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Birds of the Erne Islands

 


BIRDS OF THE ERNE ISLANDS

Boa Island in itself is not particularly interesting as an area for birdwatching but is surrounded by islands and water and a habitat which includes everything from moorland to high cliffs. Mr Joe Magee who was the local representative of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds tells of the immensely varied birdlife around Boa Island.

The biggest influence on Lough Erne in the recent past has been the various Erne drainage schemes and in particular that of 1880 to 1890. This lowered the level of the lake almost two metres and exposed a great amount of lake bottom which is now dry land. This new land belonged to the Government and in most places was just allowed to run wild and form dense scrub. Most of Boa Island has this fringe of scrub apart from the foreshore of Ardshankill Townland where the local people disregarded the Government and grazed the land and prevented the seedlings of trees growing. In addition during the Second World War this foreshore was part of a military base and carried a lot of military traffic. This bare shore has various wading birds nesting such as Curlew, Redshank and Lapwing and very unusually the Dunlin. There are only about 15 pairs nesting in Northern Ireland and about two thirds of them nest between here and Castle Caldwell. One or two pair nest here in Ardshankill, about six pair along Lowry shore near Castle Caldwell and one pair at Tulawanya Lake nearby.

The biggest concentrations of birds are on small rocky islands such as Gravel Ridge Island and Screegan Island. Gravel Ridge Island, almost all rock and a small amount of grass and some nettles had about 4000 pairs of Black Headed Gulls nesting there in 1988. It is only about 2 acres in size. Gulls like these nest in dense colonies together for protection and they will help each other to drive away predators such as Magpies or Grey Crows. The gulls mob them by crowding all round them in the sky. Other birds take advantage of this protection and 94 pair of Sandwich Terns nested on the same small island as well as several kinds of ducks mainly Tufted Ducks. However mink and rats are two other predators the birds can do little about. The mink are an introduced species and an increasing menace but rats have been around the lake longer. The rats on Gravel Ridge have been able to swim out to the island at some stage and during the summer when there is plenty of food they multiply on the dead birds and general casualties of the colony. When the birds leave however the rats have the barren island to themselves and although some may swim away it is believed that they turn cannibal and only the toughest and most fierce survive until the birds return next year. Sometimes the R.S.P.B. puts down poison for the rats. Man was once a powerful predator on these birds also as he took eggs to eat locally or to send to England to be eaten in fancy restaurants. The birds could replace these eggs if they were taken early enough in the season however and the removal of eggs did little harm.

Another recent arrival on the islands have been feral geese. These are geese that have gone back to the wild and this has happened with Canada and Greylag Geese that now nest on the islands. Screegan Island is home to about 80 pairs of Lesser Black Backed Gulls but it's real claim to fame is that the very rare black tern once nested here. This is recorded in the A.A, Book of Birds. There are other terns nesting in the area and, including the Sandwich Terns already mentioned, there are Common and Arctic Terns. Like some other species the Terns have declined in recent years and there are only a few small colonies on the lake and a colony of about 15 pair on an island on nearby Lough Verty.

The most unusual and exotic bird to nest here has to be the Flamingo. Three birds turned up first in 1981 and two returned in 1982 and to everyone’s disbelief built a nest and laid an egg. The sight attracted television cameras and sightseers and the disturbance may have prevented the egg hatching out. The nesting Flamingo would stand up when disturbed and remained standing even when people were far away. For this or other reasons the egg never hatched and the Flamingos have not come back. They were probably escapees from a Zoo or Nature Park. They had a sad ending when shot by some local thugs.

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Contributed by John Cunningham

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