Nature Notes 27 April 2021

Isle of Muck Nature Reserve

Observations from staff, volunteers and members on our Nature Reserves this week.

Nature reserves may look completely wild, but our 19 reserves across Northern Ireland are actually carefully managed by a dedicated team. We protect, restore and create a mix of habitats where wildlife can thrive.

Isle of Muck Nature Reserve

One of our first surveys of the year is the Black Guillemot count around Portmuck and Isle of Muck on the Islandmagee Peninsula, Co. Antrim. Black Guillemots (also known as Tysties) are counted in late March or early April. It’s a relatively simple count - the trick is to choose a good weather-window and get there early in the morning.

Tysties are quite easy to tell apart from other seabirds – they’re small and during the breeding season are almost wholly black apart from white wing flashes and fabulously bright red feet. They dive for their food (small fish such as butterfish and crustaceans are amongst their favourites) and they breed along rocky coasts and around harbours, often staying quite close to the shore. Get a good look at one through binoculars and you will almost certainly agree that they are one of the most stunning seabirds anywhere.

Anyway, back to Portmuck and the Isle of Muck - in previous years counts in the mid-teens were considered pretty good in this area but 2020 saw the numbers here shoot up to 42 individuals. I can remember being lost for words – scanning the full horizon again and again to make sure I wasn’t making things up in my mind, what a result!

Black Guillemot Survey, Nature Reserves Manager

Black Guillemot Survey, Nature Reserves Manager

So, when we headed up to do the 2021 count I had butterflies in my stomach - with all that’s going on in the world I was desperate for some good news and would have been utterly deflated if the numbers had crashed to pre-2020 levels. Sometimes you get what you wish for and I was stunned that we counted 61 individuals!

The obvious question is, why have the numbers increased so much? At the moment there doesn’t appear to be a clear answer – the species seems to be doing quite well in parts of Northern Ireland and this could be due to changes in fish populations, climate change and any number of other factors (including the currently unknown). Regardless, it’s a piece of welcome good news for this species and has left me on something of a wildlife high for the last couple of weeks.

Somebody else who’s undoubtedly observed the numbers of black guillemots increase around Portmuck is one of Islandmagee’s most famous residents – a goat that lives on the cliffs just north of the harbour. Apparently he’s got a bit of a temper, so best to give him a wide berth – I don’t blame him, I’d be a bit grumpy if I spent 365 days a year living on a salty piece of rock!

The work of Ulster Wildlife on the Isle of Muck includes an annual programme of rat eradication, scrub and bracken control and traditional grazing with sheep – all for the benefit of breeding seabirds and priority habitats. Isle of Muck is an interesting place, not just for being one of the largest seabird colonies in Northern Ireland – it’s the only coastal island in Northern Ireland connected to the shore by a tombolo (which can be seen at low tides). The site is not for public access but armed with a pair of binoculars, a telescope, or even a hand-lens (for insects and flora) there is plenty of wildlife and geology in the local area to keep anybody entertained~ Andrew Crory, Nature Reserves Manager

Black guillemots

Black guillemots (c) Christine Cassidy

Slievenacloy Nature Reserve

Lovely up at Slievenacloy today; sadly spoiled by dog walkers allowing their dogs to run free & bikers scrambling in what is, a nature reserve! Notwithstanding, great to get some fresh air & see some flora & fauna~ Kevin Kirkham, Ulster Wildlife Member

Umbra Nature Reserve

We found this Oak Eggar moth cocoon at Umbra Nature Reserve this week. Umbra is one of the best nature reserves for butterflies and moths in Northern Ireland. You can find other rare species here such as the scarce crimson and gold moth~ John McLaughlin, Nature Reserves Officer

 Oak Eggar Moth cocoon (c)  John McLaughlin

Oak Eggar Moth cocoon (c) John McLaughlin

Bog Meadows Nature Reserve

Check out this strange looking early spring flower, which has been found in only one spot at Bog Meadows.
This plant is lacking in chlorophyll, the pigment that gives other plants their green colour, because it is parasitic. Toothwort extracts all its nutrients directly from its host plant, usually Hazel trees~ Deborah McLaughlin, Bog Meadows Community Engagement Officer

Spring flower, Bog Meadows

Spring flower, Bog Meadows