Efforts to save one of the most iconic birds of the Irish countryside have received a boost.

The curlew conservation project at Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland has recorded the "against the odds" return of two juvenile birds to the area, a year after they hatched and fledged at the site.

One of the birds, colour-ringed 'P-9', had previously been photographed at just a day old at its nest last June.

James O'Neill from the Lough Neagh Landscape Partnership said: "I was very, very excited because P9 was a bird we had monitored last year until it fledged.

"It is so rewarding to know that its survival and return was the result of all the work we are putting in to protect these birds and their nests. There is just no feeling like it - knowing that you are making a difference to this extremely endangered species."

Curlew P-9 had been monitored closely until it fledged (Image: James O'Neill/Lough Neagh Partnership)

The curlew, a wader known for its evocative bubbling call, has suffered drastic declines in Ireland and the UK in recent decades, prompting fears it was sliding towards extinction.

In Northern Ireland, it is estimated that the population is down to around 200 pairs, while the most recent survey in the Republic of Ireland found that only 138 pairs remain.

Loss of suitable breeding habitat is thought to be the main driver for these declines.

The return of curlew P-9 to Lough Neagh has been greeted with delight by conservation workers. (Image: James O'Neill/Lough Neagh Partnership)

Little is known of the wintering grounds of Irish breeding birds, so the return of P9 to Lough Neagh has been greeted with delight.

Mr O'Neill, a PhD candidate at University College Cork, said: "P-9 disappeared a year ago and until now its fate would have been in question. But clearly it is alive and well.

"A beautiful adult male, now ready to help repopulate the Lough Neagh area with curlews."

The Lough Neagh project is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund Northern Ireland, with a contribution to equipment this year from the Northern Ireland Environment Agency.

Last year, the project saw five young curlews successfully released back into the wild near the shores of the lake.

They had been saved as eggs in late spring when two nest sites were threatened by wildfires.

In an innovative conservation move, permission was sought and granted to collect the eggs and rear the birds to the point of release.

Natural Heritage officer Siobhan Thompson said: "The team has worked very hard across all fronts to achieve these successes which may well be part of the solution for the future of the disappearing Curlew. It highlights the importance of the conservation work we and partner organisations are delivering."

Today, 21 April, is designated as World Curlew day. It is a grass-roots initiative, supported by major environmental organisations, to raise awareness of the plight of curlews and to encourage activities to help them.

The puffin is now listed as endangered in Ireland

Meanwhile, Birdwatch Ireland today held a meeting with the Ministers of State at the Department of Heritage, Malcolm Noonan and Pippa Hackett, and officials from the National Parks and Wildlife Service to discuss what the group terms a "drastic and alarming decline" in bird species in Ireland.

A recent report by the group found that 54 species are now on the red list as endangered in Ireland, a 46% increase since the last review in 2013.

Among the birds now listed as endangered are the puffin, the kittiwake, the snipe and the kestrel.

Head of Advocacy with BirdWatch Ireland Oonagh Duggan said we are at a "tipping point" in relation to the conservation of our wild bird population.

She said Government action is urgently needed to spearhead a new policy direction, especially in agriculture, forestry and fisheries, to arrest the decline in our bird population.

A spokesperson for the Department of Housing, Local Government & Heritage said today's meeting with the group was very constructive.

"There will be further discussions with BirdWatch on what needs to be done to reverse the declines we are seeing in our farmland, marine and breeding wader populations, with a particular focus on those species for which declines are occurring because of pressures and threats here in Ireland, rather than elsewhere in Europe or internationally".

Additional reporting by Tomás O Mainnín