It was already spring when we arrived on the island last year, so we’ve just experienced our first Rathlin winter. Out at the west (or the thick end as it’s traditionally known) we’ve had the place pretty much to ourselves and it’s been a wonderfully interesting contrast to the busy visitor season. It’s left us wondering why more people don’t come to visit Rathlin in the winter, and hopefully in this post you’ll see there’s plenty of reasons why you should.
Though lacking the colourful wildflowers of spring and summer, the landscape of Rathlin is certainly no less beautiful over the winter. In fact, in many ways the low angle of the sun makes it more so, with sunny days bringing a golden glow throughout the day. The cold, crisp air brings startling clarity to the scenic views, and we’ve seen across to Islay, to Ailsa Craig, even to the coast of Ayrshire, far more clearly than during the warmer months.
We’ve had just as many spectacular sunrises and sunsets as in the summer, with the added bonus that the crack of dawn occurs at a much more leisurely hour. Here with our clear views to the horizon, it’s easy to notice how the location of the rising and setting sun changes markedly with the season, contracting southwards until the winter solstice.
Of course it’s not all golden sunshine over the winter. Rathlin’s rugged shores get battered by wild storms, but listening to the gales blowing outside while being safely tucked up inside a cosy cottage is one of the romantic island experiences. And Rathlin is well adapted to surviving any meteorological onslaught – many times we ventured out the morning after a big blow and were surprised to find almost no damage or other evidence of the wild weather.
Being an offshore island, Rathlin is relatively well protected from extreme cold. Snow or hail from the odd wintry shower doesn’t stick around for long. But the isolation does throw up a few other challenges to deal with. Rathlin doesn’t have the luxury of a road gritting service in icy conditions, so when ice does form it can make driving around the island difficult, particularly up or down the steep hills. We try to avoid driving if it’s icy, but twice this winter we’ve been caught out and been unable to drive uphill, abandoning our car to walk (or slide) the rest of the way home.
Ice isn’t the only thing making it hard to drive – the potholes in the roads have steadily got worse over the winter, and in January we made the front page of the local paper, the Ballycastle Chronicle, with our picture of disgruntled road users.
The worst of the winter weather came in early March, when actually it was meteorological spring, but a minor technicality like that wasn’t going to hold back ‘the beast from the east’. The severe wind chill from the frigid air blasting in from the east created some truly phenomenal ice formations on Rathlin’s loughs and cliff waterfalls.
So, a winter visit provides plenty of opportunities to see Rathlin in a different light. There’s also been many fun events bringing the community together. The Christmas period was busy, first with the island’s choir, Rathlin Sound, performing at the switching on of the Christmas lights.
That was followed by the school Christmas play, in which the eight pupils of Rathlin’s St Mary’s Primary School played to a packed hall and put on an entertaining performance, each of them playing multiple parts. There were energetic activities to see out the year, with a 5km fun run on New Year’s Eve, before rousing choruses of Auld Lang Syne in McCuaig’s Bar at midnight. The next morning, Rathlin’s hardiest souls took to the harbour for a brief but bracing New Year’s Day swim.
And what about the birding action? Well, while midwinter is often thought of as the quiet part of the birding year, it is certainly not without interest. Despite the short daylight hours and sometimes difficult weather conditions, we found it an interesting and rewarding time to be out and about on Rathlin, particularly for the species that are winter visitors.
While many people assume that the summer is the only time to see seabirds on Rathlin, that is not really true. Common Guillemots, Razorbills, Kittiwakes and Fulmars can easily be seen offshore throughout the year, especially from the Rathlin ferry. In the shelter of the harbour, Black Guillemots can usually be found bobbing around even in winter, although at this time they are in their non-breeding plumage and mostly white. One very special winter seabird to look out for is the Little Auk, which breeds in the high Arctic but sometimes occurs in our waters during the winter months. It is most often encountered during periods of westerly gales, and this was the case on the two occasions we had brief glimpses of this starling-sized seabird fluttering over the pounding waves close to shore.
From late December onwards, large numbers of Fulmars could be seen occupying their territories on the high cliffs. They are the earliest of the seabirds to return after leaving in early September at the end of the breeding season. By January the cliffs were busier than we’d ever seen it in the summer, with swarms of Fulmars swooping around aerobatically in strong winds.
Less predictable are the Common Guillemots, which this year began returning to the cliffs in early February. Walking out to the West Light one fine morning, it was a thrill to discover the cliffs and stacks, having been completely empty of auks since early August, suddenly covered with tens of thousands of rowdy guillemots. They must start piling onto the cliffs well before dawn, then they may stay ashore for only a few hours before they all return to the sea. Their visits usually coincide with calm weather, but they are mysterious creatures and it is difficult to predict when they will be on the cliffs. The guillemots’ comings and goings become increasingly frequent by early spring in the build up to nesting time.
Winter has been an excellent time for watching wildfowl on the island. Pochard and Goldeneye are winter visitors to the island’s freshwater loughs, which also hold plenty of Teal at this time of year, as well as occasionally other surprises like the two Goosanders that dropped in briefly this year. Aside from the local Greylags, other geese pay sporadic visits to Rathlin, which this winter have included Barnacle, White-fronted and Pink-footed Geese (scarce in Northern Ireland). Families of Whooper Swans have also been present on the loughs, mainly in November when they were on the move. Offshore, there have usually been a few Great Northern Divers, which can be most easily spotted with a telescope from a high vantage point, like the lookout at Knockans.
There are several other species that are winter specialities. Glaucous and Iceland Gulls are occasionally seen among the much more numerous Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls. We’ve seen perhaps seven different Glaucous Gull individuals visiting Rathlin this winter, based on age and plumage characteristics.
Woodcocks are not uncommon, particularly in Kinramer Wood where a few seem to spend the winter. While we did see birds flying out to feed once or twice at dusk, most of our Woodcock views were of birds flushed by chance, noisily exploding into flight practically from under our feet. Common Snipe are numerous in marshy areas and, in a period of very cold weather we were lucky enough to find a Jack Snipe.
Raptor lovers won’t be disappointed either, with good views of resident Buzzards, Peregrine Falcons, and Sparrowhawks throughout the winter. To spice things up, there’s always a decent chance of Hen Harriers, Merlins and Kestrels (quite a rare sight in Rathlin).
We are yet to see an eagle here on Rathlin but with numerous records of Golden and White-tailed Eagles in recent years we live in hope. Perhaps the most likely time for them to show up is March/April so watch this space.
We’ve loved winter on Rathlin. But that’s not to say we’re not looking forward to things warming up a bit, migrants arriving and the seabirds returning to nest again in the coming weeks. Bring on the spring!