Monday, 24 August 2015

Swifts and Swallows Scarce?

Swallow feeding fledged young (c. J. Fox)

Every year we end up discussing the summer migrants and how they are faring, a bit like discussing the weather, its a kind of Irish thing.

We tend to advise caution on subjective assessments based on just the personal experience of a few folk.  However, Swift watchers are reporting less birds from known haunts,and they are noway near as widespread as Swallows. They have of course departed for Africa at this stage, on of the first to leave our inky skies for the African winter.  Seeing and hearing them in numbers in say the old perched villages of the south of France, I always feel that our migrant Swifts draw a short straw or something, heading into such an uncertain season that is the Irish summer.

Swallows are still here, beginning to gather on wires, I wouldn't expect any solid migration movements until mid September and onwards, so this is a good time to take stock:   I reckon the late brood is all important for a good return on the breeding season: it was a pretty mixed/poor summer, weather wise. 

 Quite a few people e mailed us to air their suspicions about a lack of numbers around farmyards and buildings.  However, recent Atlas results reveal they occur in 98% of survey squares, certainly one of the most widespread breeding birds we have.

2 Young await a nourishing feed (c.J Fox)

I would be happy to get local opinion, news of Swallows in your area, 2015, and now is the time to check around telegraph wires and sheds!

Monday, 27 July 2015

The Young Ones

Lemon cheeks! (c. O OSullivan)
After a month of pretty indifferent weather, the birds of the year are making their way to my basic offering of shelled peanuts, tucked up in a feeder under a very leafy Willow bush.  The young Blue Tits have a lovely lemon wash to the cheeks, compared to the regulation white of the adult birds, so too the young Great Tits.
They have had to join a queue which includes up to 4 Jays, presumably a family party, along with  a few Greenfinches.
Young Great Tit (O OSullivan)

Other seasonal delights include the constant 'squeaky gate' calls of young Long eared Owls at dusk, and through the night.  We have had a real run of phone calls in BirdWatch Ireland concerning these nocturnal noises and even som submissions of downloaded recordings of these young owls. They are of course,  begging to be fed and hoping to evoke a response from their parents. If you spend a little time and track the origin of the squeaky call, you might be lucky enough to locate a young owl 'branching out', as they make their way to independence..what a fantastic sight, as captured by Shay Connolly in the pic below.

Young Long eared Owl showing off! (c. Shay Connolly)

Another bird that catches out some of our readers is the young Bullfinch, a very brown and plain looking image compared to a showy adult male.  This bird was photographed by Lesley Collins and had actually struck a window, but recovered to fly away and feed amongst some weed seeds.
It is great to catch these youngsters in early autumn plumage before moult when they lose some of their first feathers.  Just like young children, they possess lots of character and a fearlessness that befits youth.

Young Bullfinch, has the bill and beady eye.. but very brown (c. Lesley Collins)

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Taking Stock

After 3 separate searches we finally nailed this nest site, on the boundary of the local oak forest ( RH Coombes)

Its high season and high time to review the out turn for our garden birds, breeding season 2015.

Early season activity was encouraged by the mild winter and early spring, but I certainly felt that a wet and generally miserable month of May hampered the nesting cycle.

From the summer visitors, along with many folk, I feel that Swallows are thin in numbers, lets hope that those that made it up from Africa have a decent multi brooded summer. 

Though we have a party of young Blue and Great Tits on the peanuts, there are not many signs of fledged young birds this far.  We had a Robins nest predated and a few nests in the Tit boxes seem to have been constructed but abandoned.
A beakfull of food for young

Down in the Oak forest, after much searching we, (Dick Coombes and myself) finally located the active nest hole of a pair of a pair of Great Spotted Woodpeckers.  I have previously located two nest holes in this forest, but always a year behind, so nice to catch up eventually.  The number of nests found in county Wicklow is close to 40 now, a good total for a species that is hard to nail down (expect sore necks from peering into the canopy).   The best time to find or locate a nest is when the adults are feeding young and the procession or regular beat might lead you to the nest tree.  Young birds can be a giveaway too, in their eagerness to attract the adults back to the nest with food, they often make a  fair racket.  Mid May is the best time to hear all that

Of the few nests that could be studied closely, the brood size appears to be small, some with just one or two young, perhaps a reflection of less prey available in Irish forests.

