Friday, 30 October 2015

October Migrants

Redwing (c. Brendan Shiels)

If you are watching a local headland or studying migration on one of our many offshore islands, movement and associated 'falls' of birds are central to the October scene.  There is certainly no beating the excitement of a rare find, even if its an annual occurrence, such as a diminutive Yellow Browed Warbler or Firecrest: the former should be wintering in India but finds itself as a garden bird amongst the sycamore trees of west Corks headlands, courtesy of a reverse migration out of Siberia.

The October fare here in the middle of Wicklow is a little more restrained.  We are situated on a pleasant slope at 150 meters altitude between the Avonmore and Avonbeg rivers, well inland, but it has its moments too:  

 The scene around the garden boundary is quite busy, not surprising really, given the crop of ripe elderberries that are reducing in stock daily.  The 16th October marked our first movement of winter thrushes: over 25 Redwing and a solitary Fieldfare flew out of the hedges at first light, along with a good number of Mistle Thrushes and Blackbirds.  This is early enough for us, sometimes it is November before we experience those kind of movements, so I expect harsh conditions are already apparent in Northern Europe, leading to an early exodus south and west.

Fieldfare (c.David Dillon)

Other visitors this month are what we often refer to as altitudinal migrants, involving birds moving shorter distances and out of nearby higher ground which is utilised for the breeding season.  So the stubbles and hedgrows have Meadow Pipits and Skylarks, the first Linnet flocks and a Reed Bunting popped in to join the few resident Yellowhammers and House Sparrows.  'Flyovers', or visible migration consists of Grey Wagtails, Crossbills, Redpolls and Siskins.  In these cases it is probably best to describe it as 'audible migration', for it is the flight and contact calls that alert you to the movement of birds.

Skylark (c.O O Sullivan)

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

A Harvest in the Hedgerows

September sky, near Rathdrum (OOS)

The fields around here are looking tidy, newly shaven of their summer crops: oats and barley mostly, the stubbles remain, reflecting brightly in a sunlit,patchwork quilt, south and west facing landscape.  Lovely to look at, but what's in it for the birds and bees?  The stubbles have a few pairs of Yellowhammers, a parade of various crow species and the odd young Buzzard wandering around trying to figure out the handiest prey to be found for the least amount of energy expended. This. frequently ends in a persistent, almost sad chorus of mewing calls aimed at parents recently freed of parental duties..
Speckled Wood on Blackberry blossom (OOS)
At the moment there's lots of life in the hedgerows. a walk down the lane usually results in a selection of Blackcaps, thrushes and blackbirds exiting ahead of the walker, often reluctant to leave the berry heavy boughs of Blackberry, Elder and Guelder Rose. 

Elder berries: good for birds and humans! (OOS)

Sharing this early autumn bounty are countless bees, wasps and butterflies, the Speckled Wood being the most prolific at the moment, seeking nectar from pale pink Blackberry blossom. 

Guelder Rose: great flowers, berries and foliage (OOS)

Elder berry has already peaked, no doubt the berries will be consumed before the late autumn arrival of our Scandinavian winter visitors. Showy Guelder Rose berries, like small bright cherries, look like they are ripe for consumption now, but in fact will last 'til late November before small birds can strip them from their stems. A time of plenty!

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)