Monday, 13 October 2014

Larks and Clear Skies

Skylark in coastal habitat (c.oos)

Its easier to notice winter migrants along the coast or in a wetland site: we have grown to expect and look forward to the return of Whooper Swans , Brent Geese and Wigeon: a sort of compensation for the shorter days and colder weather.

Here in the garden  its a little more subtle: the Summer stock of Blackcaps have stripped the elders and moved on south for the winter: no sign of Redwings or Fieldfares replacing them in the hedgerows yet, but they can't be long now.

Last weekend, on one of those dry, cool October days, with little wind and bright blue skies, I noticed the dry, rolling calls of Skylarks flying overhead. Though unseen, the contact call is a distinctive, 'prreet', when delivered from different members of the flock it becomes a stronger chorus. 

 These icons of the countryside, though suffering catastrophically as a breeding species, still come to winter with us  from Northern climes.  No doubt our open winter stubbles are attractive, but the numbers are not nearly as high as those recalled from decades gone by when literally thousands could be put up from coastal fields.

Another migrant with us is the Meadow Pipit: they probably breed on the higher, rougher ground, not more than 5km away but many more pass through at this time, another mud brown bird that gladly associates
with the more traditional regimes of stubbles and unimproved grasslands.

Skylark in late winter stubble (c.OOS)

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Wrens in a warming climate

Singing Wren, Howth Co. Dublin ( c. Liam Kane)

Diary of an Ornithological Exile

 By Ray O’Hanlon

I’m getting a little confused over this climate warming thing.
First up, my personal climate starting warming up the minute I made permanent landfall in the American North East.
In my first summer in New York I was reduced to carrying a book on the subway that had to do with the race between Scott and Amundsen for the South Pole.
Somehow, reading about men who had frozen to death would be a counter to the temperature on the platforms that first July and August.
That would have been roughly 40 degrees centigrade. It was one of those summers
Reading the book turned out to be cold comfort. It was just damn hot no matter how gruesome the description of the great southern continent when it decided to be mean.
Of course, in those early American days I, along with just about everybody else, had never heard of “global warming” or “climate change.”
New York City was its own micro climate anyway.  So in the summer I roasted, and in the winter I froze.
It was decidedly not East Coast Hibernia.
A few years on, now with a new and growing family, my wife and I left the city and migrated north of Gotham into the Hudson Valley.
Our home is just a train ride away from the mayhem of Manhattan, and while we are far from being country folk, we are a little removed from the dense suburban model as well.
We have a garden, a leafy one. And unlike, say, the Amazon rainforest, it has become steadily leafier down the passing years, now 21 of them since the big move.
Trees, bushes and grass mean birds of course.
I have a tick list for the garden and the sky above that is quite impressive - in large part because it is aided by the nearby Hudson River, as great an avian flyway as it is a watery passage.
That list tells a little story that gives a clue to the very real phenomenon that is the warming of our climate.
It’s a tale of two Wrens.
When we moved in that late summer of 1993 I carried out a rapid assessment of our new garden’s avian inhabitants. Who were they, who were their people?
One of them was the House Wren, a New World cousin of the Eurasian Wren that all in Ireland are familiar with, as much for the racket it makes than anything else.
Wrens are not shy and retiring, though the House Wren did seem a little more low-key than the churring wrens I had been familiar with back across the ocean.
Maybe that’s why House Wrens, actually the most widely distributed bird in the Americas, aren’t hanging out in our garden any more.
They have been bumped by the larger and much louder Carolina Wren, which, as its name suggests, is more of a Confederate than a Yankee.
Carolina Wrens have been edging northwards in the U.S. since the middle of the last century.
Birds being flying thermometers, this would suggest the pull of a warming climate going back years before anyone mentioned, well, a warming climate.
Carolina Wrens do not like cold and they easily suffer population crashes in bad winters. But they have been hanging tough in whatever the latitude is outside the back door.
And the garden, their world, has been changing.
Twenty years ago the growth season for weeds and the like would settle down in high summer.
Temperatures would be high, but a lack of rainfall would tamp down unwanted fecundity.
Not so in the past five years.
The hose has been mostly left coiled and corners of the garden have taken on an Amazonian aspect with creepers and vines growing at Jack and the Beanstalk rates.
I pulled a vine off a Juniper the other day that was thick enough for Tarzan to swing on.
Meanwhile, the Hemlock trees have clearly been struggling, and the rhododendron has been looking distinctly unhappy.
This kind of advance and retreat is new, and it seems to be permanent.
And so too are the Carolina Wrens, welcome guests for sure, but strongly in need of training in the delights of monastic contemplative silence.
A few days from now, back in the concrete canyons of Manhattan, the United Nations will be convening for its annual General Assembly.
This year there will be big discussion about global warming in the planned UN Climate Summit.
Politicians from around the world will be convening, thus, of course, adding to all the hot air.
I’m thinking of showing up with a leaf bag full of tropical hummus from a supposedly temperate garden, and a Carolina Wren on my shoulder.
Meanwhile, back at the homestead, I’m keeping a sharp eye out for a first Bird of Paradise. 

