Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Blue Tits bottom out..

Hanging in there! (c.OOS)

Whilst the Coal Tit numbers continue to rise exponentially in the garden, well into double figures on view at any one time.  Typically this may be five on the ground, mopping up, six clinging to the circular feeder and another half dozen queing in the willlow tree.. hard to keep the feeders topped up but its not as rosy for at least one of their cousins:  Blue Tits are much fewer in numbers, so far this winter.   The most I have seen in one viewing is four Blue Tits, normally I might expect twice that number.  

Early winter numbers will reflect how the species fared coming out of the previous summer / breeding season. The BTO have just published findings from its 2016 ongoing studies and surveys in the UK: They reckon that brood sizes were smaller, due to poor spring weather.  The critical period is of course when birds are hatched and near fledging: this 14 day period in early June if wet and cold, results in casualties in fledged birds through reduced feeding opportunities.

In summary: BTO report that following the worst ever breeding season on record for Blue Tits in 2016, the numbers of this species using gardens during November 2016 was the lowest since 2003.

That Coal Tits had a different out turn in 2016 is not discussed by BTO in this media release, however I suspect a difference in laying and hatching dates might have ensured a completely different outcome for the smaller Coal Tit, and they have less winter feeding competition from Blue Tits, if there are fewer out there.

Of course Blue Tits are at the common end of the garden spectrum, present in the majority of gardens.  They are well capable of bouncing back, but will need a decent breeding season in 2017 to get back the losses of 2016.

c. (oos)

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Coal Tits in a Queue..

Two Coal Tits await landing space on the seed feeder (c.OOS)

There is a really decent procession of birds to the feeders: we are providing Peanuts, a seed mix with sunflower hearts added and a square of fat/nut mix.

After two weeks of the garden bird survey, we are seeing great numbers of Coal Tits, up to seven on view at any one time!  The other tits are not far behind  and other good showings include Chaffinches, nearly 20.

Gt Spot Pecker, gets stuck in! (c.OOS)
Best of all, after an absence all autumn, the local Great Spotted Woodpecker weighs in daily, a female, joined just this weekend by a second bird, a male: a much brighter bird with red nape and much cleaner underparts.  Both birds seem a little more relaxed towards our in house movements than heretofore,  and spend a bit more time on the peanut feeder, though the female does insist on zero tolerance and/or sharing the feeder with members of the tit family: reaching out its drill like bill towards any bold approaches to the feeder when it is in occupation.

Look, no Coal Tits! (c.OO'S)

Seed, Fat or Peanuts? Spoilt for choice! (c.OO'S)

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

News from the Garden Bird Survey

Greenfinch (Shay Connolly)

You might have noticed that activity around the feeders is stepping up somewhat: colder nights and shortening days mean more and more birds are including the feeders as part of their daily routine, if not survival plan.

The results from last winters Survey have just been published in Wings magazine, ahead of this winter's survey which is still a month away.

Greenfinches are back in the top ten, at ninth, showing a slight recovery, perhaps from the pervasive Trichomonosis disease that hit their numbers over the last decade.
Siskin drops in, end of season. (Shay Connolly)

You will have noticed no doubt that Goldfinches are swelling their ranks, at eighth, occurring in 86% of our gardens. Siskins were welcomed back, after a really poor showing the previous winter, they dropped by at the tail end of the winter, in February 2016, to nearly 60% of gardens.

With all these positive finch stories, no surprise then that the stand out garden predator, the Sparrowhawk, was present and attending the vicinity of the feeders in over 40% of gardens.  This is a very high position for this species and is a good indication of the balancing act that goes on in bird populations and the dynamic relationship between predator and prey.  

Juvenile Sparrowhawk (Shay Connolly)

So, we have a little over a month to get our garden birds primed and ready for this winters survey, I have a couple of  Pied Wagtails, Meadow Pipits and Linnets visiting right now, I hope they are still around when the form filling begins!

