Birdwatching in Northern Ireland

Original Official Site of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board


Ornithologists from Britain and Western Europe come to study the birds of Northern Ireland every year, and with good reason. The province's position on the western fringes of Europe, and the sheer size of many of the flocks that breed or visit, have made it of particular interest both to the experts and the increasing number of birdwatching visitors who are able to combine their special interest with a relaxing holiday in beautiful surroundings. Huge flocks of ducks, waders and geese come south from Arctic Canada and Greenland and other northern vastnesses to pass mild winters on the Ulster wetlands. In spring and summer large numbers of breeding seabirds feed on the fish-rich waters off the north-west coast. Chough and corncrake have some of their last strongholds in Ireland, but are rare in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland is the first landfall for autumn migrating American waders, ducks and gulls blown off course, and there is always the chance for keen-eyed birders to spot rare visitors, especially at coastal sites.

Wherever you do your birdwatching you can be sure of excellent accommodation, friendly people and good restaurants and pubs. Birders find it quite possible to spend a whole vacation in iust a couple of promising locations, such as the great sea loughs of Strangford and Foyle. If you do run out of holiday time, you can plan a return visit, perhaps at a different season. The birds of Northern Ireland are of interest all year round.

What follows is a selection of the best birdwatching sites. Cause minimum disturbance and leave habitats just as you find them. Always obtain permission where this is required - refer to entry.

MAPS: The handiest general map is the Ordnance Survey's (OS) Ireland North Holiday Map (1:250,000 or 1 inch = 4 miles). To locate a site using a grid reference, consult the 1:50,000 Discoverer series (1 mile = 1-1/4 inch) which covers the whole province on 18 sheets. An explanation of how to read grid references is given on each sheet.

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County Down


The sea loughs of County Down - Belfast, Strangford and Carlingford - are fine spots for studying water birds in winter. The rocky east Ards sea coast is good for waders. The Mourne Mountains have red grouse and there are a variety of raptors to be seen above reed-fringed lakes and over forest parks.

Groomsport Harbour
Location 3 miles east of Bangor
OS ref. 536837, sheet 15
Species: breeding ringed plover and arctic tern

Copeland Island Bird Observatory
National Trust
OS ref. 597859, sheet 15
Access by boat from Donaghadee: permission required in advance from Bookings Secretary, Neville McKee, 67 Temple Rise, Templepatrick, Antrim BT39 OAG. Tel(01849) 433068
Species: Northern Ireland's largest Manx shearwater colony, storm petrels appear summer and autumn; a variety of rare migrants have been sighted on the islands, the more regular ones being red start, pied flycatcher, and tree pipit; one-of sightings have included autumnal bluethroat, red-breasted flycatcher, woodchat shrike.

Strangford Lough and Islands
National Nature Reserve, Area of Special Scientific Interest, National Trust, Important Bird Area
Location 13 miles south and east of Belfast.
Species: wetland of international importance supporting 25,000 wildfowl, 50,000 waders. Pale-bellied brent geese numbers top the 12,000 mark in October, a few dark-bellied brant and black brant among them. Significant percentages of bar and blacktailed godwit, curlew, dunlin, gadwall, goldeneye, golden plover, greenshank, knot, lapwing, oystercatcher, red-breasted merganser, redshank, shelduck, shoveler and whooper swan, have been recorded. Important breeding species include Arctic, common and Sandwich terns; cormorant.

Ards East Coast
National Nature Reserve (part), Area of Special Scientific Interest (part), Important Bird Area
Location on A2 - harbours, beaches, rocky outcrops
OS ref. 558838/625454, sheets 15/21
Species: glaucous and Iceland gulls in Portavogie harbour; redshanks, ringed plover, turnstone, breeding cormorant along the coast.

Wildlife & Wetlands Trust Conservation Centre
Location 2 miles south-east of Comber
OS ref. 491672, sheet 21
Access: Castle Espie
Species: brent goose, shelduck, wigeon, black-tailed godwit, and ruff. There is also a collection of exotic wildfowl. Best within 2 hours of high tide.

