Thursday, 24 January 2013

Apples or Nuts? Town or Country?

The garden is well out of berries and natural fruit.. except the trusty Ivy berries which are BB (best before) end of February.  So how to attract Blackcaps and other welcome, bonus birds to the feeders?

Male Blackcap takes to the nuts (Shay Connolly)

Plenty of garden birdwatchers on Facebook pages are reporting Blackcaps about now, on the nut feeders and the now classic "apple on cane", or spear or whatever sharp object is available.  You are unlikely to miss them, they are quite aggressive about the feeders. Another correspondent in Sandymount, Dublin 4, had his first Blackcap, a male, and it was apparently partial to the Brennans Bread,.. me too, any chance of a packet of Tayto with that!!

Sadly, despite a fairly constant supply of food in my garden, to attract all small birds, though I'm a bit slow on the Apples, I have never recorded a wintering Blackcap in this acre plus garden in rural Wicklow, over 5 winters now.  

Female Blackcap: no berries on the Cotoneaster..apples are ok! (Bill Quinn)

You may be surprised then to hear that Blackcaps are regular summer visitors to the same garden, visiting in late April, advertising with their nervous, rushed song, fresh from Africa and the song is heard throughout the summer and finished off with a pre migration flourish in August and September, with a display of active feeding on a feast of juice form the Elder berry crop.. 

So I have (perhaps crudely), deduced that my summer population of garden Blackcaps, that winter in Africa, are country birds, and our wintering population (northern European Blackcaps) are townies, when in Ireland, preferring the slightly warmer town and suburban habitats in often very cool winter conditions..

So, no Blackcaps in a rural Wicklow garden, with 30 species recorded so far this winter.. anybody have a similar experience or evidence?

Male Blackcap gets in on the act (Bill Quinn)

Monday, 14 January 2013

Acrobats bounce by

I am used to hearing the busy bustle of Long tailed tits in the hedgerow and wet scrub woodland.. The flock is always in contact with the whispered calls and seemingly on a perpetual 'follow the leader' game.  No sooner than you see one bird arrive, they are on the move again, on a mission to pick small insects from leaves and bark.

Thanks a bundle ! (c. OOS)

The fact that these Long tails are largely insectivorous means they don't always present themselves at the feeders like the regular tit species.  This also means that these birds can suffer if the weather gets really severe.  They are among the smallest bird species we have: the tail alone accounts for 50% of the overall length of the bird.

Given the recent cold snap, I wasn't altogether surprised that a pair of Long tailed Tits popped onto our suet balls: high in calories, these balls of fat and nuts could really make a difference to the energy budget of a tiny bird (and only cost €11 for 50 balls form BirdWatch Ireland).  If you are putting out suet or fat balls, remove the plastic mesh and pop 4 or 5 balls into a hanging feeder designed for the job, again Mr. Murphy in BWI will be glad to help out on that one!

Long tailed Tit takes on calories for cold nights ahead.. (c. OOS)

Enjoy the sights in the garden, I've a feeling its going to be busy this week: we have doubled our Chaffinch flock to 25 birds..

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

For the birds, Irish Times 5th January

The number of some Irish birds seen in the garden is in decline, but we can help them to survive by creating favourable habitats, writes FIONNUALA FALLON in todays Irish Times (5th Janaury 2013)

I’ve spent the past few weeks counting birds. Not calling birds, French hens, turtle doves or partridges, I should add, but robins, finches, crows, tits, siskins and blackbirds as well as magpies, treecreepers, wrens and the occasional shy jay. I even, briefly, had a stab at counting the flock of whooper swans that first arrived to graze a neighbouring farmer’s field in early December, their hoarse cries and snowy white forms heralding the arrival of winter proper.

That was until I reread the instructions accompanying Birdwatch Ireland’s garden bird survey 2012/2013 form , and noted the polite request to participants to “please don’t count birds that you see outside the garden”. Oops.
Back inside Irish gardens, the results of the previous year’s Birdwatch survey reveal that despite a decline in population numbers caused by the harsh winters of 2009 and 2010, the robin remains Ireland’s most widespread garden bird, having been spotted by 98.6 per cent of the participants.

Close behind this red-breasted songster (the only Irish bird whose fluting song can be heard throughout the winter months) comes the blackbird, followed by the blue tit, the chaffinch, the great tit and the magpie.

Sadly, the same survey also reveals a decline in the numbers of other Irish garden birds, in particular four species of thrush, namely the resident mistle thrush and song thrush as well as the redwing and the fieldfare, both of which are winter migrants.

Figures for the song thrush, whose “full-hearted evensong of joy unlimited” has inspired countless poets and writers, are perhaps the most shocking. Once ranked in eighth place, it has tumbled to 18th. The results of my own rather informal garden survey of the past few weeks back up these statistics. In a garden where they were once a common sight, I have scarcely spotted a single thrush.

