Monday, 28 December 2015

Sing It: Happy New Year!

Dawn just before 9 am, 27 Dec, looking south towards Avoca (c. O OSullivan)

We are all a bit washed out since last November, endless rain, storms racing across the Atlantic and picking up names from the Alphabet: We are on 'Storm Frank' as of tonight, at this rate, we might be at 'the Notorious Storm McGregor' within a few months!

I really enjoyed a calm and crisp dawn, just a day ago; well worth recording the event and snapping the now gaunt and bare Elder trees and the mist rising up over the Avonbeg river valley, it might be a while before we get these conditions again. Next, after coffee, straight out into the garden to top up the feeders and then on to the nearby oakwood for some excercise . Incessant rain over the holiday period brings on cabin fever to this man and his dog. 
The woodland was relatively quiet, compared to the garden, but we did hear a few Treecreepers, Redwing in search of Holly berries and a party of Long Tailed Tits was a nice, chance encounter.  

Just before exiting the Oakwood, we heard the chattering calls of Great Spotted Woodpeckers in the canopy, at a point very close to last years nest hole, I reckoned there were two or three birds and there seemed to be a bit of chasing through the upper branches.
 This would appear to be classic territorial behaviour, unusual I imagine in late December, but it has been so mild apart from this one cold,crisp dawn ( it was raining again within four hours and the temperature then rose sharply to 11 or 12 degrees.

Song Thrush delivers its message from a bare Willow ( c. O OSullivan) 
 No real wonder then that Song Thrushes are singing daily, for two weeks now, at least and Dunnocks, Mistle Thrushes and of course Robins join in.  Territorial activity continues around the feeding station,  though the Tit family and Finches seem to be content in mixed flocks and just quarrel and display over food and feeder etiquette.

A rain soaked Robin sits out another wet one. (c. O O Sullivan)

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Happy Monday!

This winters Garden Bird Survey gets off to a start on Monday 30th November. For many of us, the 12 weeks of survey time between now and the end of February, are the highlight of the winter.  It has been running in its present format for over 20 years and we have witnessed some significant trends in that time. Goldfinches are the headline gain, but we have decent results for others, such as the House Sparrow, which holds it own here, despite the often quoted declines we hear about from the UK.  The mixed farming landscape probably favours the Sparrows here more than in the UK and we have a pattern of housing settlement that provides lots of nesting opportunities.  Sparrows utilise the house and garden area throughout the year, whereas your winter Chaffinch flock may be comprised of both local birds and winter migrants from Scandinavia.  

Male Chaffinch ( c. Michael Finn)

 Chaffinches are day migrants and can be seen arriving off the Irish Sea along the East coast round about this time. They have a hooked migration route, choosing to curtail long sea crossings by heading south east out of Sweden, down through the low countries and then bending up north and west from France across the English Channel before dispersing across the UK.  The Chaffinch population shows a split in pattern with the females travelling further over the winter, with males remaining closer to their breeding home, all the better to set up a territory and assess the conditions for the nesting season, when spring arrives.

Brambling (c. Jamie Durrant)
Look out for Bramblings amongst the Chaffinch flocks.  They are particularly fond of Beech mast, which is  more widely available in central Europe.  Bramblings form absolutely enormous flocks in some winters in places like Slovenia, whereas we can usually only muster flocks of less than ten birds.  When beech mast is scarce or exhausted, the birds may well come to seed feeders, what a lovely sight!  

Beech Mast or nuts (c. O OSullivan)
Two Top tips for the Garden Bird Survey: keep a notebook and pencil near your favourite watch point in the house. Note best numbers of the commoner birds and date them. By the end of each week you will already have noticed a pattern emerge.  The weekend days are crucial for recording if you are out working, so notes are really a good idea and finally, keep the feeders topped up, even if you have to perform this task pre dawn or post dusk.  Your reward will be decent garden bird watching, all weekend.

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)

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)

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Sitka Siskins

Well, 13 weeks of the Garden Bird Survey fairly flew past, I suppose it really is spring now!

Male Siskin (c.OOS)

As is usual, the completed forms arrive promptly: 110 returns posted in to BirdWatch Ireland HQ within a few days of the closing week.

This is really useful, though I already know all about what turned up in my garden: podium toppers were the Goldfinches, but a pretty average winter for most of the other finch species and winter thrushes were never really pressed into gardens, through either hard weather or lack of feeding opportunities in the wider countryside.

A fairly obvious absence, partial in our case, was that of Siskins.  They did arrive in very small numbers in mid January, no more than six birds on one day, thereafter a single bird on three occasions.

