Greyabbey Mud Flats Wild on Water


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Greyabbey Mud Flats

Karen Patterson joins Jen Firth to discover why Strangford Lough supports such a diverse range of wildlife, in particular hungry birds.


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So, Jen, what are we looking for here?

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We're going to look under the sand

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to see what it is all the birds come to eat.

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-So, I'm going to give you the spade.

-Oh, good.

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-And I want you to focus on this little worm cast here.

-Aha.

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So, just dig in as far as you can and then just flip the sand over.

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OK.

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-That's perfect.

-All right.

-Brilliant.

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So, what we're looking for is a burrow.

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And these little worm casts are made by a worm called the lugworm

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and it's one of the favourite foods of the birds.

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-So, if we just dig around in here...

-What does he look like?

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Um, he looks like a little pink earthworm.

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Um, and... Here we go.

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-Oh, I'm glad you found him.

-Yeah, they're quite hard to find

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and they're quite small at this time of the year.

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-So, I'm going to pass that over to you.

-OK. It's windy.

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So, he's not very significant looking but he's very, very strong

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and as soon as you put him back in the sand, he'll burrow down.

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So, he eats all of the detritus that lives in the sand

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and then ejects it up to the surface,

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and that's why you get these little casts, these curly casts.

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OK, and what else have we got in this pool?

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OK, so, we've also got some cockles.

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Cockles are another important food source for the birds,

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especially the oystercatchers.

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All the different birds have different lengths of beak,

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so they specialise in different animals,

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and these ones only burrow about five to ten centimetres underneath.

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So, they just eat the gooey centre in the middle,

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-just like we would eat cockles.

-Hard work for a bird to get that.

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Yeah, they're pretty hard but they're all really good at getting

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-the soft centre out of there.

-I bet.

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As we've been talking about, lots of birds, lots to eat.

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Lots of vegetation, too?

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Yeah, this area is one of the most important areas for eelgrass,

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and it's one of the most protected habitats we have here.

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Every year in the winter

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we get nearly 100% of the pale-bellied brent goose population,

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and they come here to feed on the grass.

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So every summer we allow the grass to grow back,

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ready for these birds to come and feed.

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With such a rich variety of food, no wonder we get so many birds.

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And such a great place to watch them.

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Yeah, if you come here all year round you'll see birds,

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but in the winter we get huge numbers,

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and you can see some brilliant spectacles of birds.

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What are the most common, though, perhaps?

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If you pull up at any of the lay-bys along the road here,

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you're probably most likely to see the oystercatcher.

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They are the most distinctive.

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They're black and white, quite big birds,

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big, long, red beaks, big, long, red feet,

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so you can't miss them.

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And you'll always see them piercing their beaks into the sand.

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Do they eat oysters?

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They don't really eat oysters,

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I don't know why they got that name.

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Maybe in the past they ate more oysters,

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but now they really concentrate

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on the cockles and the worms in the sand.

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-What else might we see commonly?

-Quite common would be the heron.

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The heron flies along with big, open wings, huge bird.

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They dangle their feet,

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which is a really good way of telling what it is,

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and they'll stand at the edge of rock pools

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with their head stretched out, looking for fish.

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What then might be a more unusual visitor to the lough,

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or perhaps something that's just harder to see?

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Some of the birds are really well camouflaged, like the curlew.

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It's quite a big bird but it's got big, long feet

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and a huge, long, curved beak.

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-So once you see it, you know it's definitely a curlew.

-What else?

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We also get the redshank.

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The redshank is also easy to tell when you get it

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but it's quite a brown, mottled body.

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So if you see a bird with a brown, mottled body,

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a red, short beak and red legs, it's probably a redshank.

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How do we know what we're looking at?

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Well, whenever I'm stuck I just use a bird guide.

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I keep it in the car and that means it's there whenever I need it.

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But there's plenty of apps out there

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that you can use with your smartphone.

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You can download the guide onto your phone and use it just like a book,

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or you could take a photograph or a description

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and feed it into the app and some experts will even come back to you

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on your phone and tell you what it is.

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And I also just go home and look things up on the internet

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because then you've got the time to do it.

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And then when you're out,

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you can actually just enjoy looking at the birds.

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