Wildlife

The Giant’s Causeway and Carrick-a-Rede Wildlife

The Giant’s Causeway is a UK National Nature Reserve with good reason; the area is a safe haven for wildlife and plant lovers will also find a range of both common and rare flora. A short distance away at the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge fulmars, kittiwakes, guillemots and razorbills all inhabit the coastline and islands.

While there are interesting birds to be found across Northern Ireland throughout the year, autumn is a particularly interesting time as area is the first landfall for waders, ducks, and gulls which have been blown off course while migrating across the Atlantic from North America.

The beautiful sea loughs of Strangford and Foyle often boast enough variety of birdlife for enthusiasts to spend an entirely simply watching the wildlife go by. If your time runs short, you can always plan a return trip at another time or year but no matter when you visit, there’ll always be an array of quality accommodation, fine dining in restaurants and pubs, and friendly locals to make your stay that much more enjoyable.

Here’s some of the main species of sea birds you can see in Northern Ireland.

Fulmars

Belonging to the same family of sea bird as the albatross, the tubenoses, these birds are unique in that they possess tubes on top of the bill, rather than the nostril openings seen in other avian species.

In the North Atlantic, any gull-sized grey and white bird with a tube on the bill you might encounter is almost certainly a fulmar. Also common in the North Sea and as far away as Alaska, fulmars regularly arrive on Ireland’s shores.

While a common species, an overwhelming majority (98 per cent according to a Dutch study of fulmars in the southern North Sea) carry plastic in their stomachs thanks to their habit of eating almost anything on the surface of the water included discarded plastic bottles and similar waste. On average, each fulmar now carries 0.6 grams or 30 pieces of plastic which represents a rise of almost double since the 1980s. For comparison, the equivalent amount in a human would be about 60 grams.

These birds will fly hundreds of kilometres from their nesting colonies to find food which can vary from small fish (often scavenged from discarded fish thrown back into the sea by fishing trawlers), to crustaceans, squid, and jellyfish.

Ranging in colour from dark blue/grey to stark white, northern fulmars bear a yellowish beak and are generally about the same size as glaucous-winged gulls though their necks are usually much thicker and this is one of their defining features.

Fulmars can be often be spotted from some distance as they glide in large swoops above the wave crests but they tend to be far less likely to spend time on land than many other sea birds preferring to forage far from land while nesting in sizable colonies on distant islands. They tend to prefer the highest cliff tops and will sometimes places their nests amid the colonies of other sea bird species.

Sometimes predators threaten their eggs but fulmars aren’t defenceless – they’ll protect their nests with a foul smelling stream of stomach oils uttered from their throats. This rather nasty spray means biologists and other scientists looking to study fulmars must wear full rainwear even on the warm, sunny days.

Fulmars are almost unique in the Northern Hemisphere as members of the tube-nosed family of birds, the majority of similar species can be found south of the equator, and can live for much longer than many other bird species – sometimes up to fifty years or more.

Before the mid-18th Century, northern fulmars only had one or two main colonies in Iceland and St. Kilda but spread to the Faroe Islands and from there to Scotland and then the rest of the UK and Ireland. Fulmars first bred in Ireland in 1911 and are now widespread. This expansion is believed to be thanks to the growth of the fishing industry in the 1800s. While fulmar numbers exploded in the 20th Century, this growth has ceased or even declined in some areas since 1985 because of the diminished scale of North Sea whitefish industry which led to declining volumes of offal being discharged by shipping trawlers.

Petrels

One of the most common birds to be seen in the area are petrels which skim across the tops of the waves; thus earning them their name, deriving from ‘Little Peter’ after the disciple and saint who walked over water to Jesus on the Sea of Galilee.

Petrels have evolved perfectly for their environment and boast webbed feet, dense plumage, and curved beaks. They also have a strong sense of smell thanks to their long nostrils which is unusual for birds. Petrels breed on cliff tops and steep rock- faces in packed colonies which can be as far as 100 kilometres or further inland from the ocean on exposed rocky areas and within mountain ranges.

In places where cats and rodents are present, petrel populations have been severely impacted by predators but they can defend themselves by regurgitating the acids in their stomach.

Giant Petrels

The biggest variety of petrel, giant petrels, forage for food on land and at sea unlike fulmars or albatrosses and have been known to take on prey as sizable as king penguins. Whilst they are known for scavenging from seal colonies and the carcasses of dead whales and sea birds, Giants petrels also feast upon delicacies such as squid, prawns and mussels.

Their habit of feeding on carrion has gained them the unfortunate nickname ‘stinkers’ from whalers and whilst giant petrels might not have the finest dining habits in the world, they’re undoubtedly magnificent in flight.

Great Winged Petrel

First discovered during the 1940s, great winged petrels are a dark brown bird which breeds during the winter months and lays one egg from May to June in burrows dug into hillsides. Around Christmas, chicks begin to fledge meaning they’re ready for flight just as the breeding season commences.

Great winged petrels return to their burrows after night falls in order to lessen the threat from Atlantic predators such as the skua. If they do venture out at night, great winged petrel tend to feast on squid.

Cape Petrel

Also known as the ‘painted one’ thanks to the pattern which runs along its back and wings the dark brown/black and white petrel breeds on cliff ledges and rock crevices and are about the size of a pigeon. These birds often follow ships and will eat almost anything thrown overboard. Cape petrels usually live for between 15 and 20 years.

Atlantic Petrel

Easily recognised thanks to its striking white stomach and entirely brown plumage, the Atlantic petrel is amongst the largest in the extended family and they breed in winter with chicks being fed in October. There are perhaps 10,000 to 30,000 Atlantic petrels in the population. They tend to feed on squid.

White Headed Petrel

Far more common than the Atlantic petrel, white headed petrels number in the low hundreds of thousands and have, as their name suggests, a white head coupled with dark wings and a pale body and tail. Dieting on crustaceans, squid, and lantern fish white headed petrels breed in summer and lay one egg in excavated soft peat grasslands.

European Storm Petrel

This small, square-tailed bird is entirely black except for a broad white rump and a white band on the underwings, and moves about with fluttering, bat-like flight. Most European storm petrels, also known simply as storm petrels, breed on islands off the coasts of Europe, and there’s a large number to be found in the Faroe Islands, the UK, Ireland and Iceland. Strongly migratory, storm petrels spend the Northern Hemisphere’s winters in Namibia and South Africa.