Female Siskin (c.oos)

The BTO has posted that a near record crop of seed cones on Sitka Spruce trees was sustaining Siskins throughout the winter, thereby reducing their need to visit gardens for supplementary feeding on peanut feeders.. On checking a few of our local conifer forests, I did hear and see big flocks of Siskins, so the UK position seems to hold true for us here in Wicklow: lots of spruce cones still dangling from tree and Siskins making 'music' around them.

So, what has the initial flush of GBS data told me: well, from a random selection of 100 completed forms I found that Siskins occurred in 27% of Gardens surveyed: this compares with a final tally for last winter of 54% and the previous winter, 64%.. 

If all else fails: we'll be around! (c.OOS)

Friday, 20 February 2015

House Hunters

It may be nearly two month before a Blue Tit will lay an egg in this nestbox, but the process is advancing well: I have watched both Blue and Great Tits inspecting boxes around the garden for the past ten days or so.

Blue tit emerges from a viewing (c.OOS)

I particularly like the look of the natural Birch box, sited on, well you've guessed it, a Birch tree.  i wonder does the naturally camouflaged combination give more protection from predators?  In any case, its still not to late to put up a box.. remember, in the words of the Auctioneer: 'location, location, location'!

Great Tits: seen and heard (c.OOS)

The range of bird song is expanding daily, Great Tits are very persistent, but also Redpolls, their buzzings from the Alders are a feature, they are also great at tidying up after the horde of Goldfinches descend on the Nyjer feeders.

With just a week or so left in the Garden Bird Survey season, I am still waiting on a Starling or Collared Dove to visit.. both breed locally so I fancy overhearing one or other at first light, singing from the roof.. dream on!

Cherry tree in bud, Blue Tit shows off its colours (c.OOS)

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Spring Song

07.45., Tuesday, 3 Feb.
Its minus 5 degrees,  bright and still: a heavy white hoar frost confirms to my slowly waking mind that the cold air enveloping my legs is perhaps the coldest this winter.

Blue Tit (c. OOS)
A solitary Blue Tit is hugging the peanut feeder, but no others join this early diner.  However, there is clear song, not from one bird, but two: Mistle Thrushes singing strongly and plaintively, from unseen high perches: its a little surprising to observe nature planning for the future, in spite of the cold, harsh conditions of late winter, these birds are putting down a marker for the future.  A more tuneful Song Thrush joins in the chorus, this one visible in the top branches of a bare Ash tree.

Mistle Thrush: picking the highest point to defend its territory (c.OOS)
Likewise, Great Tits and Coal Tits sing strongly, despite the fact that an egg will not be laid before the end of April.. The all important action now is to plan and mark out a territory for the future season. A good territory increases the chances of attracting a mate and raising a family successfully.

Male Chaffinch: short snatches of song are now evident (c.OOS)
Though some of our garden and woodland species are still down in Africa, for another 6 weeks or so,  Chaffinches deliver short snatches of song, Dunnocks and Wrens likewise.. it wont be a silent spring!

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Normal Winter Weather?

The temperature gauge showed 16* on New Years Day.. I would have tapped the glass a few times for confirmation except that walking around the garden,  it was necessary to remove an outer layer of clothing to cool down as I went about tidying up a few corners.  Today's Irish Times reports that 2014 was the hottest year on record.. in fact it was the 38th consecutive year of of above average temperatures, meaning no one born since 1976 has experienced a colder than average year!

The last week brought what I would consider normal winter temperatures for these parts, -1 at dawn and a steady 1 to 3 degrees all day.


This current weather regime has brought the birds back to the feeders in numbers, but the Grey Wagtail from last month has chosen to move onwards to a slightly less exposed locale, no doubt.

Our Robins are attracted to both 'traditional' fat balls and the new star product: peanut butter with meal worms. As Ireland's most widespread garden bird, its not really surprising that they are quickest to adapt to feeding opportunities that might give them the edge over other insectivorous species such as the Wagtails, Dunnock and Wren.

Goldfinch & Chaffinches clean up (c.OOS)

Other movers include our nyjer hugging Goldfinches and the party of Redpolls that often station themselves on the fallen seed at ground level.  The Chaffinch flock expands each week, though I haven't seen a Brambling yet this winter.. the nomads from Scandinavia, including showy Waxwings have cancelled a winter visit to our shores, the Rowan and Beech crops up North are sufficient for their needs this time out.  Irruptive migration is a perilous enough survival strategy that is only carried out in locally dire circumstances.

Redpoll battles its way onto the Nyjer feeder (c.OOS)