Northern Ireland Rathlin Island. Nature at its best.

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Birdwatching in Northern Ireland’s Rathlin Island? You bet!

Birdwatching is contagious. Ask me how I know. Once you get hooked, you are prepared to go to any locale that promises birdwatching opportunities.

I knew that Rathlin island had massive colonies of birds and it was in my places- to-visit list for years.

We wanted to go with a group of friends, and as Murphy’s law dictates, I was nesting with a newborn at home…Life is not fair…

Here’s my husband’s account of the day, plus a few fast facts I am sure you didn’t know…

Northern Ireland’s only inhabited island

Most people have not heard of Rathlin Island. Most locals have not visited it.

Yet it lies there, tantalisingly close and at the same time remote, Northern Ireland’s only inhabited island.

We decided to visit one sunny May day with some friends from Larne at the prompting of an artist, a painter who knows how to appreciate the beauty of a serene landscape.

Alas, it was a public holiday, probably the only time when traffic to the island actually gets busy.


How to get to Rathlin Island

By car to Ballycastle, a busy seaside town and resort with excellent views and some of the best fish and chips in Ireland.

The one little ferry that covers the route Ballycastle to Rathlin was booked up. A day wasted? Certainly not!

We asked around and in the town marina found a speedboat boat that did the trip in half the time for double the price.

It was worth it! We donned our orange life jackets and raincoats and prepared for the 25 minute sail.

Raincoats? Why raincoats? We were soon to find out. A north-easterly wind was blowing and the boat was flying over the waves spraying water over the passengers.

The children loved it – all of them, the young, the not so young and the old.

Sailing on that boat we all became children. 25 minutes later we landed on Rathlin’s quaint little harbour. No wind here. The landmass of the island was blocking the flow of the wind.

On Rathlin Island

Scattered next to the harbor around two dozen little houses, some inhabited, others holiday cottages. Though the boats were full, the village looks surprisingly serene.

If you are looking for a place to spent a quiet weekend or week, this is as quiet as it gets.

We take the road to the east and south of the island. On the right hand side the Boathouse Visitor Centre with its tourist office and museum. Small, but well worth fifteen minutes of your time.

We continue on a sharp left turn past a canteen that sells hamburgers and… crab sandwiches.


Rathlin Island Seal habitat

Five hundred meters down the road we find what we have been looking for.

Mill Bay is a seal habitat and before us we see about half a dozen enjoying the sunshine on the rocky beach.

The cameras come out. We try to approach. The seals follow our movements and when we come to within thirty meters they slowly go into the water.

The children had hoped to pet them, but even at thirty meters they are a sight worth seeing


Bird watching

Back into the village we wait for the bus that will take us to the western edge of the island. The driver is an extremely friendly local who knows every square meter of the island.

As we drive along he stops the bus to give us a taste of local folklore dosed with a lot of humour. Here is the house of a famous singer. There is the old school.

We reach the end of the island, a high cliff with beautiful vistas of the ocean and the Antrim coast in the distance.

We disembark from the bus and begin to descend down a steep flight of stairs. About 200 steps down but still high above the ocean is an observatory. Observe what?

Observe the over 100,000 birds, Kittiwakes, Puffins,and Razorbills that come there every May and June to nest. Awesome. Absolutely awesome. They are the reason we timed our visit for the end of May.

In some places you can barely see the rock for the number of birds.

Rathlin Island Seabird Centre

We spend about an hour and a half there. Friendly RSPB volunteers are on hand to explain the birds’ nesting habits, lend you a pair of binoculars, or take pictures of you as you bask in the joy of your discovery.

The RSPB Seabird Centre is without doubt the highlight of a visit to Rathlin…

Walking back

It is already afternoon and we begin the road back.

Mothers and children take the bus. We hardy men decide to walk. The sun is still shining, there is now a pleasant breeze and the countryside is so utterly peaceful. The walk back takes about an hour, but we enjoy it.

We are now at the village and as we wait for the boat to take us back, we enjoy a packed lunch by the seaside. We sail back, into the car, and back home.

Rathlin island truly is one of the the Must-do if you visit Northern Ireland.

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About the author

Originally from Scotland, Colin now resides near the beautiful seaside town of Portstewart on the Causeway Coastal Route. By day he works in IT and by day off he spends much of his time travelling around the Island with his young family, writing about his experiences for many sites both locally and nationally.