Friday, 30 November 2012

Garden Bird Survey: starts Monday 3rd Dec.

Most of us are well into the feeding routine in the garden at this stage: the cold snap has forced the birds into gardens in search of food, either fruit and berries (declining fast) or nuts and seeds from the feeders.

Robins will forage under feeders and clean up 
the mess after Coal Tits! (John Fox)

We already have an early winter pattern emerging: big numbers of Coal Tits, sometimes 10 or 12 swapping places and turns on the seed and nut feeders.. though the smallest of the tit species they certainly know how to get about and fight their corner.  Also numerous with us are Blackbirds and a Chaffinch flock that builds up as long as the seed feeder is kept topped up:  keeping feeders operational is difficult enough in the winter, I leave the house in darkness and return in the same conditions!  The Coal Tits can empty a standard seed feeder in about 3 or 4 hours, so it is usually the weekend when Chaffinches build up in numbers. 

 I am still hopeful of witnessing a Woodpecker in the garden, they are recorded within a mile or two of me on two or three sides, so come on down!!  I have deployed  a hanging feeder full of fat balls to attract them: it wont go to waste anyway and a drum of 50 fat balls was only €11.00 from the BirdWatch Ireland shop.  We have never stocked such a wide variety of seed mixes in BirdWatch Ireland, all in better value quantities such as 12.5 kg sacks, and we can deliver overnight by Fastway couriers..

Brambling: a winter male (c. Shay Connolly)

A few exotics to look out for this winter are, Waxwings.. the subject of the last post, and being reported by excited observers around Dublin, Wicklow and Meath at the moment.. Another bird more typical in northern and central Europe is the Brambling:  a delightful finch, not unlike a Chaffinch,  a species it often associates with.  Bramblings a bird that winters in often huge numbers in forested areas of Europe where Beech trees and Mast (seed) is a great favourite and staple.  Again a crash in food availability and the flocks move onto fresh pastures, or forests.. Bramblings will come to mixed seed feeders and any food spread about at ground level.. those marauding Coal Tits will do a job for you there, spilling as much as they take!

I am sure you will have an enjoyable experience feeding the birds in your garden, enjoy the brightest things in the winter garden and let us know how you get on and what visits your patch.. The survey forms can be filled out online at the BirdWatch Ireland website.. its a 13 week season and a Schools version is also available for the first time,this winter.

Brambling, showing off russet plumage tones, and there's
 a white rump in flight  (c. John Fox)

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Waxwing Winter

One of the most exciting and exotic birds you could hope to see in your garden is the Waxwing..

They are not such a long shot to make an appearance in your garden either: they are quite nomadic in nature, especially so if their food supply dries up on their home ground in Scandinavia.  Although they are insect eaters during the breeding season, the staple diet for the winter months is berries: the redder the better: Rowan, Hawthorn, Rose Hips, Cotoneaster..So if you have planted well, you might be in for a treat.

Rose hips: a feast on a bush (c. Shay Connolly)

They make a mass exodus out of the breeding grounds if there's a food crash, and irrupt in Scotland, England and Ireland after crossing the North Sea.. Once in Ireland they fairly tear around suburban parks and gardens, shopping centre car parks are often visited: they have predictable designs with berry carrying cover around the parking bays.. Waxwings will strip bushes and trees and move to the next feast.. This is likely to continue all through this winter because we have already had our first arrivals, unusually early.  About 130 birds have been reported so far in Ireland, with more recorded off our north and west coasts, again unusual: the arrival point is usually in the east and north east with Belfast and Dublin usually first in line for a flock.

The largest flock so far was of 25 birds on remote Tory Island, off county Donegal, at the end of October with 20 at Mulranny in Co Mayo, 16 on Arranmore, Co Donegal and  11 in Ballysadare in County Sligo.

The largest flock in Dublin, so far, was a report of 12 on the Old Airport Road on 10th November.

