Ulster Trails Excerpted from Wildbird
The Atlantic winds off Portrush's craggy coast were gale force, making my binoculars vibrate like the wings of the Northern Fulmar I could see fighting its way back to a cliff-side nest. My auburn hair had blown into an approximation of a red-breasted Merganser's crest. And since I didn't pack boots in the suitcase I brought from Philly, I was the only one in our group who was soaked to the knees. Another rainy gust, and I felt like I was about to be blown clear along the Giant's Causeway--where the legendary Irish giant Finn McCool put his stepping stones to Scotland.
It was another day of birding in the heart of Ulster, the northern six counties of Ireland that remained part of Great Britain when Ireland won its independence in 1922. And the day trip was one of the most enjoyable times I've ever had.
In Ulster I found a place of otherworldly beauty where the lifestyle is relaxed, the conversation lively and a sense of history is as much a part of life as the mists that fall on birds and birders alike.
"No one comes to Northern Ireland strictly for the birds," I was told again and again. And it's true if you're looking for the exotic and the rare. But if you want to hike unspoiled coast or forest land, breathe unpolluted air, roam through castle ruins and get plenty of opportunities to view birds in their natural state--Northern Ireland is "brilliant," as the locals put it. With only one and a half million people and about 900,000 annual visitors, you won't have to fight the hordes of a Cape May weekend during spring migration. The roads are excellent, and you'll be taken care of with British flair at top-notch accommodations and restaurants.
Just remember to bring your boots…………
"Out all day birdwatching, and the craic was good"
---Belfast singer Van Morrison, in "Coney Island"
Time hangs differently in Ireland. It was past 3:00 when Chris pulled the van into a tiny picnic area with a stream racing alongside and sheep blankly staring at us from pasturesbeyond. Taking our bag lunches, we headed for a wooden picnic table with a dilapidated peaked roof. There we huddled in the space between bench and table, trying to avoid the rain dripping through the missing boards. As the rain continued--down the backs of our necks and onto our lunches--someone wryly remarked, "At least we have a roof over our heads." And this is the "crack"--"craic" in Gaelic--the art of amusing conversation that still reigns in Ireland.
But there was not even a feeble roof over us on the last stop of the day. Ramore Head is at the end of a peninsula that crooks a jaunty "thumb's up" as it juts into the Atlantic along the northern coast. It edges the resort town of Portrush, a popular vacation destination with a huge wooden roller coaster dubbed the world's "longest and steepest," and the Royal Portrush Golf Club (which is quite welcoming to guests who want a break from birding.)
Today the gale force winds were so strong only a sole fulmar was braving the air currents back to its nest. The wind blew our hair into our eyes; our hands froze on our binoculars. Prickling sea spray turned our complexions that lovely rosy hue the Irish are known for, and we decided to a man and woman to adjourn to the nearest pub. At the Ramore Restaurant we took turns in front of the turf fire in the bar and discussed our day's finds. It was here that I was introduced to hot whiskeys, a heated version of whiskey and water, with a lemon floating on the top and bit of sugar added. Unless you're a teetotaler, they are the perfect accompaniment to the end of a day of birding in Northern Ireland...
Christine Kuehn Kelly
Freelance Writer and Editor