Castle Espie

Island Reagh
National Trust hide
Location south of Castle Espie
OS ref. 535656, sheet 21
Species: pintail

Island Hill
Location 2-1/2 miles east of Comber
OS ref. 488688, sheet 21
Species: brent goose, wintering waders

OS ref. 577677, sheet 21
Species: brent, occasional black brant goose.

Strangford Bay
National Trust, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds
OS ref. 584492, sheet 21
Species: many of the common lough species.

Quoile Pondage
National Nature Reserve Location 1 mile north of Downpatrick, off A25
OS ref. 500478, sheet 21
For access to Castle Island and Reserve, contact the Warden, Quoile Countryside Centre, 5 Quay Rd, Downpatrick BT30 7JB. Tel (01396) 615520.
Species: mute swan, heron and waders; breeding gadwall; wintering wigeon, teal, tufted duck, pochard on pondage

National Nature Reserve
Location 4 miles south of Strangford
OS ref. 610433, sheet 21
Species: arctic and great skua on passage, purple sandpiper in winter.

Killough Harbour - Strand Lough
Important Bird Area
Location off A2 3 miles south of Ardglass
A freshwater lake and estuary
OS ref. 540365, sheet 21
Species: late wintering light-bellied brent goose; lesser yellowlegs, Temminck's stint and white-winged black tern are among rarities recorded, plus ruffs and common estuarine waders.

St John's Point
Location signposted off A2 south of Killough.
OS ref. 528334, sheet 21
Species: Manx shearwaters, storm petrels summer to autumn. On-shore winds also blow skuas in in spring and autumn.

Dundrum Inner Bay - Murlough
Important Bird Area, Murlough National Nature Reserve, National Trust
Location A2 4 miles north of Newcastle
OS ref. 415370, sheets 21/29
Species: wintering pale-bellied brent goose, autumnal passage waders; oystercatcher. Common scoter, occasionally velvet and, even, surf scoter in the Outer Bay. Breeding cuckoos and grasshopper warblers in the dunes.

Carlingford Lough/Green Island
Area of Special Scientific Interest, Royal Society for the Preservation of Birds/National Trust, Important Bird Area
Location: Greencastle Point, south-west of Kilkeel
OS ref. 220135/241 118, sheet 29
Species: significant number of pale-bellied brent goose and scaup in winter; breeding Arctic, common and Sandwich tern on islands (landing on islands strictly prohibited). Occasional Slavonian grebe, long-tailed duck among commoner goldeneye, red-breasted merganser.

County Armagh

Lough Neagh's south shore is the focus: vast numbers of winter diving ducks, including rare ferruginous and ring-necked ducks, red-crested pochard, smew. Great-crested grebe breed in high density near Oxford Island. Inland: blackcap and grasshopper warblers nest in old estates.

Oxford Island
Area of Special Scientific Interest, National Nature Reserve
Location signposted off M1, exit 10
OS ref. 053616, sheet 20
Species: breeding great-crested grebe and heron; wintering wildfowl; fieldfare, redwing; grazing whooper and Bewick's swan.

Lurgan Park Lake, Lurgan
Location town centre
OS ref. 092588, sheet 20
Species: diving ducks, kingfisher, interesting occasional rarities.

Craigavon Lakes, Craigavon
Location signposted off M1, exit 10
OS ref. 054583, sheet 20
Species: irregular - many species as for Oxford Island; some goosander and, smew.

Peatlands Park
Location signposted off M1, exit 13
OS ref. 904613, sheet 19
Species: breeding woodcock, long-eared owl; in winter hen harrier, merlin, peregrine.

Lough Shark
Location 1 mile north of Poyntzpass, off A27
OS ref. 066414, sheet 20
Species: breeding great-crested grebe and little grebe; in winter, gadwall, pintail and shoveler.

Lough Neagh Discovery Centre, Oxford Island.
Exhibitions, organized birding boat trips
Tel: (01762) 322205

County Fermanagh

The silences of Lough Erne are spring-broken by courting waders and wildfowl. The characteristic habitats of Lower Lough Erne are traditional hay meadows and unimproved islands. On the upper lake flooded drumlins, reed-swamp and fen are the pattern.

