County Down

Black Tailed Godwit Limosa limosa ©Ian Dickey Website

The ceremonial County Down is one of six counties that form Northern Ireland in the northeast of the island of Ireland. Along the southeast shore of Lough Neagh, it covers an area of c.2,500 K² (945 square miles) and has a population of around 550,000 people. It is also one of the thirty-two traditional counties of Ireland and is within the province of Ulster. It borders County Antrim to the north, the Irish Sea to the east, County Armagh to the west, and County Louth across Carlingford Lough to the southwest. Some Belfast suburbs lie in the county as does a small part of Lisburn and Newry straddles the border with Armagh, otherwise the largest conurbations are the city of Bangor, Dundonald and Newtownards. The county town is Downpatrick.

In the east of the county is Strangford Lough and the Ards Peninsula. The county has a coastline along Belfast Lough to the north and Carlingford Lough to the south (both of which have access to the sea). Strangford Lough lies between the Ards Peninsula and the mainland. County Down also contains part of the shore of Lough Neagh. Smaller loughs include Lough Island Reavy. The River Lagan forms most of the border with County Antrim. The River Bann also flows through the southwestern areas of the county. Other rivers include the Clanrye and Quoile.

There are several islands off the Down coast: Mew Island, Light House Island and the Copeland Islands, all of which lie to the north of the Ards Peninsula. Gunn Island lies off the Lecale coast. In addition there are a large number of small islets in Strangford Lough (at least seventy, although folk tradition says there are 365 islands in Strangford Lough, one for every day of the year). County Down is where, in the words of the famous song by Percy French, ‘The mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea’, and the granite Mourne Mountains continue to be renowned for their beauty. Slieve Donard, at 2,785 feet, is the highest peak in the Mournes, in Northern Ireland and in the province of Ulster. Another important peak is Slieve Croob, at 1,752 feet, the source of the River Lagan.

Birding County Down

Much more diverse than neighbouring Antrim, Down contains part of Belfast Lough, the whole of perhaps the best of all (Strangford Lough) and part of Carlingford Lough – the other side of which is in Republic of Ireland. A lot of the landscape is composed of glacially formed drumlins, compared to a basket of eggs when seen from the air.

Arctic and Common Terns arrive in early spring to breed off Groomsport. Winter visitors include Red-breasted Mergansers, Red-throated and Great Northern Divers. Around Belfast Lough are significant populations of Redshank, Black-tailed Godwit, Oystercatcher, Curlew, Turnstone and Purple Sandpiper. Black Guillemots numbers are on the up thanks to the provision of artificial nesting under Eisenhower Pier. Strangford Lough is of international importance for nature conservation and is one of only 3 Marine Nature Reserves in the UK. It affords great birdwatching opportunities at any time of year.

Perhaps the top Autumn event is the arrival of light -bellied Brent Geese from High Arctic Canada attracted by the eelgrass on the nutrient rich mudflats at the northern end of the Lough. Wintering waterfowl and waders include Curlew, Greenshank, Golden Plover, Dunlin and Knot all viewable from the WWT Visitor Centre at Castle Espie. Other good spots are the Floodgates at Newtownards, the Strangford Lough Lookout at Mount Stewart and Horse Island near Kircubbin.

There is a BTO research and monitoring station on Lighthouse Island off the Irish Sea coast at Donaghadee, where a large breeding colony of Manx Shearwater are ringed and monitored. Boat trips are available to the other islands in the Copeland Islands group during the summer months. The Irish Sea coast of the Peninsula provides good seabird watching opportunities.

The river estuaries flowing into the Lough near Comber have Kingfisher and the fertile farmland beneath Scrabo Hill is a good for Yellowhammer and Lapwing. The small patchwork fields around the Lough, with their varied and often ancient hedgerows, provide good opportunities to see many species of farmland birds. At the southern end of the Ards peninsula, Ballyquintin Nature Reserve is good for shoreline birds such as visiting whimbrel.

Top Sites
  • George Gordon

County Recorder
Useful Reading

  • Where to Watch Birds in Ireland

    | By Paul Milne & Clive Hutchinson | Christopher Helm | 2009 | Paperback | 336 pages | Out of Print | ISBN: 9781408105214 Buy this book from
  • Copeland Bird Observatory

    Observatory WebsiteSatellite View
    The Observatory lies off the County Down coast of Northern Ireland at the southern side of the mouth of Belfast Lough. It is one of the British Bird Observatories and is directed and serviced by the British Trust for Ornithology. Its main aim is the collection of data on migratory and breeding birds, which may be used for their general conservation.
  • Belfast & Down Ringing Group

    Facebook Page
    We catch wild birds in soft mist nets and put a unique light metal ring on their leg. We endeavour to retrap the birds again and log the data with the BTO.
  • North Down Birdwatching Club

    Facebook Page
    Dot Blakely - WWT Castle Espie Centre, Ballydrain Road, Comber, Co Down,
  • Northern Ireland Ornithologists Club

    Facebook Page
    The NIOC was formed in 1965. Its purpose then, as now, was to focus the interests...
  • RSPB Belfast Local Group

    The oldest local RSPB Local Members’ Group in Northern Ireland, the RSPB Belfast Local Group celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2022/2023! We work to support the Mission of the RSPB in the local community and to involve our members and the wider public in conservation, public affairs.

