Alan Dalton post's birding diaries and original artwork from Sweden. Established in 2006, this now long running blog is now a complete overview of my birding experiences. As an artist I greatly enjoy sketching birds in the field and you will find a wide selection of that work here, from fieldwork to finished paintings. I am very passionate about my artwork and try to depict birds in their natural habitat, as I see them in the wild. My artwork is for sale and can be viewed at
As regards to my photography, since 2008 I have used a Nikon D90 DSLR camera coupled with a Sigma 150-500mm OS lens for since March 2012 for bird photography, all previous images being digiscoped. Regarding sound recording, I have been usung a Telinga Stereo Dat Mic and parabol to record birds in the field, coupled to a Marrantz 661 digital recorder, a superb piece of kit. Interest in butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies has recently seen the accquisition of a Sigma 150mm macro lens. I hope you enjoy the blog and please feel free to leave comments or contact me at

Saturday, January 06, 2018

The Decline of a UNESCO Reserve; Birding on North Bull Island, Dublin, Ireland. 29th December 2017-January 5th 2018

 Above; A rather iconic species, the Eurasian Curlew. Sadly, this species number are rapidly dwindling throughout it's range. Ireland is no exception. The species is red listed as a breeding species in Ireland after a catastrophic in breeding pairs, more than ninety per cent of the breeding population has now been lost. Numbers of wintering birds have also dropped alarmingly and this was apparent on the island again this winter...

A trip home to visit family alway's has a silver lining for me, I get to visit the site where I cut my teeth as a young birder, North Bull Island. I spent several mornings on the island over the turn of the year, throughout my stay in Ireland the weather was difficult, gale force winds sweping over the island. There were some wonderful birds to be seen throughout, but the more I looked through the birds on the first morning, there more I noticed that there has been an alarming decrease in the overall numbers of wintering species in general. Having lived abroad for many years, this was striking to me personally and returning to the island was a poignant experience as a result. The huge flocks of Dunlin, Knot and Bar tailed Godwits I remember as a young birder are no longer wheeling over the saltmarshes at high tide. Wildfowl numbers have plummeted and I was stunned to see so few Shoveler, Pintail, and Wigeon in particular. These declines have been well documented in the regular bird counts over thirty years or more. Bird populations have been regularily monitored here for decades and the data reveals alarming and steady decreases in many species populations. The declines are due to a combination of factors, though it is an inescapable conclusion the the site is suffering from chronic neglect. North Bull Island is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and is Ireland's oldest nature reserve, first established in 1931. It holds critical numbers of wildfowl and waders and as such, requires careful protection and management. This has been sadly lacking.
 The island's duty of care falls mainly under Dublin County Council, in partnership with Dublin Port Company. In addition, there are two Golf Courses on the island. Sadly, the care of the island's wildlife has been practically ignored by Dublin County Council in particular, with a strong emphasis having been put on the development of the island primarily as a public amenity, not a UNESCO Biosphere reserve. The results of this can be observed on a daily basis on the island, with activities such as canoeing, windsurfing, parasailing, motorbike scrambling and bait digging all commonplace. Dog walking is practically unregulated and dogs are frequently to be seen running freely off leash, often chasing waders and other birds at high tide roosts. The causeway, built between 1962-1964 has caused a disastrous build up of silt and has changed the islands ecology drastically. The introduction of the invasive Buckthorn shrub is now looming large and the plant is now encroaching on key habitats all over the island. Key ground nesting species such as Little Tern and Ringed Plover have already ceased to breed on the island due to constant disturbance, whilst the Irish Hare has been sadly driven to extinction due to the problems caused by free running dogs. All of this disturbance and the failure to manage the island primarily in the interest of it's wildlife mean that the sites biodiversity has been dramatically impacted.

 Greenshank; Small numbers of this lovely wader winter on the island...

 Grey Plover; Up to 142 present on the island during the period...