BEST MAPS FOR LOUGH ERNE Fermanagh Lakeland: Upper Lough Erne and Fermanagh Lakeland: Lower Lough Erne Scale 1 :25 000 (2-1/4 inches = 1 mile ), OSNI Outdoor Pursuits series.

Upper Lough Erne
Important Bird Area
Access by hire cruiser or row boat, or via small roads off BS 114 and A509, (shown on the 1:25 000 OSNI Outdoor Pursuits Upper Lough Erne map)
Species: 5 per cent of the world's whooper swan overwintering. Nesting snipe, great crested grebe, curlew, redshank.

Moorlough Lough
Location on A34 Lisnaskea Belleek - Newtownbutler road
OS ref. 386300
Species: wintering whooper swan.

Lough Head/Kilmore Lough/Ross Lough
Access by lanes west of Lisnaskea
OS ref. 354328/338318/339328
Species: winter, dabbling duck, grazing whooper swan, snipe, water rail;
grebes, lapwing, redshank.

National Nature Reserve, National Trust
Location island off Crom Estate west of Newtownbutler. OS ref. 371235. Access restricted in breeding season.
Species: Ireland's largest heronry in weathered 400-year-old oak grove.

Reilly Wood
National Nature Reserve, National Trust
Location east off A509 at Teemore
OS ref. 340254
Species: kestrel, sparrowhawk in old oakwood

Race Course Lough/ Drumgay Lough
Location off A32 north of Enniskillen
OS ref. 242450/245477 (sheet17)
Species: wintering wildfowl. Cormorant.

Lower Lough Erne
Important Bird Area, Area of Special Scientific Interest, National Nature Reserve
Access by many tiny access roads off B81 and B82, shown on the OSNI Outdoor Pursuits Lower Lough Erne map, or from the water
Species: breeding waders, snipe, curlew, redshank; great-crested grebe in significant numbers; a few corncrake, irregular parties of whooper swan. Raptors and golden plover rear young in the uplands.

Castlecaldwell Forest And Islands
National Nature Reserve, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Important Bird Area
Location 4 miles east of Beileek off A47.
OS ref. 080544/009603
Access to shoreline at all times.
Species: breeding garden, grasshopper, sedge and willow warblers, siskin; tufted duck, red-breasted merganser, heron, Sandwich terns on islands.

Castle Archdale Country Park And National Nature Reserve Islands
Inishmakill, Cleenishmeen/Cleenishgarve, Strongbow, Gay
Location Inishmakill: 4 miles south of Kesh
OS ref. 158587
Species: island-breeding garden warbler; black-headed, lesser black-backed and greater black-backed gulls.

Lough Navar Forest
Location off A46 10 miles north-west of Enniskillen
OS ref. 061576
Species: hen harrier, merlin, peregrine, raven; crossbill.

Lough Carran/Lough Ross
Location off C444, west of Ely Lodge
OS ref. 145470
Species: whooper swan, Canada goose, wigeon, kingfisher.

Upper Lough MacNean Lower Lough MacNean
Location north-west and south-east of Belcoo village
OS ref. 085387
Species: wintering Greenland white-fronted goose, whooper swan; great-crested grebe.

Pettigoe Plateau
Important Bird Area
Location first left off A35 east of Pettigoe
OS ref. 010650, sheets 17/12
There are a number of points of access to this large area of blanket bogland and moors scattered with pools. Try first left off A35 east of Pettigoe. For dedicated birders only.
Species: breeding hen harrier, golden plover; wintering Greenland white-fronted goose.

Castlecaldwell Royal Society for the Protection of Birds Reserve
Shore walks: waterfowl, waders, gulls and tern.
Tel (01365) 658328 or (01232) 491547

Lough Neagh

Great Crested Grebe

Lough Neagh is the largest freshwater lake in the British Isles. With Lough Beg and associated wetlands, it is a designated Ramsar Site - a wetland of international conservation importance. Its western shore, between the Ballinderry and Blackwater rivers, is in county Tyrone. Access points are few. Offshore in winter, enormous rafts of birds include the largest concentrations of diving duck in Britain and Ireland.