Monday, 10 October 2016

Meadow Pipits move in

Meadow Pipit  (c. Shay Connolly)

Autumn migration, inland, never really reaches the dizzy heights of the coast, its headlands and islands. October here opens with a steady stream of Meadow Pipits, moving over recently stubbled fields, in small groups, their thin 'tseep- tseep' calls and weak flight as subtle as their brown plumage: Not exactly a straight swap over the same fields for departing Swallows, a bit subtle themselves this year, with no obvious pre-migration gatherings.

 However the pipits are both long and short distance migrants to us. These birds may be just moving to lower altitude for the winter,from higher ground in county Wicklow, like the Linnet flock which is also building.  

Meadow Pipit (c. Liam Kane)
With counts of over 1,000 a day recorded at migration stations such as Cape Clear, the movement there is thought to be more long distance, birds migrating to us or just passing through from Iceland and Scandinavia, moving as far south as North Africa to spend the winter.

One of my favourite October migrants is the Goldcrest, spotted on the coast or in the home garden, they are often heard calling from cover as they feed incessantly. This bird was spotted sitting up, perky enough on the doormat: most likely it was recovering from a collision with the patio door, it flew off into the sycamores as I approached it, seemingly none the worst for wear. I was happy to put it to flight before a cat discovered it on the ground.   

Goldcrest (c.OOS)

Monday, 12 September 2016

September song

Robin in song (c. Liam Kane)

I have discovered a new alarm clock: pleasant on the ear and reliable to go off each morning, currently at about 6.00 am.

The Robin is one of the few birds that sings nearly all year round. We have just come out of the moult period when even Robins have to remain silent and inconspicuous.  This is in order to avoid detection when they might be flightless or partially so, and thus vulnerable.

A juvenile Robin: now all moulted into adult plumage (c. Liam Kane)

Because Robins hold winter territories, they resume song in Autumn. Both sexes sing, though audible, they usually remain in cover while singing to lessen the threat from passing predators.

The song at this time of the year is different from the early spring version: more melancholy and understated, aimed at forming and holding a territory as distinct from attracting a mate.  Both sexes sing but in spring it is the male that delivers the strongest performance.

 Because Robins can sing and forage in very low light conditions, they are usually last to finish and first up in the morning, and if there is an artificial light source, will sometimes sing through the night. 

C. (Liam Kane)

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Leaving it Late

Here on the east coast, if you miss the early spring rush of Cuckoos on migration, well you may have to wait til end of season.  So it was for me this year, but I did get lucky just in time.  The Wicklow coast can often produce a late adult or an even later juvenile bird, tempted to remain with us if the weather is warm and their favourite prey is in evidence.

The adults are most evident in late April when calling birds attract all kinds of attention, from small birds and diligent countryside watchers.  Because they get their breeding business done relatively early, that is, lay the eggs but pass on the raising fledglings bit, they are free to depart for Africa in mid-summer.

In Ireland they typically use a Meadow Pipits nest to drop their egg in and move on around their chosen territories, repeating the act and trusting the unfortunate Pipit to raise and foster the soon gigantic young Cuckoo.  By late July it is only the successful juveniles that are to be seen: Remarkably , these young birds must acquire or inherit  information that that will first guide them south into Africa and return in spring with the knowledge of what to lay and what host to seek, always ensuring their egg matches the colour of the hosts.

The diet of Cuckoos is  highly specialised, mainly composed of  Caterpillars and often the hairy or more toxic ones.  So no wonder really that a bird that depends on the fortunes of its host species and also has a specialist protein diet that is in decline, mainly due to intensification of the landscape over the last half century, struggles to show off its iconic spring status in numbers.

The bird that appeared on the railway line at Newcastle was a very dark juvenile, quite confiding as it had found a decent food supply in the unkempt meadows and dune slacks on the fringes of thetracks.  This is traditionally a very warm and dry strip, well known for basking lizards and lots of butterflies and Burnet Moths, so a temporary sort of home for a young Cuckoo, making its way south.

This wonderful set of photographs of the juvenile Cuckoo were taken by c. Shay Connolly, 

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Sunny side up !

