Larne Lough


Larne Lough by Neal Warnock

A typical view from Glynn Station

I was going to entitle this site guide Gulls, Goosanders and Gank as that’s what I’ve come to know my home town for, but that would be highly disparaging and not at all true. Despite being the butt of many a joke, Larne has a lot to offer the patch birder.  This is after all, where I cut my birding teeth and is home to the one site I watch the most – Sandy Bay.  With a lighthouse, gardens, a small beach and a shiny big harbour, stick this place in Cork and it’d be great! 
In the past couple of years, I will admit to losing a bit of interest in birding around my local sites, as good birds are few and far between.  However, Larne Lough has plenty to offer throughout the year if you’re prepared to stick at it.  It is perhaps best known for its breeding tern and gull islands and many of these birds can be picked up loafing at the mouth of Glynn River, which is another good site within the patch boundary.  The patch has a few birding secrets up its sleeve which will be revealed during the next year on the blog.  To whet your appetite I have already written about the “Larne Lough gull influx and exodus” on the fabulous Northern Ireland Black-headed Gull Study blog here.
The patch itself covers 2.8km2 and takes in much of the ID40 square I covered for the recent Bird Atlas, omitting the north tip of Islandmagee across the lough. From Larne Promenade and the Town Park in the north, the greater harbour area and the Inver River at its heart, to Glynn and surrounds in the south, it offers a good range of habitats and opportunities.  During the Atlas years, I recorded close to 150 species in ID40, so I expect that somewhere around 120 species for 2014 would be a good target to aim for, but who knows how it will end up - a case of sink or swim I suspect.

The Patch
A rough day along Larne Promenade
Sandy Bay
A 300m stretch of beach and rocky shoreline and an all important sewage outfall running from Larne Leisure Centre to the harbour gate at the mouth of the lough, this is the site I will check most often.  It is best known for attracting rare gulls. I have personally seen 13 species at the site (including Kumlien’s).  It is particularly worth a look following stormy weather or harsh weather in Britain. It also gets its fair share of White Wagtails, Wheatears, Common Sandpipers, and Whimbrels etc during spring passage.
Sandy Bay, Larne

I’ve seen some good birds here over the years including Bonaparte’s Gull, Kumlien’s Gull, Ring-billed Gull, Glaucous Gull, Iceland Gull and Little Gull.  When I found the Bonaparte’s feeding offshore on a fine day in October 2011, a Pomarine Skua flew in for a quick look.  Other scarcities seen here include Dark-bellied Brent, Long-tailed Duck, Curlew Sandpiper, Little Stint, Scandinavian Rock Pipit, Twite and Waxwing.
Targets species for 2014: Water Pipit, Snow Bunting, Black Redstart, Ivory Gull...
Waxwing - recorded twice around Sandy Bay

Little Stint - I've only seen one here!
Twite - regular enough at Sandy Bay

And now for the gulls... there's a Little Gull in here somewhere!
 This Bonaparte's Gull made it onto my year list 3 years in a row!

Iceland Gulls are regular

Kumlien's Gull from 2008

Ring-billed Gull - I've found three of these on the patch
Glynn Station
Situated where Glynn River enters Larne Lough, this railway halt offers a great view over the north end of Larne Lough.  Though not a major roost site at high tide, as the tide drops many gulls, waders and wildfowl appear to bathe or loaf around. The woodland and river here are good for the likes of Spotted Flycatcher, Grey Wagtail, Dipper and Kingfisher, but the real action is offshore.  Depending on the time of year, the north section of the lough hosts good numbers of Shelduck, Great Crested Grebe, Eider and Red-breasted Merganser.  Up until recently it was a fairly regular site for Slavonian Grebe in winter, though they have become very rare nowadays.  Rarer species are sometimes encountered at this site such as white-winged gulls, including Kumlien’s, though I can’t recall ever seeing anything major here, the best being Green-winged Teal and Ring-billed Gull.  I have seen up to 9 Mediterranean Gulls here in the same flock, which is among the highest site counts for Northern Ireland and other oddities seen here have included Pink-footed Goose, Dark-bellied Brent, Carrion Crow, Roseate Tern, Goosander and Long-tailed Duck. As I write this it’s easy to see why my visits to this site have declined in recent years – scant reward for considerable effort.
Target species for 2014: Red-necked or Black-necked Grebe, Smew, King Eider...

Glaucous Gull from Feb 09 - which remains the largest gull I've ever seen!
The occasional Pink-footed Goose or Dark-bellied Brent turn up here...

