19 May 2011

RSPB Belfast Harbour Revisited And It Is Still A Disgrace

I had to kill a few hours in Belfast a couple of weeks ago so I thought that I would go along to the RSPB Belfast Harbour Reserve and see how the Terns were coming along. Firstly the reserve was bone dry no water at all and on the right hand tern island there were Black-headed Gulls nesting all over it. I counted 12 nests and very few terns.

Black-headed Gulls nesting on Tern Island
I cannot understand why the water situation is allowed to get like this on the reserve. WATER is the lifeblood of this reserve. The warden knows how to put water into the reserve as does his boss Gregory Woulahan. All they have to do is make an arrangement with NI Water. They just do not care and it is only when too many people start complaining that they bother to do anything about it. The laziness on this particular reserve is astounding.  I went back to the reserve yesterday and much to my surprise the water had only been turned on the night before. (It takes about a week to fill the lagoon without rain water)  There were also more terns than on my previous visit thankfully.   I was talking to a visitor who had queried the lack of water a few weeks previously and he was told that they were unable to put any in.

The fact that there are Black-headed Gulls breeding is very worrying as well. Firstly they like to nest in colonies. Secondly they start to nest before the main wave of terns arrive.The space on the tern islands is limited and one has to bear in mind that the terns are territorial so by allowing the gulls to nest they are effectively reducing the areas that the terns can nest. Each year quite a few immature Black-headed Gulls roost on the islands but are not interested in using the islands as nesting spots. In the past the previous warden would have strung wire in a matrix over the islands which scared away the gulls as if disturbed they would fly into them and after a few times would be deterred. You do get colonies of Common Terns and Black Headed Gulls breeding together but only if there is the space for them to do so. I hope the RSPB will move them on elsewhere. In 2008 there were 200 pairs of Common Tern and 25 Pairs of Arctic Tern breeding and even a visit by a pair of Roseate Terns. Will this situation ever return I wonder. It would be a travesty if after all the work that went into creating these islands, including the help from the RAF, to be wasted as it seems to be at the moment.

It wouldn't surprise me if we are going to have a similar situation as 2010 when there was a 90% breeding failure of the terns on the reserve. The RSPB said that this was due to lack of food. This was a lie. The food availability in Belfast Lough was not an issue. Belfast Lough is a fabulous fishing ground. The Terns at the reserve have a wide diet confirmed in study by the RSPB NI Directors wife Lorraine Chivers "Courtship feeding and food provisioning of chicks by Common Terns Sterna hirundo at Belfast Harbour Lagoon" Irish Birds, 8: 215-222 In fact no other tern colonies in the North or in the South of Ireland failed due to food issues. Some were affected by bad weather and one colony suffered through vandalism.

The real reason was that the water levels were so low that it allowed the two foxes that are trapped in the reserve by the predator proof fence to predate them. If the water levels are high enough the foxes cannot get onto the islands. GUESS WHAT they now have two offspring so now there are FOUR FOXES trapped within this 24 acre site.  So now any of the Lapwing that breed within the reserve will have their young predated. One of the volunteers was telling me that there were already some lapwing chicks and that they hadn't been seen for a week.

RSPB Belfast Harbour Fox Food
It has now been nearly three years that these foxes have been there. The RSPB in Northern Ireland seems far more keen on keeping to the corporate message than doing anything about conservation. 

The reserve itself was looking very poorly maintained. The grass outside the main hide hadn't been mowed in quite a while. The willows immediately outside the front of the hide had been cut down so there is no longer as much cover for the  Reed Buntings, Robins and Linnets that you would find there. The grass on the far side of the reserve hasn't been properly maintained and the scirpus is just encroaching further and further onto the lagoon. In this months Bird Watching magazine there is an aerial photo of the reserve which was taken in 2008 and if a similar photo was taken today I think the difference would be very noticeable. For a start the reserve looked well maintained in the photo.

From what I hear the headquarters at Belvoir is a really unhappy place. Staff have been off with stress. Even at the meetings about the reserves nobody is allowed to bring up the state of the Belfast Harbour Reserve.  Aodhán who was the media officer and ran the RSPBNI twitter site was facing a disciplinary and left before they pushed him.

Belfast Harbour Reserve was once a well maintained well run reserve which attracted keen birders all the time and would turn up three or four nice rarities each year. It is now just a shadow of its former self.

So RSPB my advice is. Find a new warden for the reserve who knows what they are about and who is prepared to do a hard days physical work maintaining the reserve to a high degree.

Then if you want there to be a nicer atmosphere in Belvoir transfer the Reserves Manager to England. Then from what I hear the atmosphere will change very quickly.

And finally hire Tom Black, the man that used to deal with your predator control, to either shoot or trap the foxes within the reserve and then maybe any nesting birds within the reserve might have a chance of survival.