by Paul Cormacain
NEVER before had we seen blacktailed godwits so close. They were one to two metres away, totally unconcerned about our presence, as they fed and looked up at regular intervals watching for danger.
It was at the lagoon in Belfast harbour, and we were inside the RSPB lookout station, with Kevin happily telling us what -had been visiting recently. Kevin is a volunteer, doing excellent work in keeping the site open and accessible.
These godwits probably come from Iceland, and they figure that the weather will get even colder there, so they come to us for the winter.
As I write this towards the end of September, the sun is shining, it is warm, winter is a million miles away, and the godwits are loving it.
When they were in Iceland they were russet in colour, with black bars showing on the white flanks. They were white underneath. Now the birds are duller, sporting their winter: colours, brown-grey above, light below. It was great to see them so close.
These godwits used to breed in England, and folk used to treat them as a great speciality, on the plate.
So many were eaten that numbers plummeted, breeding stopped, and did not re-start until half a century ago. They were encouraged and protected, but even so only small numbers breed around Cambridgeshire. A few pairs have braved it in Scotland, none here to my knowledge.
Out smallest sandpiper, the little stint; was present in the harbour estate; This is not a bird You- would see every day, and it only hits our shores in small numbers.
It is a bird of Arctic Asia, mainly seen here in the autumn as it escapes the Arctic.
Kevin told us about a few recent visitors at the harbour lagoon. A kingfisher turned up the other day, a welcome and brightly-coloured sight, and could have travelled a few kilometres to the spot. The greater yellowlegs, a larger type of sandpiper, came a few thousand kilometres further than the kingfisher.
Greater yellowlegs breed in north Canada, decide they want to go south as the winter approaches. Mostly they end up in California, Mexico, Arizona, but some get lost and end up in Belfast.
Other sandpipers there on the day were two curlew sandpipers, a regular if rare autumn migrant from Arctic Asia. Hundreds have been known to turn up some years, but I have to say that I had never seen one before.
Only for the quick and accurate eye of Kevin I likely would have missed these -birds, for they are sometimes difficult to spot.
At this time of year the curlew sandpiper is in winter plumage. This makes it quite similar in appearance to the dunlin, which were represented in large numbers on the day.
I suspect that most of us look at a ' flock of dunlin, see all the birds as dunlin and miss out the occasional curlew sandpiper, which is what nearly happened.
However it is slightly taller, and slightly slimmer, and if you get a good look at it you will see it as paler. It has a long down-curved black bill, and has a whitish eyestripe.
The bill is evenly curved over its entire length and not kinked downwards at the end like a dunlin. So I must remember to lookout for it.
Not too many ducks were at the harbour lagoon that day. A few mallard, with a dozen or so teal, were all that we saw. The moorhens were more numerous than the mallard. Five herons were there at the one time, the most I had seen at this site at any one time.
An immature sandwich tern looked out of place as the only tern to be seen. This is our' largest tern, and something tells me that it will be heading off to West Africa in the not too distant future.
I used to enjoy watching these birds off Ghana and Nigeria, and often wondered if I had seen them at home.
Some shelduck were on the lagoon in the harbour estate. The greater majority of birds were waders, however.
Apart from the birds already mentioned, there were curlew, dozens of lapwings, redshank, ruff, knot. A great spot for waders! Then beside the observation point a solitary chiffchaff appeared, when I thought he should be halfway to Africa by now.
If you fancy looking at birds in comfort, if the possibility of seeing the odd rare bird attracts you, if you want to have knowledgable folk on hand if needed, then why not try a visit to the Belfast, Harbour estate, and head for the RSPB hide?
Saturday 28th September - National Trust Fungi
Foray at Rowallane
2pm, phone 97510131
Birds-of the Estuary Walk at Murlough, 1.30, details 9751 0721
Sunday 29 September - Another National Trust
Fungal Foray, at Castle Ward 3pm. For more information ring 9751 0721
Woodland Walk at the Argory with the warden, 2pm, please call 9751 0721.
Autumn Ramble around Crom Estate, 2pm, details 97510721
Sunday 6 October - Autumn Leaves at Castle Ward with Ralph Forbes, 3pm, contact National Trust on 97510721
Thursday 10 October - Update on Irish brent goose programme by Dr James Robinson, at Castle Espie, 7.30, phone Espie 91874746
Saturday 12, Sunday 13 October - Watch the Irish brent geese arrive from Canada, with experts from Castle Espie and National Trust at various sites at 1.30pm. For details. ring 9187 4146
Saturday 19 October - Colin Glen Forest Park Tree Planting at 11.00, more details by ringing 9061 4115,
Sunday 20 October - Colin Glen Forest Park, if you are old enough you can go for a Dinosaur Walk, 2pm. More from 90614115
Monday 28 October - Lisburn RSPB will hear about Walking the Irish coast, with David Boyd, in Friends' Meeting House, Magheralave Road, at 7.30pm