Robin in full sun mode (c. OOS)

What a blast of heat around Ireland and further south, soon to moderate though, well, we were a little uncomfortable in all that heat if the truth be known.

Out on the lawn just south west of the house, I have become accustomed to some strange posturing in the grass.  Usually a Blackbird, but also a Dunnock and a Robin have taken to just lying down and stretching spread eagled in the turf..birds sun bathing with attitude and a purpose.. 

Dunnock stretching a point (OOS)

By stretching out and extending feather tracts, birds stimulate the preen glands to produce oils which improve performance of flight feathers and also flush out feather parasites.

The procedure can look a little weird or grotesque, particularly when Dunnocks are involved.they look so cat like with that two toned eye!

They are also very much exposed to the threat of predators attacking as they lie prone and seemingly dazed in the heat.  I have noticed they break the procedure quickly, if any movement is detected.

Dunnock (c.OOS)

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Out and about with the young ones

Juv Gt Spot: note red forehead ( c. Shay Connolly)

The last two weeks have been full of the sounds of high summer, perhaps it's a bit unfortunate that they all sound the same: "tsee, tsee ,tsee", which translates to ," I'm a juv., tit I might be out of the nest but I still want to be fed", which sounds familiar on various levels!

This time of the year I keep the peanut feeder topped up, there's a procession of Great Tits which nested just 3 meters away from the feeder and the adults often utilised this food source for a quick protein hit after emerging from the nestbox.. Since the young have fledged, we witnessed the young standing off and begging to be fed which has now matured into a family feed, with adults and young hanging from the feeder all together.

Back home, we are still waiting for the woodpeckers to just drop in: they nest about 800 meters down the road  and are reliable enough in winter: there's been lots of records in Wicklow over the last two weeks on the Bird Net, of birds flying through relatively open ground, a sign of dispersal of juveniles and adults, setting up new territories: perhaps it was a great breeding season!

I saw one, then two birds whilst down at the coast at Newcastle: they fled scrubby, Alder trees, disturbed by my car and bounded across a meadow, before settling in the canopy of more willow and alder on the ECNR.

Juv Stonechat, an engaging gem on the Wicklow coast (Juvenile Stonechat (Mairéad Ní Chuirc)

It was a decent lunchtime: haunting, evocative calls of returning Curlew, from northern Europe, reminding us that the clock's really ticking, for breeding Curlew and the advance of Autumn. One of my favourite juvenile birds is the Stonechat: their engaging stone clacking call and often animated behaviour grabbing the attention: tail flicking and rising to he highest frond of bracken or briar. A real gem of the Wicklow coastline, they are now breeding well after the hard winters  of 6 or 7 winters ago, which set the population back. 

Saturday, 4 June 2016

Perennial favourites

What a blast of great weather: dry, warm and sunny for over a week now, just as all the common birds around the garden are feeding young. Great too for the pollinators, the bees and butterflies are out and about in numbers, not to mention garden enthusiasts.

Hardy Geranium and browsing bumble bee (c.OOS)
The best performing plants for us right now, are the perennial or hardy geraniums and of course, Aquilegeas or Columbine, also known as granny's bonnets.  They self seed around and give a show of lovely sharp, navy blue and purple flowers around the flower beds, rising up to attract bees in numbers.

Aquilegeas in full flower (c.OOS)

These are all timely, for the weekend that is in it, Bloom in the Park: I always associate enormous Aliums and Aquilegeas with the show, and folk walking by with their prize purchases, though maybe this year more walk by with ice cream cones and a fizzy drink!  

Interesting how the name Aquilegea is rooted in the latin for Eagle or Aquila, which is probably a reference to the curled up tips to the petals resembling an eagles wing tips.. Columbine is  a reference to doves, the arrangement of petals recalling a circle of doves.  Bees love to climb right in to the blooms splashing lemon colured pollen on their backs in return for a nectar drink.

