journals, he has already so much knowledge and understanding about nature, the seasons and the species he comes across but he's always on the search for more knowledge, from speaking with his teachers, to visiting Ulster Museum to look at books and fact check his own writing or to insert more information about a particular bird he has spotted. He was researching and identifying species through their nesting habits, their feathers and birdsong, often travelling from Belfast to Newcastle to explore the countryside. 

March 24 1946 

"Corncrake heard. Two goldfinches seen at Manor House. Along the coast road at Maggies Leap three Gannets were seen fishing. Settled on the water a little way out were three large birds about the size of cormorants but with white throats. They were anything up to 10 pairs of black guillemots. There was one young one and I saw a pair on a ledge which was presumably their nest site. Pied wagtails, Rock Pipits, Yellowhammers and some waders – r Oedshanks and oystercatchers (presumably) were seen. Sea Pink was in flower. On looking up I would say that the birds seen today were definitely Great N. Diver"

Image: Drawing of a Blue-tit with journal entry by John Bailey 

The journal ends with a visit to Copeland Islands in July 1947 

Setting off in the ‘Roberta’ we soon reached Old Lighthouse Island (also Copeland Island and John’s Island) and the first bird we saw was a Curlew speeding away with a loud ‘Curl-wee’.

Near the landing stage to the island were several Oystercatchers We arrived up at the old lighthouse buildings accompanied by many tern and herring gulls. Around the buildings were some herring gulls and several lesser black backed gulls. All the time we stayed here two of the lesser black backs were always on the chimney and we subsequently found a young bird on the roof of the building we camped in. The nest was also situated on the roof in the flat space where the beacon used to be many years ago After the meal we made a quick survey of the island. We we reckoned that 10 pair of oystercatchers were nesting around the shores and about two on ‘top’.

There was a large colony of terns – mostly common and arctic we think on the north west of the island. North of them were black headed gulls also in strong numbers and to the Northeast were about 10 pairs of lesser black backed gulls. East and south were herring gulls along the cliffs and large numbers of ‘flappers’ as well as a few eggs were seen.

Also on the rocks were several families of shags – identified by me for the first time and at times up to 20 birds were seen. Not more than two pairs of Great Black Backed Gulls were thought to breed on the island. The empty nest of an Eider Duck was seen

Birds seen on visit to Copeland: Great Black backed Gull, Black headed Gull, Kittiwake, Common Tern, Arctic Tern, Roseate Tern, Puffin, Razorbill, Black Guillemot, Manx Shearwater, Moorhen, Stock Dove

Never were more than three lapwing seen on the island and these were constantly present. Jackdaw and an immature rook was seen about the buildings.

A kestrel was seen on several occasions – it was obviously a visitor from the mainland and a magpie was also observed. A dead young magpie – fairly old – it was found on the rocks.

A Merganser was seen several times in the channel near the landing place and round here we caught and examined two young oystercatchers of different broods which we examined carefully. A Stock Dove was seen several times near the landing place on the cliffs. When we arrived first we noticed a few starlings – not more than six or seven – mostly young birds of the year around the island. These steadily increased until they were well over 200 I should say at dusk. These went on to roost on the elder bushes around the island.

In the evening we had seen small groups of up to 20 Manx Shearwaters round the island and round about midnight we sallied forth to try and locate them coming into their nesting burrows. It must have been getting on for 2 o'clock when Mr Benington and Self suddenly heard a ‘cu-cu-curoo, cu-cu-cu-roo, cu-cu-cu-roo’ over our heads and shortly this noise was to be heard over all the east side of the island. 


These journals are a true journey and insight into the world of nature in the 1940's, and John continued his love for nature throughout his life having gone on many birding expeditions with local birding groups to countries such as Romania. A true lasting legacy for his family to enjoy and the chance to understand John's love for nature and share in his passion. A huge thank you to his daughter Clare who shared his writing with us and allowing us to share it with you.