Glynn Rugby Club Lagoon
Decent sized semi-tidal lagoon separated from the lough by a railway line, with a small reedbed and some mixed woodland.  The rugby club pitches and grounds are also worth a look and occasionally attract roosting/feeding gulls, terns and waders.  This is perhaps the only site on patch where one might expect to see Sedge Warbler or Reed Bunting.  At high tide, the edges of the lagoon and the railway embankment attract good numbers of roosting waders, with Greenshank in particular quite common here.  This site is also a major loafing area for gulls, occasionally in very large numbers.  There is also a good stretch of hawthorn hedge here running along the railway line, with a thin strip of waste ground which can be excellent for thrushes and finches.  I’ve even had Twite here with a large flock of Linnets.  In two past winters I’ve had Chiffchaffs knocking around the woodland between here and Glynn Station, which are no doubt worth further scrutiny this year if one should appear.
Needless to say the best birds I’ve had here include Med, Iceland, Glaucous and Kumlien’s Gulls, but closer attention may reveal a few surprises.
Target birds for 2014: Green Sandpiper, Ruff, American Bittern...
A few pairs of Med Gulls breed in the lough and are seen on the rugby pitches from time to time

Inver River mouth
A nice selection of waders and gulls can usually be seen here, best viewed by pulling onto the hard shoulder off the Harbour Highway.  This is a good spot to see Med Gulls throughout the year and a small number of wintering Lesser Black-backs can usually be found. At high tide this becomes a gathering area for groups of Goldeneye, Eider and Red-breasted Merganser.  Following winter storms, this sheltered site is a good bet for a diver or two and this is another area where Goosanders regularly occur. Kingfishers are also regularly seen in winter; fishing from shopping trolleys dumped into the tide by the good folk of Larne.  A considerable colony of Black Guillemots nest in the disused jetties of the old Howden’s coal plant on the far shore here.
My best birds here include Glaucous Gull, Jack Snipe and my only patch records of Woodcock and Pochard. Certainly an area I need to pay more attention to.
Target species for 2014: Spotted Redshank, Yellow-legged Gull, Terek Sandpiper...

Drake Goosander resting up along the Inver River, Jan 2010
Glaucous Gull on a Harbour Highway street light
Its usually good for these too...

Local Parks – there are three parks lying within the patch boundary, the most productive of which is likely to be the Town Park and Promenade area not far from Sandy Bay.  There is some great looking habitat here and common summer migrants such as Willow Warbler, Chiffchaff and Blackcap occur and on occasion some more unusual migrants may appear, although this theory is almost entirely untested.  I doubt it will rival the likes of Whitburn Coastal Park any time soon! There are also a few huts here near the north end of the patch which offers the chance of some seawatching to try to nab a few extra species for the year list.  I’m looking forward to seeing what turns up here.
Larne Railway Station / Redlands Lagoon – a large man made lagoon in front of the main town railway station, which can be viewed from the platform (most office staff are used to visiting birders) or from the south bound hard shoulder of the Harbour Highway.  Another good site for loafing gulls, Red-breasted Merganser and Goldeneye and home to a small flock of wintering Lapwing and the best place on patch to see Little Grebe.  I have no doubt I’ve missed a few goodies here over the years through lack of coverage.  I can barely recall the days before the Redlands area was developed (Asda etc), but a read though old NIBA bird reports would make a grown Larne man cry – it used to be a real migrant trap.  A small strip of untainted land does still exist (for how long?) but access is a problem. The area still attracts decent finch flocks in winter and there may be an outside chance of a Short-eared Owl here.
River Walks – as well as the Glynn River area, I have also included the Inver River Walk within the patch, which I often take a stroll along during the summer months as it’s good for butterflies and dragonflies as well as Dipper and a wide variety of woodland species.
Curran Point – an obvious peninsula stretching out into the lough south of the harbour terminal offering extensive views over the mouth of the lough.  Officially (?) this is Port authority land, but it is often used by local dog walkers, so I do make the odd visit as there is potential for passerine finds here.  Sightings of Twite, Brambling and my one and only patch record of Yellowhammer suggest I just might dig something out, as long as I don’t get arrested first!
Bank Road Escarpment – the road between Larne and Glynn is overshadowed on one side by an extensive area of mixed woodland, which has always screamed Wood Warbler to me, so I may venture in for a look someday.
And that’s about it. I think I’ll be having my own private patch challenge next year to see if I can record more species on Rathlin or around Larne. One thing is certain though after writing this glowing guide to the sites of Larne; I will probably struggle to see any white-winged gulls or Goosanders in 2014...

 Kumlien's and Iceland Gulls enjoying some pan loaf at Sandy Bay


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