RSPB Belfast Local Group Dawn Chorus Outing at Stranmillis University College, 13 April 2024

(by Moyra McMaster)

Dot gives some of us an introduction in the carpark. (Photo: Greg McCready)

For our April outing the RSPB Belfast Local Group (LG) decided to get ahead of the curve and have our Dawn Chorus outing a little earlier than National Dawn Chorus Day which falls on 5th May this year. [Ed: Read the report from our past Dawn Chorus Walk in 2022!] Following our successful outing in September 2023 to Stranmillis University College we were delighted to be invited back for a return visit. On this occasion it was for our annual Dawn Chorus morning. The College Campus is situated in forty-six acres of mature mixed woodland habitat in South Belfast. The College also extended the invitation to their Lifelong Learning students and as a result the event was well over-subscribed with many disappointed applicants. It was decided that, with such a large group, an expert guide was required, so we were delighted that Dot Blakely, our well-known Local Birding Expert, accepted our invitation to lead the outing.

The front gate (Photo: Greg McCready)

We arranged to meet in the lower main car park of the College for 05:50am with a sharp 06:00am start. As Sunrise was timed for 06:25am it was still dark on our arrival. Dot was first to arrive at 05:30am and was alone sharing the carpark with a fox on its early morning stroll. Mel O’Hagan, as our Outings Organiser, welcomed members and especially non-members. Mel particularly welcomed and introduced Dot Blakely to the twenty-nine attendees, also Greg McCready, Stranmillis University College Art and Design Technician, who acted as co-ordinator for the College.  

Greg guided us slowly up the Exit car route known locally as Cardiac Hill. A particular highlight occurred almost immediately as Greg pointed out the three Grey Heron nests. This site has been part of the annual BTO Heronries Census for many years. Greg surveys the site each spring which provides valuable information to the Ireland census. We stopped for some time to watch the Grey Herons fly in to feed their young chicks. At the top of the hill we walked round to behind the Orchard Building. A Chiffchaff was clearly heard but not seen – its namesake song echoing over the Yard. Dot informed us that it belongs to the warbler family and is the first spring migrant to arrive from North Africa. Another warbler, the Blackcap, arriving later than the Chiffchaff, was also in good note. Dot took time to explain how to identify its song.

Watching the herons on the hill. (Photo: Greg McCready)

We then made our way past the all weather pitches to the oldest building on Campus. Greg gave us a brief history of what remains of an original Plantation House owned by the Hill family. On route Dot spotted a Jay and stopped and didn’t move on until everyone got a good view. There were plenty of our regular resident birds too, like Blackbird, Blue Tit, Chaffinch, Coal Tit, Great Tit, Robin and Wren, to give us a good chance ‘to get our ear in’ to their equally melodic but different songs. We were given many memorable hints by Dot on how to distinguish and remember each different bird song. In addition, some calls were identified for us, and the differences between call and song were made clear.

We made our way back to the top of the Campus. On our left was Stranmillis House, a Victorian listed building, and to our right the start of the new Centenary Trail which had been especially commissioned and designed for the College Centenary. The trail had been officially opened in September 2023. Greg gave us a potted history of the significance of the area and its importance to Queens University archaeologists.

Those of us who felt inclined took the Centenary Trail the short distance down to the pond whilst Mel remained with those who preferred to stay on more secure ground to offer an alternative walk. When we joined up again and made our way down via the Entrance Road of the College, Dot gave us her legendary story of the Leaf Miner Moth lifecycle, illustrated on an ivy leaf she had just picked up on the Trail.

Dot tells her legendary Leaf Miner Moth story (Photo: Greg McCready)

The weather remained dry but cloudy at a pleasant 9˚C for the most part of the morning. As the morning progressed and daylight appeared, a distinct rise in temperature was noticed, accompanied by some welcome sunshine. It had become notably quieter with very little bird song; Dot explained that this was because the birds were now feeding.

Although this was primarily a birding outing, it would have been difficult to ignore the abundance of spring wildflowers. There was in particular a grassy bank covered extensively with primrose. The wood anemone and three-cornered garlic provided a white carpet of flowers underneath the woodland trees. On our walk down to the pond we spotted our first bluebells of the year. Greg walked us past some very important trees on Campus, a few quite famous, including the Turkish Oak which is reported to be over two hundred years old; in the 1970’s this came tenth in the British Tree of the Year competition. The Handkerchief tree on Cardiac Hill also generates great interest, especially in May when it is in full bloom.

We ended with another steep climb up Cardiac Hill which gave us a second chance to see the grey herons. Looking down through the trees Dot spotted a Moorhen in yet another pond. We finished the morning back at the Campus Café where we were welcomed by refreshments provided by Ilva Prindule, Science Technician in the College. Eleanor Brennan, our LG Volunteer Leader, had set up a temporary pop-up RSPB stall in Reception, which gave us the opportunity to socialize, especially with non-members. Arrangements had been made for the Café to open early at 9am for those who were ready for a well-earned breakfast break.

Thanks to Mel and Greg for managing to secure and organise another outing to Stranmillis University College Campus, enabling us to explore this very special, unique space. Huge thanks go to Dot Blakely for so willingly giving up her time to share with us her extensive knowledge and expertise, making the outing such an enjoyable and engaging morning for everyone. Our observations for the morning – as listed below – came to the grand total of twenty-four, which was especially impressive considering that in our September 2023 outing we had reached only a total of four.

[Ed: Check out the RSPB Guide to Birdsong!]

Sightings and/or sounds:

  1. Blackcap
  2. Blackbird
  3. Blue Tit
  4. Carrion crow
  5. Chaffinch
  6. Chiffchaff
  7. Coal Tit
  8. Cormorant – 3 flew overhead
  9. Goldcrest
  10. Great Tit
  11. Grey Heron
  12. Greylag Geese – 2 flew overhead
  13. Herring Gull
  14. Hooded crow
  15. Jackdaw
  16. Jay
  17. Lesser Black-backed Gull
  18. Magpie
  19. Mallard – 1 female and three males flew overhead
  20. Mistle Thrush
  21. Moorhen
  22. Robin
  23. Woodpigeon
  24. Wren