The Birdman of Rathlin Island

Puffins are a big attraction on Rathlin Island.
Puffins are a big attraction on Rathlin Island.

Did you ever hear the one about the Irishman, the Scotsman, the Englishman and the Welshman?

It’s not a joke but the everyday story for one Derry man currently working at the RSPB’s seabird centre on Rathlin Island.

Diarmuid Bonner (centre) with members of the RSPB team on Rathlin Island. From left, Cynfelyn (Wales), Malcolm (Scotland), Johnny (England), Stephanie (Scotland), Mary Clare (Scotland) and Cushla (Northern Ireland).

Diarmuid Bonner (centre) with members of the RSPB team on Rathlin Island. From left, Cynfelyn (Wales), Malcolm (Scotland), Johnny (England), Stephanie (Scotland), Mary Clare (Scotland) and Cushla (Northern Ireland).

Diarmuid Bonner, from Richmond Crescent, is on the island for the entire summer season and is enjoying every minute of it.

“The experience is fantastic because I’m learning so much and meeting such a variety of people from all over the world,” he told the ‘Journal’.

At the seabird centre on Rathlin, located just six miles off the Antrim coast, you can get up close and personal with Northern Ireland’s biggest seabird colony.

It’s particularly exciting at this time of year with puffins and other seabirds jostling for space as they congregate in their thousands to breed.

Diarmuid, along with fellow staff members Johnny Phillips (Yorkshire) and Cushla Gillespie (Belfast) - backed up by a team of volunteers who come and stay for two weeks at a time - are there to provide helpful assistance, binoculars and telescopes.

Diarmuid - father of Aife (9) - says his seasonal job has worked out perfectly for him.

“The rest of the year I work as a student support worker at the Magee campus, assisting students with disabilities. However, as the academic year is finished, I’m able to move out to Rathlin and work here for the entire summer.”

Rathlin, says Diarmuid, is an amazing place: “It’s so peaceful and relaxing here. It’s an education to be learning about all the different wildlife and strange species that exist here. There are puffins, guillemots, razorbills, fulmars; kittiwakes, ravens, peregrine falcons, buzzards and one or two other unusual bird species for Northern Ireland that nest up at the West Lighthouse where the RSPB reserve is. There are also a breeding pair of choughs on the island which are quite uncommon; loads of common and grey seals; eider ducks; ringed plovers; snipes; oyster catchers; lapwings; wheatears all spread throughout the island. Bear in mind I didn’t know anything about birds 12 weeks ago!

“There are loads of Irish hares on the island and a Golden Hare which cannot be found anywhere else in the world. There are only one or two. Now that we’ve found it, we stalk it most nights to see it.”

Diarmuid has been on the island for the past 13 weeks and will be there until the beginning of September when the seabirds migrate back out to the North Atlantic Ocean after their breeding season has finished. The seabird centre itself closes down for the winter.

However, at the minute, it’s a busy time for Diarmuid and the RSPB team.

“We’re averaging around 100 visitors per day but at weekends we can get more than 300 per day if it’s good weather.”

And does he miss Derry?

“I’m supposed to work four days and have three days off but I tend to stay two weeks at a time and then come home to Derry for three days. It has its ups and downs as people back home don’t see me as much; it can be hard on family and friends.

“It’s nice to come and live on a remote island and the whole experience is just five months so I don’t really miss Derry that much.

“It would be different if I was away for longer periods and didn’t get back at all.

“I do, obviously, miss loved ones but I’m quite happy on the island for the summer. Hopefully I’ll get to come back next year and do it all over again.”