Species wintering waterfowl number up to 100,000, including 6 per cent of the world total of whooper swan; internationally significant numbers of Bewick's swan, pochard, tufted duck, scaup, goldeneye; nationally significant numbers of great crested grebe. These grebe make up an eighth of the British breeding population. Inland Sperrin Mountains: breeding golden plover, red grouse; buzzard, hen harrier, long-eared owl, peregrine, sparrowhawk, raven, plus crossbill, siskin in upland forests - Drum Manor, Gortin Glen, Knockmany, Lough Bradan, Seskinore. In the south of the county, Greenland white fronted geese graze by the Blackwater.

Ardboe And Newport Trench, Lough Neagh
Ramsar Site, Important Bird Area, Area of Special Scientific Interest
Locations both south of Ballyronan a mile apart, left on to B73, off B160 after 4 miles
OS ref. 968757/965771, sheet 14
Species: goldeneye, pochard, scaup, tufted duck; breeding shelduck. Inland, whooper and Bewick's swans graze the abandoned Kinrush airfield.

County Tyrone

Annaghroe, River Blackwater
Important Bird Area
Location take B45 south off the A28, 1/4 mile west of Caledon; turn left after 1/4 mile
OS ref. 740440, sheet 19
Access view only from the public road.
Species: wintering Greenland white-fronted geese.

Strabane Glen
Ulster Wildlife Trust reserve, Area of Special Scientific Interest
Location right 1/4 mile off B49, off A5 north of Strabane
OS ref. 359990, sheet 12
Species: water rail. nesting kestrel, raven.

Grange, River Foyle
Location 8 miles north of Strabane, west off A5, towards Bready
OS ref. 367062, sheet 7
Species: grazing Bewick's and whooper swans, greylag, and rarely Greenland whitefronted geese in winter.

Sperrin Mountains
Location Sawel Mountain, north off B47 at Sperrin village
OS ref. 617972, sheet 13
Species: breeding golden plover, peregrine, raven, red grouse.

Seskinore Forest. Rich in songbirds and birds of prey.
Tel (01662) 841243

County Londonderry

Lough Foyle is one of the two great magnets in the county. It is wide and shallow, bordered by mudflat, saltwater marsh, and polder - enhanced by shell and shingle ridge and mussel bed. Whooper swan, pale-bellied brent goose, wigeon and bar-tailed godwit winter in internationally significant numbers. Nationally important concentrations of Bewick's swan, Greenland white-fronted goose, curlew and redshank also overwinter here. Average winter wildfowl count exceeds 25,000 and waders reach 15,000. Winter stubble feeds flocks of finches larks and buntings and so attracts raptors- buzzard, kestrel, merlin, peregrine, sparrowhawk and, rarely, gyrfalcon. Gales from the north-west blow in storm petrel, arctic and great skua.

Inland Somerset, Springwell and Cam forests plus Ness Wood and Roe Valley Country Park hold goldfinch, siskin and blackcap, plus grasshopper, sedge, willow and wood warbler, crossbill and long-eared owl.

South-east: Lough Neagh/Lough Beg-Ramsar-designated, the second magnet.

Culmore Rubbish Dump
Important Bird Area
Location on A2, 6 miles north of Derry city, turn right after security checkpoint
OS ref. 479227, sheet 7
Species: glaucous and Iceland gulls share pungent smells with curlew sandpiper, whimbrel, black-tailed godwit, goldeneye and red-breasted merganser.

Royal Society for the Protection of Birds - Lough Foyle Reserve
Important Bird Area, Area of Special Scientific Interest
Location east from Longfield Point to Roe estuary.
Access to the 3,300-acre reserve is left off A2 eastwards, at three particular points to reach three particular viewing points. Take care at unmanned railway crossings.
Species: teal, wigeon; grazing swans and geese; Slavonian grebe, great northern, red-throated divers; little stint, spotted redshank on passage.