Granny's Bonnet or Aquilegea (c.OOS)

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Weaving magic

Bunjee jumping from a silken thread (c. J.Fox)
The Goldcrest has got to be one of my favourite birds: not leas because they have so many fascinating facts and figures connected to this pocket rocket package.  They look so good with a smart, sometimes dazzling head pattern and that big black peppercorn eye, suspended in a cool ashy grey face, accentuated by a furrowed, drooping gape line.

I have heard plenty of Goldcrest song in recent weeks, a very thin,hurried verse, recalling an unoiled wheel revolution, repeated 3 or 4 times before fizzling out.
This vocal presence didn't prepare me for the fact that they have taken to visiting the window frames around the house: we run a wildlife establishment here and so you can expect plenty of cob webs and silky thread balls in the crevices around the windows.. there's about twenty separate window frames at ground floor level, so lots of opportunities for extracting silky strands from spiders webs.  These in turn are spirited away for use as a sort of 'fairies duct tape' woven around the Goldcrests nest.  The operation gives me a great chance to see the bird up close and wonder at the fearlessness of this little gem. As Europes smallest bird, it weighs roughly 7 grams, or 4 Goldcrests to the ounce, in old money, roughly about the same weight as a 20 cent coin.

Goldcrest on dock stem in autumn.
Surprisingly perhaps, the delicate nest can house up to 12 eggs, though only pea sized, the clutch still weighs one and a half times the weight of the adult female.

A word of caution: if you find it hard or impossible to discern the song of this little character, it is said that as a standard to test ones hearing, it is one of the first bird songs or sounds lost to old age!

High protein diet (c. Michael Finn)

Monday, 11 April 2016

Hello, Goodbye..

Greenland White fronted Geese (c. A Walsh)

The end of March with an early Easter and some more time around the garden, it was really appreciated.  Weather very changeable and plenty of rain and hail stones into April, though the end of March was better.

Best of the passage birds were not entirely unexpected, but most unusual for us~: A late dusk, 8.00pm,  listening for Blackbirds in song is always a treat, but the sound of geese, high overhead, the lovely cascade of notes, as if saying:  'keep in touch' , that we know so well from Wexford:  White-fronted Geese, a flock of about 30 birds. They were taking advantage of a light southerly to blow them north, they move ahead of some rough weather due the next day.  I wonder whether they will pitch up just north of us on Vartry Reservoir, at Roundwood or continue north as far as the Donegal coast or make straight for Iceland.. nobody could really enlighten me on this! This is our second 'flyover' record in spring.

The spring migrants weighed in on time: Chiff Chaffs in song, followed by Swallow, Blackcap and Willow Warbler.. all is right with the world, though the thick carpet of hail on the newly mown lawn makes you wonder!

Monday, 14 March 2016

Winter thrushes just passing through..

Redwing in Hawthorn, (c.Brendan Shiels)

Though the Garden Bird Survey has finished, there are still movements of winter birds to note: A flight of nearly 40 Redwings located mid afternoon, calling a thin 'seeepp', as they made out from the stand of Birch Trees, over the garden, heading purposefully east. This was exciting as it was my first sighting since the migration from Europe, back in November.  Despite its thin quality, this call travels a fair distance and is a valuable contact aid to these migratory thrushes, most often recorded on wintery nights in November as the inward influx from mainland Europe takes hold.
Redwing picked up and cared for in hard weather ( F. Van Dokkum)

 A few of my colleagues also noted Redwings in recent evenings.  During a mild winter, some of our winter thrushes don't need to make the journey to Ireland.  However, our Redwings can originate from Icelandic populations or indeed the Fenno Scandinavian race.  They have a huge winter range which extends into southern Europe and east to Cyprus and as far as the Caspian Sea and some of our sightings at this time may well refer to passage migrants. Both races of Redwing can intermingle in winter but go there separate ways for the breeding season.   In exceptionally hard weather conditions you may witness a mid-winter wave of additional migrants, fleeing a frozen continental Europe: these birds are often desperate for energy and food supplies, hence their tameness and willingness to enter gardens to scour for berries and scraps. Many don't survive the harshest weather, so not having Redwings in your garden may mean that Redwings are doing just fine, elsewhere..

