With flocks of godwits and wintering wildfowl at Belfast WOW, fulmars returning to the cliff stacks on Rathlin, yellowhammers feeding on wild bird cover and red kites roosting in Co Down, there are plenty of winter spectacles to marvel at across Northern Ireland at this time of year.Up on Rathlin Island, the last few grey seal pups are graduating from the island’s rocky beaches and winter is beginning to take its grip. For now, the dark cliffs surrounding around the West Light belong to the ravens, who flip and swoop in tandem, the earliest of signs that they are beginning to reclaim their nesting sites. The fulmars are still away, wandering the open Atlantic Ocean far from our shores, but they will be the next to return to their ledges. It won’t be long now until we see dozens of them again, whirling around the cliffs in the wild winter winds. This will be the opening act of Rathlin’s annual seabird spectacular, and we’ll be ready to welcome them back in good time for the seabird centre opening for the 2020 season on April 1.At Belfast’s Window on Wildlife, the last leaves are falling from the surrounding woodland. Winter reveals unhindered viewing right across the reserve. Flocks of gulls have started to come into the lagoon to roost during late evenings. Godwits and curlews wade around the lagoon’s edges searching for invertebrates with their long probing beaks. The konik ponies graze quietly and gently through the reedbed and across the short grassland, getting it into good condition for the lapwings’ breeding season next spring.As winter takes grip and things start to quieten down, we then await the return of the noisy and boisterous terns and black-headed gulls in the new year.Moving down to east County Down, where we have been working with farmers on the recovery of yellowhammers since 2006, this is a great time of year to see these stunning birds. Yellowhammer numbers have declined by 90% in Northern Ireland, so getting to see these beautiful yellow buntings singing their famous song is an absolute treat. Due to the great work by many of the farmers in the area, over the winter months you have a good chance of seeing large flocks of yellowhammers, tree sparrows, reed buntings and linnets – all coming together to feed on the wild bird cover planted by farmers the previous spring. It’s a winter spectacular that feeds the birds and warms your heart. In ‘red kite country’ in County Down, our red kite project officer Noreen will see roosting red kites at this time of year. Behind a stone wall at one of her often-visited vantage points, she will sometimes see six or more kites popping up, soaring in the sky and then dropping down and out of sight, looking for small prey - most likely frogs and worms. As the evening closes in, she will sometimes see red kites appearing from all directions, taking advantage of the wind to effortlessly sail through the sky. Her red kite count can see her spying up to 10, with some of the raptors' ID tags visible as viewed through the telescope. A mixed flock of fieldfares and redwings will frequently swirl up and disappear, before the group of red kites rise up; it’s an amazing spectacle on a winter’s evening as they all settle in again for the night.
On Portmore Lough, whooper swans noisily herald their arrival as they come in to roost, along with flocks of greylag geese. They will spend the winter grazing on the fields around the reserve, returning to roost on the lough at dusk. Portmore Lough attracts a wide range of waterbirds, including teals, wigeons, gadwalls, pochards and tufted ducks - as well as great crested grebes.In late afternoon, starlings can be seen in huge flocks, twisting and swirling over the reedbed in murmurations before disappearing into the reedbed to roost. You can occasionally spy a hen harrier hunting over the reserve through the autumn and winter. By late winter, large flocks of lapwings and golden plovers will be feeding on the flooded meadows and can be seen from the viewing platform.In Fermanagh, cold winter days give you a great opportunity to explore the shores of Upper Lough Erne. In winter, more than 2% of the Icelandic breeding population of whooper swans arrive to enjoy the relatively mild climate and abundant grass. There are around 1,100 whoopers in winter time and they are easy to see from some of the roads around the Upper Lough. One of the best areas to see swans is from the A509 heading south from Enniskillen towards Derrylin.Upper Lough Erne is also important for wintering great crested grebes, which can often be found amongst wigeons, teals, tufted ducks, goldeneyes, gadwalls and the occasional shoveler and pintail. The road between Derrylin and Lisnaskea is also favoured by wintering swans and large flocks of feral Canada geese. Every goose flock is worth a closer look as occasionally pink-footed and Greenland white-fronted geese are hidden within their ranks.Photo credits: Rathlin cliffs - Hazel Watson; Yellowhammers - Claire Barnett; Red kite and whooper swan - Ben Hall (rspb-images.com); Great crested grebe - Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)
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