Abbreviations Key

  • Forestry Nature Reserves in County Down

    WebpageSatellite View
    There are three nature reserves on Forest Service land in County Down
  • LNR Balloo Wetland & Woodland

    WebpageSatellite View
    Formed in 2008 on an area of wet wasteland, Balloo Wetland now boasts a range of habitats including ponds, reedbeds and wet woodland, which offer solace to a wealth of of wild creatures.
  • LNR Dorn Nature Reserve

    WebpageSatellite View
  • LNR Inishargy Bog

    WebpageSatellite View
    Nestled in an otherwise intensively managed landscape, the undisturbed position of Inishargy attracts a range of birds of conservation concern including linnet, reed bunting and meadow pipit. Buzzards can also be seen or heard circling overhead, and sparrowhawks and kestrel regularly hunt here.
  • LNR Quoile Pondage Nature Reserve and Countryside Centre

    InformationSatellite View
    There are plenty of excellent opportunities for bird watching for visitors both from the riverside path and at the bird hide overlooking the brackish pondage, which was created from the formerly known marine estuary in 1957. This was created by the building of a tidal barrage to provide a place for floodwaters to gather until the tide turned and subsequently colonised naturally with grassland, scrub and trees.
  • NNR Murlough

    WebpageSatellite View
    There is a network of paths and boardwalks through the dunes, woodland and heath from where you will see an array of butterflies and wild flowers, as well as access to one of the finest beaches in Co. Down. The dune fields at Murlough are the best and most extensive example of dune heath within Ireland with over 720 species of butterflies and moths, one of which, the Marsh Fritillary butterfly, is of European importance. The site is internationally important for wintering wildfowl and waders.
  • NNR North Strangford Lough

    WebpageSatellite View
    Strangford's rich marine life attracts a vast variety of birdlife. The area is a wetland of international importance supporting some 25,000 wildfowl and 50,000 waders. The Lough is a bird sanctuary and wildlife preserve, now designated a Marine Nature Reserve under the protection of the Department of the Environment. Thousands of Brent geese winter here and Greylag and White-fronted geese visit from the Downpatrick marshes. Oystercatchers, Curlews and other waders throng the saltmarshes…
  • NNR Strangford Lough

    WebpageSatellite View
    Killard National Nature Reserve is on the Killard Peninsula where Strangford Lough meets the Irish Sea. It’s in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty...
  • RSPB Belfast Lough Reserve

    WebpageSatellite View
    Belfast Lough Reserve is made up of four sites, Belfast’s Window on Wildlife, Harbour Meadows, Holywood Banks and Whitehouse Lagoon, all of which are special places for nature. We work hard to maintain or improve them to provide homes for some locally and globally threatened species.
  • WWT Castle Espie Wetland Centre

    WebpageSatellite View
    Set on the banks of the stunning Strangford Lough in Northern Ireland where almost the entire population of Light-bellied Brent Geese reside during the winter months. For this reason the Castle Espie foreshore is part of the Strangford Lough Ramsar site. Throughout the year this tranquil and friendly centre is a real delight and a must for the whole family…
Guides & Tour Operators
  • Kilhorne Bay Boats

    Facebook Page
    Kilhorne Bay Boat Charter has been launched to provide a range of family fun cruises, marine sightseeing and wildlife watching. It’s something different and is a welcome addition to the range of leisure opportunities in the Province – not just for tourists but also for local people as well…
Places to Stay
  • The Old Schoolhouse Inn

    Situated at Castle Espie, beside the beautiful scenery of Strangford Lough the Old Schoolhouse Inn is a superb place to stay, relax and enjoy your stay in Northern Ireland
Other Links
  • Birdwatching in County Down

    List of sites: The sea loughs of County Down - Belfast, Strangford and Carlingford - are fine spots for studying water birds in winter. The rocky east Ards sea coast is good for waders. The Mourne Mountains have red grouse and there are a variety of raptors to be seen above reed-fringed lakes and over forest parks…
  • Margaret Adamson - Birding For Pleasure

    I have retired from a medical background, from teaching a 3 year City and Guilds; and also running a Bed and Breakfast. I have taken up bird watching later in life however I became very enthusiastic from the beginning and was greatly encouraged by other bird watchers. For the past 8 years I have led a bird group in my town and have become a guest speaker on cruise ships talking about Birds around the world.

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