Redwing (c. Dick Coombes)

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Goldfinches: swings and roundabouts

A pair on a Nyjer feeder (c.OOS)

A letter to the recently published Wings magazine questions the abundance of Goldfinches in gardens this winter.  We received a good, quick response from Garden Bird watchers, with some interesting observations.  We wont really have an accurate picture until all the Garden Bird Survey results are in and analysed, but its good to get a mid season response, albeit from a small sample.

Flocks of 20 and indeed up to 30 Goldfinches have been reported from regular stations around the country but 2 respondents in the Dublin suburb of Dalkey report contrasting fortunes: birds and no birds... maybe Goldfinches can pick and choose their garden, they certainly seem to share info as flocks usually build from an initial pair.

Respondents with the biggest numbers of birds cite the Goldfinches preference for Sunflower Hearts over Nyjer seeds.  Another had heard that stale Nyjer seed is unattractive to Goldies and even gives off an odour which prompts the birds to stay away.  This observer replaced his Nyjer stock and noted a return of birds.  A garden with just a line of Lavender plants, with seed heads in place, was visited by a flock.  Worth repeating the wildlife gardening mantra of 'keep your heads' as distinct from the tidy gardener who is 'off with their heads', when it comes to garden perennials and herbs.  

 I myself had a few Goldies, building up to six this winter, relying mainly on Peanuts and naturally occurring Teasel for food: the Goldies have since moved on and I have reverted to Nyjer seed in an effort to get them back, time will tell!   

Pix, c. OOS

Friday, 29 January 2016

On Guard!

Mistle Thrush c. Shay Connolly.

Mistle Thrushes often avail of an elevated perch, from a conifer top to a high aerial or telegraph wire: to advertise their strong,far carrying and plaintive song that is noticable from January onwards.

As well as being an aggressive species in the breeding season, they also defend a feeding territory, down to one bush, sometimes for the whole of the winter.  We have one such bird on the hedgerow en route to the village: perched over a good sized Holly tree, still with berries.  Invariably, as I drive past there is a Mistle Thrush perched up on a telegraph wire, perfectly placed beside the favoured Holly tree. Any thrush species that come close to investigate the food store are chased away midst the clamour of an urgent rattling call, backed up by a swooping descent on the intruder.

Where there's fruit.. there's a Mistle Thrush ( c. David Dillon)
 It is said that in really hard weather that this defence of a tree and reliable food source is abandoned, only because the pressure of numbers from other thrushes can't be defended and better to share and get some food than none at all, when futile defence is likely to have an adverse affect on actual feeding time.

Mistle on an ornamental or Chinese Rowan (c. Peter Walsh).
Though audible and highly visible, Mistle Thrushes are rather scarce, and apart from early autumn roaming flocks, are seldom seen in numbers and thus far, have remained off my Garden Bird Survey list this winter, though I am hopeful of recording a territory and a nest in one of the ash trees on our boundary, before the survey is  finished at the end of February.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Cold snap brings them in..

Male Bullfinch in the Brambles (c.O O'Sullivan)

With a welcome break in the seemingly never ending sequence of wet days, it is cold, bright and windy, for this week anyway.. the Chaffinch flock is up to twenty or more , can't be long before a Brambling joins up?

A male Bullfinch almost went unnoticed as it sat in tight in the bramble hedge: for a bird with such a showy plumage, they can be subtle, particularly with only a soft mournful piping note to draw attention to them as they methodically search out winter seeds from cover. 

The male that visited us is taking some seeds from the brambles.  So far, I haven't been successful in attracting them to any of the food on offer in the feeders.  They always look well fed, the stubby beak often with seed and fruit pulp stuck to it and the stubby neck gives them a thick set appearance.
Even from behind though, the combination of a cool mid grey upper parts, black wings and crown ,white rump are distinctive.  Then there's the rosy underparts of the male, a real show stopper!

Distinctive white rump and sharp contrasts (c. OOS)

The dry remains of the blackberry season get a Bullfinch by in January.. (c. OOS)