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?
We're going to look under the sand
to see what it is all the birds come to eat.
-So, I'm going to give you the spade.
-And I want you to focus on this little worm cast here.
So, just dig in as far as you can and then just flip the sand over.
So, what we're looking for is a burrow.
And these little worm casts are made by a worm called the lugworm
and it's one of the favourite foods of the birds.
-So, if we just dig around in here...
-What does he look like?
Um, he looks like a little pink earthworm.
Um, and... Here we go.
-Oh, I'm glad you found him.
-Yeah, they're quite hard to find
and they're quite small at this time of the year.
-So, I'm going to pass that over to you.
-OK. It's windy.
So, he's not very significant looking but he's very, very strong
and as soon as you put him back in the sand, he'll burrow down.
So, he eats all of the detritus that lives in the sand
and then ejects it up to the surface,
and that's why you get these little casts, these curly casts.
OK, and what else have we got in this pool?
OK, so, we've also got some cockles.
Cockles are another important food source for the birds,
especially the oystercatchers.
All the different birds have different lengths of beak,
so they specialise in different animals,
and these ones only burrow about five to ten centimetres underneath.
So, they just eat the gooey centre in the middle,
-just like we would eat cockles.
-Hard work for a bird to get that.
Yeah, they're pretty hard but they're all really good at getting
-the soft centre out of there.
As we've been talking about, lots of birds, lots to eat.
Lots of vegetation, too?
Yeah, this area is one of the most important areas for eelgrass,
and it's one of the most protected habitats we have here.
Every year in the winter
we get nearly 100% of the pale-bellied brent goose population,
and they come here to feed on the grass.
So every summer we allow the grass to grow back,
ready for these birds to come and feed.
With such a rich variety of food, no wonder we get so many birds.
And such a great place to watch them.
Yeah, if you come here all year round you'll see birds,
but in the winter we get huge numbers,
and you can see some brilliant spectacles of birds.
What are the most common, though, perhaps?
If you pull up at any of the lay-bys along the road here,
you're probably most likely to see the oystercatcher.
They are the most distinctive.
They're black and white, quite big birds,
big, long, red beaks, big, long, red feet,
so you can't miss them.
And you'll always see them piercing their beaks into the sand.
Do they eat oysters?
They don't really eat oysters,
I don't know why they got that name.
Maybe in the past they ate more oysters,
but now they really concentrate
on the cockles and the worms in the sand.
-What else might we see commonly?
-Quite common would be the heron.
The heron flies along with big, open wings, huge bird.
They dangle their feet,
which is a really good way of telling what it is,
and they'll stand at the edge of rock pools
with their head stretched out, looking for fish.
What then might be a more unusual visitor to the lough,
or perhaps something that's just harder to see?
Some of the birds are really well camouflaged, like the curlew.
It's quite a big bird but it's got big, long feet
and a huge, long, curved beak.
-So once you see it, you know it's definitely a curlew.
We also get the redshank.
The redshank is also easy to tell when you get it
but it's quite a brown, mottled body.
So if you see a bird with a brown, mottled body,
a red, short beak and red legs, it's probably a redshank.
How do we know what we're looking at?
Well, whenever I'm stuck I just use a bird guide.
I keep it in the car and that means it's there whenever I need it.
But there's plenty of apps out there
that you can use with your smartphone.
You can download the guide onto your phone and use it just like a book,
or you could take a photograph or a description
and feed it into the app and some experts will even come back to you
on your phone and tell you what it is.
And I also just go home and look things up on the internet
because then you've got the time to do it.
And then when you're out,
you can actually just enjoy looking at the birds.