Breeding birds thrive on Rathlin

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It’s been a busy breeding season for the wildlife which makes its home on Rathlin.

In spring and summer, the island comes to life with the sight and sound of dozens of species of birds pairing off and raising chicks, prompting visitors from across the world flock to Rathlin to see its famous seabirds. This year was no exception - more than 16,000 people visited the recently refurbished West Light Seabird Centre to experience the huge cliff-side colony at close quarters.

Each year RSPB Northern Ireland warden and islander Liam McFaul counts small sample plots within the colony to indicate its population. Numbers remained similar to 2015, with excellent productivity rates and plentiful feeding in the rich waters off the island. Guillemots were the most commonly spotted species, followed by razorbills. On one plot there were almost 600 guillemots and 144 razorbills.

Rare species also fared well on the island this summer, including the elusive corncrake.

Their distinctive ‘crek crek’ sound was once common on the island but changes in habitat saw the species fall silent by the late 1980s. In recent years, farmland around the Church Bay area has been enhanced by RSPB NI, including planting lots of nettles as early cover. In May, a calling male was heard on private farmland in an area of nettles planted by the RSPB some years ago. The bird stayed for a total of 51 days and, while it’s impossible to tell if he bred successfully, his presence shows that steps to bring this species back to Rathlin are working.

Meanwhile Northern Ireland’s only breeding pair of chough – a charismatic member of the crow family - fledged two young and have since been spotted feeding on the RSPB’s Roonivoolin reserve on the south of the island.

It was good news too for NI’s only breeding pair of great skuas, which successfully raised two chicks at the island’s Kebble National Nature Reserve.

The species, which is amber-listed in the UK (of medium conservation concern), can have a wingspan reaching an impressive 1.4 metres!

Commenting on this year’s breeding figures, warden Liam McFaul said: “2016 has been a very successful breeding year on Rathlin for a lot of important species. It was exhilarating to see the sheer numbers of guillemots and razorbills breeding, raising young and then leaving the cliffs to spend the winter at sea.

“Impressive numbers of adult puffins also wheeled in the sky as their fledging young slipped out to sea in the night and young kittiwakes left their nests in dozens.

“To have chough breeding successfully again, and to hear the call of the corncrake filling the night air for the first time in many years, fills me with hope for the future for these rare birds.”

For more information on the work of RSPB NI, visit www.rspb.org.uk/nireland. Rathlin’s nature reserves are publically accessible all year round, while the West Light Seabird Centre will re-open the public on 1 April 2017.