With the immaculate plumage and details that a hat designer would trot out for Derby day, they have some great physiological adaptations, designed to handle and process the vast quantities of berries they consume:

They've got the X Factor:  Jedward of the bird world! (c.John Fox)

Though there gut is well adapted to deal with berries, often a touch fermented after frost, typsy Waxwings can collide with windows, as witnessed in Dublin some years back when birds frequently hit the glass windows while negotiating a flight around the Eircom building in St. Stephens Green, which  had some excellent Rowan trees with berries, late in the season.

The toxins that build up during consumption of so many berries are secreted out of the birds system, which leads to a hard red bar developing on the plumage, leading to the name Waxwing, after its close likeness to sealing wax.  This bar is only present on adult birds who consume and secrete huge amounts of berries and toxins,in time.

Waxwing flocks will suddenly leave berry bearing foliage to seek a rest or simply digest their food, perching on telephone wires or leafless trees: Rotund and cuddly looking, they are very similar to Starlings in flight, so check those darting flocks!

Finally, the charm is well finished off with an attractive call: sounds like a high pitched tinkling of small bells, very distinctive as they come and go about their business.
Mascara perfectly applied: lipstick slipped though! (c. Dave Suddaby)

If you see Waxwings this winter, please let us know, we all need brightening up at this time of year!

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Coals Cache and Carry

Coal Tits are great competitors: the smallest of the tit family, they have to wait their turn when Great and Blue Tits are about, for food and for nesting space.  Traditionally they are associated with conifer plantations and this is still true, and has enhanced their distribution, though mixed woodland and large gardens are also to their liking.  They are doing well right now, rising through the ranks in the Garden Bird Survey, up three places last winter to 7th position, as Blue and Great Tits remain static at third and fifth position, respectively. ( see the latest results in Wings magazine, delivered to BirdWatch Ireland members over the next week or so.)

Given their small stature, its not surprising that given an opportunity, they will put away or hide a food store for the near future.  Right now they are cashing in and caching, autumn bounty.  This includes the offering on peanut and seed feeders.  I recently deployed a window feeder on the patio door, a great amusement for us all at breakfast time, and a chance to get real close up looks at our common garden bird visitors.  Birds fly to the feeder from 30 or 40 feet away, landing directly on the mesh feeder, thankfully, there's no evidence of any mis-timed flights or landings..

Coal Tit (c. O.O'Sullivan)

There have been some big migratory movements of Coal Tits recorded  in late September and early October this year, at the migration watch points around our south and west coasts: 70 at Cape Clear Island, Co Cork, 29th September; 100 at Dunquin, west Kerry, 5th October and 70 at Inishmore, Aran Islands, Co Galway, 6th October.( see

Coal Tits have a number of relatively distinct races, including an Irish race, hibernicus, a British race and a Continental race, so interest and speculation as to the precise racial identity of these island 'fall' birds is high.. They could reflect an autumn movement or dispersal of relatively local birds, known to be in high numbers, or perhaps an arrival of Continental birds.. Our hibernicus birds have olive tones to the back and an off white or yellowish tinge to the cheeks , and ruddy underparts.  The British race is whiter in the cheeks and plainer on the underparts, though the back has some olive tones.  The continental race is more cold grey on the back and has white cheeks and plain underparts.. All fairly subtle and a bird in the hand is the best way to racially identify birds.  However, the window feeders afford such wonderful, close up views, you may well be able to racially identify your Coal Tits. 

Coal & Great Tit share a feeder (c. OOS)

A bird was observed and photographed at the end of March 2011, on a window feeder in Clane, Co Kildare, by Stephen Lawlor that showed the characteristics of the Continental race.. the pix show a fairly cold, grey backed bird with plain underparts and white cheeks.. he invited bird ringers to come and confirm his identification in the hand by trapping the visitor to his window feeder: (see the pix on  and enter Coal Tit in the search option) 

Keep on checking your Coal Tits, the best way to observe them is by deploying a window feeder adaptor, and hanging a mesh feeder laden with peanuts.. a great incentive to keep the windows clean and polished!

Coal Tit (c. OOS)