Count the birds that are counting on you!

Guest blog by Ian Enlander, volunteer at RSPB Belfast's Window on Wildlife

What do birdwatchers do? Well, they watch birds and all of us (presumably) derive pleasure looking at and enjoying our birds whether they are local, overseas, in the garden, our local park or indeed at Belfast’s Window on Wildlife (WOW). And that’s fine; it’s a great way to de-stress and, assuming we include some walking with our birdwatching, an aid to healthy living.

But many birdwatchers also like to count and most are quite proficient at it! Identifying each species and counting how many there are can be done anywhere there are birds and these counts can be for personal interest but are of great value. Start counting birds and you will be contributing to science. And you don’t have to be a scientist to contribute to bird conservation. The RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch, taking place from Saturday 26 January to Monday 28 January - is a wonderful opportunity to do all of the above – watch birds, identify them and count them by species, then submit your data to RSPB. The results will shine a light on what is happening to populations of our birds. For more information on the Big Garden Birdwatch and how to get involved, visit

RSPB staff and volunteers do a lot of counting of waterbirds at Belfast WOW. These are useful to assess the importance of the reserve and perhaps highlight management issues.
WOW is also part of Belfast Lough. This larger area is important enough to have been designated an Area of Scientific Interest (ASSI) and a Special Protection Area, a site of European importance. To find out if the area is ‘functioning properly’ it has to be regularly surveyed. More counting.

Belfast Lough is just one of a number of Northern Ireland coastal and freshwater wetland sites surveyed (most of these are also designated as Special Protection Areas) and these in turn are part of a network of similar sites throughout the rest of UK and the Republic of Ireland. More counters doing more counting. We know that the species we see at WOW also occur over considerable geographical areas in Europe and beyond. So we need to know about waterbird numbers elsewhere – across Europe and indeed all significant wetland sites around the world.

Winter is an especially busy time for bird counting. Many of the species surveyed, including many seen at WOW, typically nest in remote and inaccessible areas of the world, often at very low densities over huge areas. This makes population estimates very difficult. However, at wintering sites these same species typically gather in large concentrations at our wetlands, where it is easier to get accurate counts.

Collectively this data is used to generate bird population estimates at geographical scales from WOW to the world. With data going back many years at many UK sites and elsewhere, it can be used to show population trends and changes in bird distributions.

It can also say something about the relative importance of our wetlands and highlight key areas within individual sites. All of this is critical when decisions are being made about possible developments within or adjoining our wetlands.

In the UK, the survey programme for our wetland sites is called WeBS – Wetland Bird Survey. Co-ordinated by the British Trust for Ornithology. For more info, visit

So back to the birds at WOW. What does WeBS data say about that sites importance as a part of Belfast Lough? During the winter, the obvious species we see when ‘looking through the window’ include teals, black-tailed godwits, curlews, lapwings, oystercatchers and moorhens. A closer look may reveal dunlins, bar-tailed godwits, knots, redshanks, shelducks, gadwalls, wigeons and others.

Comparing typical counts for WOW against those for Belfast Lough (the WeBS survey counts all waterbirds around Belfast Lough from Kilroot on the outer north shore, to the Belfast end, through WOW and along the south shore as far as Ballyholme beach) we can see which species WOW is particularly important for. And it is moorhens! It seems obvious at the moment with so many on the reserve:


% Belfast Lough WeBS population at WOW









Black-tailed godwit




Bar-tailed godwit














However, importance can also be judged against the species for which Belfast Lough has been designated. The important wintering species for the SPA are black-tailed godwits, Bar-tailed godwits and redshanks. WOW is certainly important for the godwits with black-taileds being such a feature of the reserve – feeding and roosting there – making a valuable contribution to the conservation value of the whole of Belfast Lough.

Of course Belfast Lough holds a number of species that never (or rarely) venture inside the reserve – duck species especially including wintering eiders, red-breasted mergansers and goldeneyes.

So enjoy our waterbird spectacle at WOW, but do try birdwatching elsewhere around Belfast Lough. And start counting!

* To take part in the Big Garden Birdwatch (January 26 to 28), pick up a form or visit

(Photo credits - top to bottom: Moorhen - Ian Enlander; Wigeon - Stephen Maxwell; Shelducks - Joel Rock; Gadwall - Ian Enlander; Black-talked godwits - Ian Enlander)