Location left past sign for Eglinton Flying Club
OS ref. 544237, sheet 7

Location left at Faughanvale Bar
OS ref. 581224, sheet 7

Ballykelly Marsh
Location left at Bridge House in Ballykelly
OS ref. 620246, sheet 7

Roe Estuary
National Nature Reserve
Location left off A2 before Bellarena levelcrossing
OS ref. 640285, sheet 4
Species: wintering bar-tailed godwit, curlew, redshank and wigeon; associated raptors. The Myroe Banks to the south offer views at high tide over the lough: in calm conditions Slavonian grebe and divers can be seen (winter).

Magilligan Point
National Nature Reserve, Important Bird Area
Location B202, left off A2
OS ref. 665378, sheet 4
Species wintering great northern and redthroated divers, long-tailed duck, snow bunting. Out at sea, gannet and skuas.

Location public carpark signposted at Downhill
OS ref. 707338, sheet 4
Species: cliff-breeding fulmar, rock-dove, buzzard, peregrine.

Bann Estuary
Location Castlerock Strand and the Barmouth Pier, north off A2
OS ref. 791356/782367, sheet 4
Species: in winter, eider, goldeneye, great-crested grebe, shelduck, red-breasted merganser, migrating waders. Real rarities have included Sabine's gull, Forster's tern and white-rumped sandpiper.

Lough Beg
Ramsar Site, Area of Special Scientific Interest, Important Bird Area
Location 1 mile west of Toome take Bellaghy road, turn right after 1 mile, then right
OS ref. 980950, sheet 14
Species: autumn passage - scarce green, pectoral and wood sandpipers, rare longbilled dowitcher, Wilson's phalarope; winter waders include jack snipe; winter wildfowl gadwall, mallard, pintail, pochard, shoveler and tufted duck; kestrel, peregrine; lapwing, meadow pipit and snipe breed.

Ballyronan Point, Lough Neagh
Ramsar Site, Area of Special Scientific Interest, Important Bird Area
Location on B18, south off A6, north-west of Toome
OS ref. 948860, sheet 14
Species: in winter largest concentration of scaup in Ireland; goldeneye, pochard, tufted duck.

Dogleap Centre, Roe Valley Country Park. Fun exhibitions, bird-rich walks.
Tel (0150 47} 22074

County Antrim

The majesty of the Causeway Coast vies for the birdwatcher's attention with fulmar, black guillemot, eider, turnstone, chough, buzzard, raven and wheatear. Offshore are the seabird colonies of Rathlin Island. In the middle is the Antrim plateau - red grouse moor, bog and forest. To the east are the mudflats of Belfast Lough, with the Bann, Lough Beg and Lough Neagh to the west.

Ramore Head
Location the peninsula at Portrush
OS ref. 852414, sheet 4
Species: on-shore winds bring winter flypasts of cormorant, fulmar and gannet; in autumn strong north-west winds bring flights of Leach's and storm petrels, shag, Manx and sooty shearwaters, plus Arctic, great and pomarine skuas; and Sabine's gulls in autumn. Ramore Head is particularly rewarding from August to October

Giant's Causeway
National Nature Reserve, National Trust
Location 1/4 mile north of Bushmills, off B146
OS ref. 954453, sheet 4
Species: buzzard, kestrel, peregrine, sparrowhawk; gannet, occasional black and common guillemots, razorbill; eider duck; chough; purple sandpiper; twite

Sheep Island
Area of Special Scientific Interest, Important Bird Area, Special Protection Area
Location west of Ballycastle
OS ref. 048458, sheet 5
Species: breeding cormorant numbers of European significance.

Rathlin Island
Area of Special Scientific Interest, National Nature Reserve. Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Important Bird Area
Location the main bird colonies are in the Kebble National Nature Reserve by the west lighthouse and in the cliffs to the north. The island is reached by boat from Ballycastle
OS ref. 095515, sheet 5
Species: cliff-breeding colonies of fulmar, guillemot, kittiwake, Manx shearwater, puffin, razorbill, shag; peregrine, raven. Access to West Light platform only with RSPB warden Tel (0126 57) 63969.

Fair Head
Location signposted off A2 west of Ballycastle
OS ref. 1 82438, sheet 5
Species: breeding buzzard, kestrel, peregrine, sparrowhawk; chough; twite. Golden eagles nested till 1960.

