A guest blog by Ric Else.It’s not currently possible to visit Rathlin Island due to the travel restrictions that are in place during the Covid-19 outbreak. So for everyone who is missing Rathlin’s natural wonders, I’ve put together this virtual tour around Roonivoolin, one of the RSPB’s nature reserves on the island. I hope that it gives you a sense of the reserve’s beauty and tranquillity, and that it inspires you to come and explore it for yourselves once travel to the island becomes possible again.Let the tour begin! To get to Roonivoolin, you follow the quiet and scenic road south from Rathlin harbour towards the Rue Lighthouse at the island’s southern tip. About two kilometres from the harbour there’s a small lough on the right and, just after that, a gate with an RSPB sign indicates the start of the walking trail.Through the gate, the track passes along the southern edge of Ally Lough which is home to coots and little grebes and often has herons roosting on the banks. Continue a bit further and the next gate brings you out onto the RSPB reserve, with Ushet Lough on your left and an area of grazed clifftop grassland ahead.Photo: Looking across Ally Lough, with Rathlin’s East Lighthouse in the background.Photo: Ally Lough’s floating carpet of lily pads.
Ushet Lough is the biggest body of fresh water on the island. Numerous little grebes are usually present along with tufted ducks, and it’s a favourite bathing spot for various species of gull. The grassland here is rich in wild flowers, with spectacular carpets of heath spotted-orchids (late spring/early summer) and northern marsh orchids (early summer). At the right time of year, keen plant-spotters may also find the delicate umbels of pignut and the unobtrusive flowers of mountain everlasting among many other species.Photo:A profusion of heath spotted-orchids on the Roonivoolin trail.Photo: Northern marsh orchid has dense spikes of beautiful deep purple flowers from early June.Photo: Roonivoolin is one of the best places on the island to find pignut flowers in the summer.Photo: Mountain everlasting, or stoloniferous pussytoes if you prefer, is an interesting little plant that can be found at Roonivoolin, although it’s small and not that easy to spot among all the other flora!From here, signposts lead the way across the grassland towards the clifftop. Wheatears, skylarks and meadow pipits nest in the area, so watch and listen for them displaying in the spring and summer.Photo: Many wheatears pass through in April and May, and a few pairs remain to nest on the island.Photo: Listen for skylarks singing high overhead, and keep an eye out for them foraging on the ground.Photo: Meadow pipits are one of Rathlin’s commonest nesting songbirds and you’re likely to come across several on the Roonivoolin trail.Once you reach the clifftop you have a wonderful view across the sea towards the western arm of the island. Looking down to the stony beaches below, you may spot one of the island’s most special plants. Mats of fleshy blue-grey leaves sprawling across the pebbles belong to the oysterplant, a rare wild flower that only grows in a handful of spots on the Northern Irish coast.Photo: The view from the clifftop, looking back across Church Bay towards the white cliffs at Knockans and the west end of the island.Photo: Oysterplant creeping over the stony beach at the foot of Roonivoolin’s cliffs.From this point, the trail follows the craggy clifftop southwards. Listen for the deep cronking calls of ravens, and keep an eye on the sky for buzzards and peregrines which are commonly encountered around here. On the inland side of the path is an undulating area of grassland which is inhabited by Irish hares, although these are mainly active in the early morning and evening.
Photo: The local ravens keep visitors to their territory under close surveillance.
Photo: Buzzards are by far the commonest birds of prey on Rathlin. Their mewing cries often reveal their presence high overhead.
Photo: Peregrines can be found on Rathlin throughout the year, and Roonivoolin is one of the best spots to get a glimpse of these superb raptors.Continuing south, ahead of you is a spectacular view of the island’s southern tip and Rue Lighthouse, set against the turbulent waters of the Rathlin Sound and Fair Head’s dramatic cliffs. In the spring and summer, around the point where the cliff begins to descend towards the Rue, you may see shags and gulls nesting below. There are a few guillemots and razorbills here too, and although their numbers are small compared with the awesome hordes on the cliffs at the western end of the island they can usually be seen rafting on the water and flying past the point.Photo: Looking across Rathlin Sound towards the high cliffs of Fair Head.Photo: Shags nest on the cliffs and in sea caves, and can usually be seen flying low over the water on their way to and from the colony.Photo: The name Roonivoolin means ‘headland of gulls’. Appropriately, lesser black-backed gulls, along with small numbers of herring gulls, nest in secluded bays at the base of the cliffs.It is here, just before the cliff begins its descent, that the walking trail cuts back inland to the south of Ushet Lough. A large reed bed contains noisy sedge warblers and reed buntings in spring, and you may hear water rails squealing away within.Photo: A tranquil autumn day at Ushet Lough, looking north with the East Lighthouse on the horizon.Where the path re-joins the road, you have reached the end of the Roonivoolin reserve and walking trail. An enjoyable extension is to follow the road south down to the shore at the Rue, where you’re likely to find seals (both common and grey) and eider ducks, while the other way leads back to your starting point at the harbour.I have mentioned just a few of the things you’re likely to see in this part of Rathlin, but really every day is different and you never know what else you might encounter. I hope this short virtual tour has given you a feel for Roonivoolin’s nature and landscapes, and that it whets your appetite for a future visit once travel here returns to normal.
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