April sees one the most impressive mass movements of
wildlife – the departure of most of the global population of light-bellied brent geese from the UK back to Arctic Canada. At Castle Espie, situated on the shores of one of Europe’s great marine habitats, Strangford Lough, you won’t even need binoculars to witness the spectacle – just stand and gawp as flocks of between 500 and 3,000 geese gather in preparation for a no-frills flight back to the Arctic Circle.
As well as being the launch pad for one of nature’s great mass migrations and home to scores of wildfowl, this family-friendly reserve is home to a variety of tame birds, which obediently chomp up the visitors’ handfuls of proffered grain. If you’ve ever felt the need to stroke a whooper swan or get up close to a rufus whistling tree duck, this could be your chance. Plentiful identification guides keep kids absorbed, you’ll probably run into a couple of twitchers and you may very well exchange glances with the odd common seal.
Most of the world’s population of brent geese overwinter on Strangford Lough. The brent is a small dark goose. Its name is nothing to do with the area of London; it derives from the guttural sound of the call, which you’ll hear echoing across the Lough.
The mudflats are home to large flocks of redshanks – unmistakable with their red legs and a black-tipped red bill. They feed with the rise and fall of the tide. Other common names include redleg or, sometimes Warden of the Marshes.
The reserve is home to large numbers of Irish hares. Lepus timidus hibernicus is one of the few hares that doesn’t turn white in the winter. For that reason, many zoologists believe the Irish hare should be classified as a separate species.
The common seal – which funnily enough isn’t as common as the grey seal – can be spotted in the Lough regularly. Now seals may have no neck or ears and can give you a nasty nip, but you still can’t help loving them. Keep your eyes peeled for rocky outcrops close to shore where they often haul out.
The Limekiln Observatory overlooks Strangford Lough, giving a 360° view of the sea lough and its eelgrass beds. Eelgrass, or Vallisneria, is a submerged plant that spreads by runners (without seeds or spores). The new observatory is a great place to watch birds feeding on these luscious marine meadows.
Along with the mute swan, the whooper is Ireland’s biggest bird. Their deep, honking call is an evocative sound. Unlike their more familiar mute cousins, whoopers have yellow bills not orange. Despite their size, the birds are powerful fliers, taking off from the lough with sonorous strokes.
1 Comber Road, Killinchy
028 9754 1210
A famous 19th-century coaching inn, Balloo House has the reputation as one of the finest country dining pubs in Northern Ireland.
Daft Eddy’s Bar
Killinchy BT23 6QH
028 9754 1615
Renowned for fresh food and friendly service. Daft Eddy’s offers fresh oysters and lobster among the daily seafood.
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41 Gransha Road, Comber
028 9044 8631
A family-owned 4-star country hotel, just 15 minutes from Belfast.
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Mountstewart, Portaferry Road, Nr Newtownards BT22 2AD
028 4278 8387
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78 Ballydrain Road, Comber, County Down BT23 6EA
028 9187 4146