Murlough Bay
Location as for Fair Head
OS ref. 200420, sheet 5
Species: eider, fulmar, buzzard.

Garry Bog
Area of Special Scientific Interest
Location 5 miles north of Ballvmonev
OS ref. 940305, sheet 4
Species: grasshopper waroler.

Lough Beg and Lough Neagh
(see also county Londonderry)

Lough Neagh Wildfowl Refuge
National Nature Reserve
Location Randalstown
OS ref. 088872, sheet 14
Species rafts of pochard and tufted duck, plus goldeneye, mallard, scaup, teal and wigeon, mainly in winter.

Rea's Wood
Location 1/2 mile south of Antrim National Nature Reserve.
OS ref. 142855, sheet 14
Species as for Lough Neagh Wildfowl Refuge above.

Larne Lough/Swan Island
National Nature Reserve, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds reserve, Important Bird Area, Special Protection Area (island)
OS ref. 430000/423997, sheet 9
Access strictly no access to island view from Glynn-Maghermorne road.
Lough species: winter, internationally significant numbers of pale-bellied brent goose
Island species: summer, breeding common, roseate, and Sandwich terns: red-breasted merganser

Portmore Lough
Royal Society for the Protection of Birds reserve
Location south-west of Glenavy west off B156 along George's Island Rd.
OS ref. 115690, sheets 20/14
Species: wintering Bewick's and whooper swan, greylag goose, pochard, teal, wigeon; occasional autumn/spring marsh harrier. Access only with warden at present Tel (01846) 652406.

Portrush Countryside Centre. Wildlife exhibits Tel (01265) 823600.
Dunluce Centre, Portrush. Nature quizzes, birdsong recordings. Tel (01265) 824444.
Talnotry Cottage Bird Garden, Crumlin. Sanctuary for sick and injured birds. Tel (01849) 422900.

Belfast & Environs

Though reduced by land-reclamation, Belfast city's tidal mudflats are of international importance for wintering waders (13,000) and of national importance for wintering ducks. Ordnance Survey sheet 15 covers all sites in the Belfast area.

Belfast Lough
Area of Special Scientific Interest, Important Bird Area
Location Lagan estuary
Species: wintering populations: bar-tailed and black-tailed godwits, curlew, oystercatcher, redshank, turnstone: scaup, goldeneye; great-crested grebe.

Victoria Park
Location signposted off the Sydenham bypass
OS ref. 365755
Species: wintering roosting waders.

Harbour Lagoons
Location Kinnegar, east of Holywood
OS ref. 375780
Access restricted. Contact Belfast Harbour Commissioners, Harbour Office, Corporation Square, Belfast 1 Tel (01232) 554422.
Species: (Kinnegar) great-crested grebe, shelduck, waders.
(Lagoons) roosting waders, passage migrants, dabbling duck plus recorded sightings of rare buff-breasted sandpiper, long-billed dowitcher, black-winged stilt.

Location east of Holywood
OS ref. 406804
Species: purple sandpiper, turnstone, cormorant, shag.

Helen's Bay/Crawfordsburn Country Park
Location further east
OS ref. 450830
Species: red-breasted merganser and eider throughout the year.

Bangor Pier
Location Bangor
OS ref. 505822
Species: nesting black guillemot

Jordanstown, Loughshore Park
Location A2
OS ref. 366835
Species: bar-tailed godwit, turnstone

Carrickfergus Harbour
Location A2
OS ref. 415870
Species: black guillemot, long-tailed duck, red-throated diver in winter.

Lagan Valley Regional Park
Location footpaths link Shaw's, Drum, Ballyskea, Lambeg, Hilden and Union bridges off Upper Malone Rd/Al
Access a good point at which to begin is beyond Belfast Boat Club near Governor's Bridge, South Belfast
Species dipper, kingfisher, reed bunting, water rail, jay.

Belfast Zoo. White-tailed Sea Eagle Project: special aviary opens summer 1994. Tel (01232) 776277.
Ulster Museum, Belfast. Large display of Ireland's bird species. Tel (01232) 381251.
Lagan Valley Regionai Park. Ten miles of towpath with many river and canal birds Tel (01232) 491922.

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