15 Feb 2010
Well I have been to the RSPB Belfast Harbour Reserve quite a few times recently and I find it unbelievably depressing and I am finding on speaking to volunteers and birders that I am not alone. Some birders have said to me recently that it is barely worth going any more and if they do it is for the social aspect rather than the birding. You used to go and there was nearly always Black-tailed Godwits right in front of the hide, and I mean loads, which was one of the main attractions of the Reserve. The beauty of this was that when the Black-tailed Godwits were feeding several species of shorebird also feed amongst or on the edge of these flocks. So there were chances you would see Ruff, Curlew, Snipe, Redshank, Whimbrel and Common Sandpiper. The largest flock of Godwit I have seen recently are at the Whitehouse Laggoon on the other side of Belfast Lough so I guess they have found a better food source there.
Now it feels as though its a desert. Right out in front of the hide there were a large patch of willows kept at about four feet in height and to the right of the hide there was a row of willow along a wall kept about two to three feet in height. The willows afforded birds protection particularly the Reed Buntings, Robins, Chaffinches and Tits. The willows in front also provided cover for the Water Rails. Most of the willows in front of the hide have been cut down and the small hedge to the right protecting a little crop field have all been cut down. See the photos below.
Why would anybody remove the habitat that protects these small birds from a Sparrowhawk that regularly flies past I just do not know.
It is a year now since the RSPB suspended and then sacked Anthony McGeehan as the warden and I'm afraid it shows. On a positive point his Industrial Tribunal is on March 8th and he will be asking for his job back, compensation and an apology and the sooner the better in my view. At least he had the right idea that if you bring the birds close to the hide the public engages with them far better than looking through binoculars or scope to the far side of the reserve where many of the waders roost at high tide in Belfast lough. So it is definitely time to go back to feeding them on a regular basis rather than sporadically.
On two occasions recently I have seen a fox walking infront of the central hide and the last time I was there one of the occupants of the hide told me he had seen two together in the last couple of weeks.
So yet again unless the RSPB urgently does something about it the breeding success of any breeding bird on the reserve will effectively be compromised and this is after spending thousand's of pounds on a predator proof fence.
Earlier in the year the RSPB with funding from the Alpha Programme managed by Groundwork NI replaced a sluice that controlled the water levels on the reserve. Why this was necessary I am not really sure as it had been working up until Anthony was suspended in early January 2009, he had a problem in the summer which had been rectified. Then the RSPB pretty much abandoned the reserve for a few months until bringing in a retired warden to help out for a few months. The idea of the sluice was to enable control over the levels which makes me wonder why for most of the autumn the water levels were far too high and there was a distinct lack of waders. Why put in a sluice if you are not going to use it properly?
In my opinion the senior management of the RSPB Reserves in Northern Ireland is distinctly lacking. Look at Belfast Harbour in the summer they advertised for a new warden and hired Chris Sturgeon. He had little conservation experience having mainly worked on building sites in Australia or as a barman in France but he had beens working as a volunteer on the reserve with Anthony. Now I think Chris works hard and has had an almost impossible job in having to follow in McGeehan's footsteps but there was considerable disquiet amongst RSPB workers in Northern Ireland especially some of those on contracts with the RSPB who applied for the job, however again in my opinion at least he would do his boss's(Gregory Woulahan) bidding. The advert for the job in the papers said 'knowledge of birds would be an advantage but is not essential'. My God what eejit would put an ad in the paper for a RSPB warden of probably Northern Ireland's most prestigious reserve saying knowledge of birds an advantage but not essential.
I had an interesting exchange in Fermanagh at the end of January relating to Chris's boss. I was photographing a shoot and in the morning one of the guns shot a mink swimming across a river. I didnt witness it but at lunch I was talking to the beaters and one of them started talking about mink and how that last summer there had been a great fuss and panic within the RSPB in Northern Ireland as this guy had written on a blog about the RSPB drowning mink down on their reserve in Fermanagh. I didnt let on it was me!!!! This beaters best friend did work on and off for the RSPB and the beater told me that the reserves manager had come down and told everybody to totally deny the allegations and had also contacted the warden who was on a year off on an island in the southern ocean to keep his head down. It just confirmed what I already knew. When I got home I rang my wife's relative who works at Belvoir and they were very loath to talk about anything as Mike Clarke the Director of Operations of the RSPB had sent out a letter to the staff at Belvoir telling them not to discuss Anthony McGeehan or related issues with anyone. However fortunately blood is thicker. They told me that Woulahan had been in a right old pickle about it. They also told me I wasn't very popular up there ;-) As I said to them you would wonder whether Woulahan would tell the truth in Anthony's Industrial Tribunal they said highly unlikely as he was too busy protecting himself at everybody else's expense and their view was the sooner he was moved to somewhere else within the RSPB the better as there is a lot of ill feeling within Belvoir(Belvoir is the Northern Ireland headquarters of the RSPB) about him and that everybody is too scared for their jobs to say anything.