Noisy juvenile pops its head out for food.

Dawn chorus is strangely quiet, the Thrushes have dropped right off, but we still have the ubiquitous Blackcaps with their nervous, scratchy song. Whitethroats are similarly active in the hedgerows and a few Yellowhammers deliver their lazy, pleasantly relaxing song, just the ticket for a long summers day.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Rattle and Hum

Yellow Rattle (c.OOS)

After an absence of a few years, it was back to Kilmacurragh Arboretum, Kilbride, County Wiclow, an OPW property and a local gem, now, deservedly attracting and catering for many more visitors.

The plant list is quite impressive, with specimen Rhodos and much more besides. Many of the grassy, lawn areas have been converted into meadows which are predominately yellow at the moment with flowering buttercups, though in another few weeks the colour palette will broaden. However,  I did get a timely reminder on how to handle our own 1/2 acre of long, uncut grass. 

 The problem with meadows is that you are storing up a gigantic clean up operation at seasons end, with a hay crop to be mown, stacked and broken down and more often than not, some fairly plain vigorous grasses takeover  and reduce the spectacle to pretty much an over grown mess!  The meadows at Kilmacurragh are liberally sprinkled with Yellow Rattle: a hemi parasitic plant species that competes alongside the more vigorous grasses by attacking their lines of nourishment, below the soil surface.  That means an open meadow, less tall grasses, with an easier clean up in autumn and Yellow Rattle is easy enough on the eye too.. Seed should be dipersed on the autumn meadow after cutting, it takes care of itself thereafter.

The Yeats Garden at Bloom (c.OOS)
The focus was very much on plants over the last week or so: not surprising with the Bloom Show dominating our work schedules. It was nice to squeeze in a rest day in the Phoenix Park too, a chance to look at the show gardens and sample the foodie end of things.  

I enjoyed the more natural, wilder gardens, especially the Yeats Garden which was a gold medal winner.

The Meadow Look at Bloom (c.OOS)
How good it was to recognise show plants that grow locally in the hedgerows: Cow Parsley and FoxGloves in more than one garden and Birch trees providing tree cover.

Back at home, I am delighted by the blast of colour from the Columbines or Aquilegea, an easy come-easy go colonist that attracts bees to its bell like flower heads, a nice plant that is happy enough to extend its flower heads through the existing mat of perennials.. after the early May blast of colour, there can be a gap that this plant fills so admirably.

Bees make their way to the free flowering Aquilegea (c.OOS)

Monday, 25 May 2015

Red Letter Days

Early May was a little disappointing weather wise and hence quiet for birds too.  Most striking was the coolness in the air with vegetables stalling in the ground after Easter planting.

The traditional scattering of Cherry petals continues apace, the strongest winds seem to regularly coincide with the delicate and short lived flowering of Japanese Cherry and Snowy Mespilus.  Hardier by far are the tulips and Saxifrages, the latter still flowering after four full weeks of colour.

Tulips and Saxifrage: enough to brighten up a dull May (c.OOS)

The flowering of Sallys or native willows is also prolific, right now the pollen blows across the lawn in loose furry balls. 

Top attraction to these flowering trees was the appearance of a pair of Bullfinches, happy to avail of the abundance of flower and seed buds which they consume with great gusto: have you ever seen a Bullfinch without a residue of its last meal pasted around its large globular beak?

Bullfinch at work in the Sallys (c.OOS)

They have a thickset, well fed appearance with that bull neck, but of course the male is adorned with the showiest of rose pink combined with smooth grey and black, with a white rump showing well as the birds hang awkwardly, stretching for another morsel.