According to Oran O’Sullivan of Birdwatch Ireland, this decline is almost certainly the result of those two previous icy winters. “Harsh conditions in early winter ensured an early clear-out of berry resources in the countryside, and freezing ground conditions cut short a supply of invertebrates in the fields. Although some found sanctuary in gardens, many thrushes and other bird species undertook a mass westerly movement, desperate to find a food source, and many perished flying west out to sea along our Atlantic seaboard.”

There’s no doubt that last year’s dismal spring and summer further compounded the problem, resulting in a poor breeding season. Late spring frosts also severely affected potential food sources by killing off insect larvae while frost-damaged blossoms resulted in a scarcity of fruits and berries.
The good news is that gardeners can help to reverse the thrush’s decline in a variety of different ways. First and foremost, do what you can to create a favourable habitat.

A thick hedge, a few well-chosen evergreen shrubs, some fruiting or berrying trees, a not-too-well-tended lawn, a wall covered with creepers – each and every one of these will offer shelter or food, or both.
Pockets of dense planting will also offer nesting cover for the song thrush, who likes to position its nest in a well-hidden spot, while the mistle thrush (its larger, pot-bellied cousin) is less secretive and will happily nest in the crook of a branch.

The latter is particularly partial to holly and mistletoe berries but all thrushes rely on a range of fruit and berries as a vital source of food in autumn and winter.

Our native mountain ash (Sorbus aucuparia), for example, is not only a handsome specimen tree but its clusters of blood-red berries are irresistible to these birds. The scarlet berries of the evergreen yew (Taxus baccata) are another magnet, as are sloes, elderberries and those of ivy, berberis, cotoneaster, pyracantha and the native guelder rose, Viburnum opulus. The bigger species of thrush (the fieldfare and the mistle) will also eat rosehips.
Ripe or windfallen fruit is another big draw, while even a shop-bought apple speared onto a sharp branch will be appreciated on a frosty winter’s day.
Fruit and berries aside, thrushes also eat earthworms and insects, both of which are an important source of protein. Lawns are especially rich hunting grounds for earthworms ,while a garden rich in a variety of different habitats that maximise its natural ecosystem will be a haven for insect life.

Last but not least, these speckle-breasted birds are also the gardener’s friend in that they’re partial to eating snails. Be aware that poisonous pellets, whose active ingredient is methiocarb or metaldehyde, are one of the factors suggested to have contributed to these birds’ decline. Food for thought as we begin another gardening year.

For more details of the Birdwatch Garden Bird Survey, see

Friday, 4 January 2013

A New Year, new beginning, peace and quiet?

The New Year has been exceptionally mild: it has coaxed a few garden birds into song: Mistle Thrush and Song Thrush, the latter not in full glory by any means, but making a start!  Others heard, include Dunnock, Robin, Wren and a snatch or two from a Great Tit.. there is even a perceptible 'add on' of maybe 15 minutes pre-dusk..Today  I recorded a party of Long tailed Tits (4) and a fly over of 11 Mistle Thrushes, all rushing off to roost this evening at 4.30 or so.

Male Siskin (c. Shay Connolly)

The bird feeders continue to remain busy: new for me this week is the appearance of a couple of Siskins: As reported last spring on the blog, they are late winter visitors to us, no doubt preferring to remain in the conifer plantations as long as there is seed available to them.  They are a welcome sight, there acrobatics on the nut feeders an addition to the steady file of ranks of Coal and Blue Tits.

Walking around the garden boundary works well for us: you would nearly always disturb a Dunnock or a Wren, ones that wont be seen around feeders unless it gets extremely cold.  

An added bonus was the tell tale mewing of Buzzards.. We regularly see three birds, loosely vying for position in the space above the plantation and Oak woodland.. They glide effortlessly across the sky, movement almost imperceptible to the eye, the crying call charts their progress as I assume a pair gently moves a competing singleton to the boundary of the territory, restoring peace and quiet again.  

A lone Kite makes its way along the hedgerow, a bit more casual and laid back, I think it may be looking to find a mate and set up territory in the Oak wood.

Red Kite (c. John Fox)

 Far more urgent, and a daily visitor to the feeders is a Sparrowhawk which arrives at full speed, tilt and drift into the Willow tree and making one lunge for a Coal Tit or Chaffinch.. Invariably this is unsuccessful and almost without braking flight the bird drops and glides through a big oval gap in the hedgerow before disappearing into an area of wet Birch and Willow.  The Sparrowhawk actually landed today, directly above the feeder.. A fine adult male, its fly past always results in the release of a frenzied array of specially held alarm calls from the other garden birds, and then all is quiet for just a few minutes as the feeders are emptied of all visitors.

Male Sparrowhawk (c. John  Fox)