I tried to get on to the island most days to enjoy the birds whilst home, with the first day producing stunning views of a wintering Common Kingfisher at the mouth of the River Santry. The bird proved quite confiding an allowed me to get some decent images of a normally elusive species, as well as some excellent video footage. The tide was high in the morning and I decided to walk along the causeway. Over the saltmarshes a Peregrine Falcon was observed on a couple of occasions, with a single Merlin also present.
Another highlight during the week was a Short Eared Owl, which gave wonderful views towards the north of the island. This bird exploded from the marram grass in typical fashion and flew a short distance before pitching down on the saltmarsh. Nearby, a careful check of a favoured area produced two Jack Snipe. It was whilst looking for Jack Snipe that a more unexpected species was flushed in the guise of two Water Rail, the first multiple sighting of this scarce winter visitor ever on the island. Up to 18 Common Snipe were also noted in the same area, another regular wintering species here.
 Back at the River Santry outflow, 407 Black tailed Godwit was a nice count on the falling tide. Happily, Shelduck and Brent Goose are still present in very high numbers over the reserve. These three species are doing well here and numbers remain high. This, however, was not the case for three other key species. Dunlin, Bar tailed Godwit and Knot were all present, but in remarkably low numbers. In fact, the long term figures point to a steady decline in all three species over the past twenty years. These three species used to darken the skies at high water at this site. It didn't end there. Wildfowl numbers were also down, with Shoveler most difficult to find. Pintail were still present along the causeway at high tide, though again, their numbers have been declining steadily. This elegant duck numbers just over one hundred birds at present, the graph for this species overall numbers prescribing an alarming downward curve from a former wintering population of several hundred. Eurasian Curlew, an iconic wintering bird on North Bull Island, has also plummeted in numbers. The Oystercatcher roost is much reduced, whilst the numbers of Redshank present upon the mudflats as the falling tide receded were far fewer than I would of expected. The more I looked, the more apparent it became, many nationally important bird populations on the island have crashed..

 Above; Images and video footage of the overwintering Common Kingfisher at the mouth of the River Santry. A rather confiding individual, given a little patience. Very nice to get some decent images and some excellent video of this stunning little bird...

 Little Egret, An increasing species on the island, reflecting this birds rapid population expansion in Ireland in the past twenty years.

 Common Redshank; Abundant on the island, though like so many other species of wader, numbers are dropping steadily at this site...

Throughout the week, small numbers of passerines were noted, though this is not a group of birds for which the island is noted. Good numbers of Linnet were present however, and I would estimate no fewer than 200 are currently present on the island. Meadow Pipit, Stonechat, Skylark, Dunnock, Reed Bunting, Blackbird and Starling were all present, with 3 Rock Pipit also seen. On the sea, Great Crested Grebe, Red breasted Merganser and a few Greater Cormorant were the best, though the rough conditions and the westerly origin of the wind meant that not much else was noted on the sea at high tide.

 Rock Pipit; This individual was one of three birds noted during the period and favoured the south side of the causeway.

Adult Mediterranian Gull. Small numbers are generally present on the island, with a maximum of two birds on 5th January 2018.

In short, North Bull Island remains a wonderful place to visit. The proximity of the birds has always been remarkable and to have such a reserve so close to the capital is nothing short of a blessing. All those that have regularily visited the reserve regularily over the years enjoy the wonderful spectacle provided by such a diversity of birdlife on their doorstep. My overall feeling as I write remains one of concern, as it is quite clear this is a reserve is in decline. Given the proper attention and correct management there is little doubt the island could only benefit and possibly even recover to a degree. Outside factors, such as loss of habitat on the breeding grounds, polution and the effects of global warming must also be factored in. Given the current state of affairs, however, it is only too apparent that wildlife here is not the primary concern. Despite the island's legal status as a UNESCO reserve, it seems the firm priority is to develop the island as a public amenity. In an increasingly urban surround, it seems inevitable that disturbance and development can only increase and that the wildlife will gradually be squeezed out. There are already plans to build another visitor centre complete with a cafeteria. Soup, toasted sandwiches and coffee will be provided for the visiting hordes. The alarming downcurve in the reserve's bird populations are being completely ignored whilst those charged with their protection turn their attentions to insuring a steady upcurve in visitors and revenue. The huge flocks of wheeling waders against the backdrop of the Poolbeg chimneys are already becoming a thing of the past, the bubbling call of the Curlew is being slowly silenced, a tale to be told in the not too distant future by elderly Dubliners out walking the dog on a fine, breezy morning....

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