Male  Bullfinch showing large, disc shape bill: (c.OOS)

Sunday, 26 April 2015

In praise of grassy lawns

Mistle Thrush: 'barrel chested' alright (c.OOS)

Lawn is probably a bit of a mis-nomer in our case: we have about a half acre of grass, that is mown on 3 levels: the tightest, lawn section is close to the house, and we vary the length in two other adjoning sections which gives the bees, butterflies and moths an open space to forage: right now the area is peppered with cheery bright yellow Dandelions: a food plant for flying insects and one we are happy to accomodate in the mowing regime.  We could go for all out meadow in half the area: we tried that one summer and had a huge end of season clear up with hay stacks and a small Massey Ferguson commissioned to top the seasons growth.  This was altogether daunting and we feel the current 'cut, with some keep' good for wildlife as well as youthful recreation of the space.

Starling: tempted down to the lawn by recent rain. (c.OOS)
The recent rain showers brought  a total of ten bird species out to patrol and feed on the open lawn: highlights were our spring migrant Starlings, a  much more longer distant migrant, the Chiffchaff, a bossy Mistle Thrush that has a nest in the Ash tree in the lane, as well as a party of Blackbirds and a couple of shuffling Dunnocks.

Chiffchaff: fresh arrivals often take to the grass for insect prey. (cOOS)

Friday, 17 April 2015

Rolling and tumbling

The month of March was great for gardens and birds in general: some super spring weather and the comfort that comes with a mildness that reassured all that winter 2014/15 was behind us.

I never noticed so much early nesting / breeding behaviour in our resident species: nest boxes were visited daily by Blue and Great Tits, and a pair of Long tailed Tits were regular commuters to a gorse bush behind the compost bins: a nest well under construction by mid March and perfectly formed by Easter.

Red Kite: hunting for nest decorations (c.OOS)

Red Kites, given a welcome  helping hand via a re introduction from Welsh stock, look so at home on Wicklows slopes: mixed farming land and some of the best oakwoods in the country to choose for nesting.

Complete tumble: just for fun! (c.OOS)

The Kites are a regular sighting over the house and gardens, a recent ploughing of the winter stubble brought a couple straight in, along with eight or so Lesser Black backed Gulls: it doesnt take long for birds to pick up on feeding opportunities presented by the plough!  The Kites were frequently buzzing my neighbours garden:  either for food items or for decorations for the nest: I suspect the latter, as some light building work is under way there.

A couple of visits to the local stand of oak, proved fruitful: a bird rose from the bare canopy and seemed sufficiently committed to the site to circle low over my head:  A nest of sticks was quickly located in the bare canopy, a bit smaller than expected but, binocular inspection revealed the tell tale decorations of discarded plastic and twine hanging from the branches immediately below the nest. A visit the following day revealed a Kite sitting tight on 10th April, grey head and beady, two tone eye visible from the ground: thank God for late leafing Oaks!

Majestic raptors! (c.OOS)

Buzzards always put on a good show at this time of year when pairs come out to strengthen bonds, soaring on the first spring thermals, and attracting rival or just neighbouring pairs on to the borders of their territories.  There is frequent 'mewing' and some vertical movement leading to diving and close enough contact as birds drop and fall at an alarming speed.. the crows keep a respectful distance, perhaps intimidated by the sight and sound of up to five Buzzards in active display.

Buzzard in free fall (c.OOS)
 Buzzards spread naturally south from their stronghold in County Antrim in the 1970s and perhaps west from Wales where the population is at saturation point.  They are the most frequently observed raptor in these parts, in contrast to Kestrel, which competes for the same food sources but is much less fortunate.  Buzzards have benefitted from the widespread afforestation and they are probably better opportunists than Kestrels.

Buzzard: Dark (and threatening!)( c.OOS)