RSPB NI warden Chris Sturgeon features in a new BBC One NI documentary Belfast Harbour: Cruises, Cranes & Cargo about the daily comings and goings in Belfast Harbour. Belfast’s Window on Wildlife nature reserve - or Belfast WOW as it is affectionately known - is a home for more than 100 bird species that travel from all over the world to stay for the winter, nest in spring and raise their young and feast on what the harbour and the reserve’s lagoon has to offer.

A small team of staff, along with scores of willing and dedicated volunteers, undertakes habitat management to create the right conditions for ground-nesting birds including Arctic terns and common terns. They also welcome birdwatchers and visitors looking for things to do in Belfast to the observation room, with its stunning views of the reserve’s lagoon and the bustling port and hills beyond.  We caught up with Chris to find out more about how he manages the habitat at Belfast’s Window on Wildlife:

“Most of the grassland at Belfast WOW is managed by the konik ponies and they do a fantastic job creating the perfect habitat for ground-nesting birds such as our terns and black-headed gulls. Lapwings, in particular, like a small amount of cover vegetation to hide their nest in, but they also need short grass around them to allow them to keep an eye out for predators and to allow the tiny chicks to forage for food easily in the muddy banks around the lagoon. We have to thank our four-legged lawnmowers - the koniks - for that."

Konik pony grazing beside water and birds
Konik pony: Stephen Maxwell

"In the past, we used machinery to carry out the grassland management, but this was very expensive, and it caused disturbance. Anything that is left / not attended to by the ponies, we do by hand with a scythe. We used to use brush cutters to do the job, but a scythe has so many more benefits:

  • You don’t have to buy fuel or carry it out onto the reserve which has its own environmental considerations.
  • You don’t have to carry a lot of weight
  • You don’t have to wear as much personal protection equipment
  • And the only tools you need are an Allen key and a sharpening stone."

warden filmed scything
Filming of warden Austrian scything: Kathryn Cochrane

"The cost versus speed is also something to consider. It takes roughly the same time to use a scythe versus a brush cutter to get the job done. But for the equivalent cost you could buy at least six scythes; and six scythes are faster than one brush cutter by a mile!"

Arctic tern in flight
Arctic tern: Stephen Maxwell

"While the terns and black-headed gulls are the most visible species that can be seen taking advantage of the work we do, smaller migrants including sedge warblers, willow warblers and reed warblers come and nest in the reed beds. They are quite difficult to see and are more likely to be heard than seen."

 sedge warbler on reed
Sedge warbler: Stephen Maxwell

At this time of the year, we would be starting to monitor the birds, which gives us a measure of the success of the season. Monitoring the gulls and the terns is loud and can be very messy sometimes, as it requires you to go out into the colony and count the nests. To do this and to be sure we get the best numbers we can we use pasta. We count out a particular number of pasta pieces - usually about 200 for each trip (macaroni is the best as you can get more in your pocket!). We put a piece of pasta in each nest as this prevents a nest being counted more than once, then when we get back inside we count the number of pasta pieces that we have left, minus it from the initial handful and this gives us the total number of nests.

View of Belfast's Window on Wildlife: Stephen Maxwell

Volunteers are a massive help to a lot of the work on the reserve, there are jobs that simply couldn’t be done without their help, such as putting the large floating island out on site which requires a lot of people, last year we had a large group that came from a corporate organisation, and along with our own volunteers we got the job done in a day where usually it would have taken us three or four days.”

volunteers carrying a tern raft
Metaswitch staff moving a tern raft: Terry Goldsmith

Belfast’s Window on Wildlife appears in episodes two and three of the series, broadcast on Tuesday 21 and Tuesday 28 April 2020 on BBC One Northern Ireland.

Episodes will be available to watch on BBC iPlayer for 28 days after broadcast. If you have access to twitter you can see warden Chris Sturgeon in episode two by clicking on this link.