Ray O’Hanlon is a journalist, author and onetime member of the Irish Wildbird Conservancy.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Respect for your Elders

A young Song Thrush amongst the berries (c.OOS)

It would be fair to say that the average garden (say ½ or less than the size of a tennis court) would not really have space to accomodate Elder trees, Sambucus niger.   They don’t necessarily reach great heights but they are fairly prolific and will send  up shoots from ground level at a great rate. 

Jane Powers, writing in her book, The Living Garden, describes the characteristics fairly well: 'A fast growing, disorderly tree, best used in a boundary planting or in a very wild garden', well we tick the boxes there!  That doesn’t prepare you for the plants historical status:

From the old Irish saying: 'There are three signs of the cursed and abandoned place: the Elder, the Nettle and the Corncrake'. Thus, Elder is universally held to be an unlucky or malevolent tree, though conversely, possessing such power, it is also regarded to ward off evil if planted near a dwelling. (Niall Mac Coitir, Irish Trees,Myths,legends and folklore)

None of the above makes any reference to the qualities that are present in profusion in spring and autumn: The cymes of creamy blossom, safely captured in bottled cordial for the months ahead and the early autumn bounty of shiny black berries that are part of the early procession of berry crops in the hedgerows.

2 Male Blackcaps in the mixed hedgerow

The Elders are bustling now with our summering Blackcaps: feeding up on a berry bonanza, before moving on with their autumn migration to Africa. I counted at least 6 Blackcaps in one tree, well concealed in the foliage, itself beginning to thin out and yellow.  The Blackcaps were joined by birds more parochial, Song Thrush, Bullfinch and Blue Tits, the latter in search of the seed, whilst the former are pulp or fruit feeders that disperse the seed in turn.

Elsewhere in the garden, the Hawthorn berry crop is reddening and profuse.. Speaking of red: the local population of juvenile Robins are now in adult plumage with red breast replacing the brownish tones of juvenile plumage: eager to show off their new found adult status with welcome bird song and much chasing through the bushes as tentative territories are set up for the winter.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Butterflies and migrant Moths

Echinacea with visitors (c.OOS)

The month of August is our top time for butterflies and moths: the hot perennial border is overspilling with nectar rich plants: Echinacea, Verbena, Russian Sage and Lavender are all at their best right now.

Peacocks and Small Tortoiseshells are the commonest, but Meadow Brown took refuge in the Verbena too.  

Meadow Brown (c.OOS)

Hoverflies are super abundant this year and I keep a keen eye out for migrants, though no sign of a Painted Lady or even a Humming Bird Hawk-Moth, yet.  They are more likely to be found along the coast where Red Valarian grows in profusion on The Murrough and provides a rich nectar source for tired migrants.

Peacock (c.OOS)

The Hawk-Moths look so like a small humming bird: the whirring movements, the humming sound of the wings, the long proboscis reaching into the calyx of flower heads.. a real treat to observe.  These migrants originate from southern Europe and don't really have the ability to over winter on our shores, though they have been recorded as far north as Iceland and Finland, in late summer.

The photograph below is from Cape Clear Island, the Hummer is feeding in a common hedgerow / garden plant of the island, Escallonia. The apricot toned inner wing panel shows well in this excellent pic by Dick Coombes.

HBHM (c. R.Coombes)

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Sunning birds

Male Blackbird gets down and out (c.OOS)

Not surprisingly, given the great warm weather of the past month, I've noticed a few incidences of garden bird behaviour that involves individuals suddenly adopting strange positions around the garden.  Though at first sight, it might look like the bird is in trouble and the heat has got to it and they have literally flipped, the accepted theory is that deliberate posturing to attract the heat of the sun, is a tactic to enhance feather maintenance.

Blackbirds are often caught sunning: either flat out as above with both wings spread and the tail flat out, together with a glazed look and open bill, panting, or keeled over to one side with tail and one wing fanned to the suns rays.  Panting relieves excess heat.

 I was lucky to see a juvenile Robin adopt similar postures, in the same part of the garden: it looked for all the world like a flattened, crumpled up leaf.

A juvenile Robin does its fallen leaf impression (c.OOS)

The birds must take a risk with predators when adopting this behaviour, as they are  slightly dazed looking, though it is clearly worth the risk

The sunning behaviour serves to maintain the flight feathers of the birds and  may also play a role in activating preen oil.  This in turn leads to a dispersal of ectoparasites that are hard to reach with the bill in normal circumstances.. I always said it.. you cant beat a good scratch, or in this case, a good oiling in the sun, high factor of course!

Same bird sits up, panting (c.OOS)

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Starlings, pollen and Phormiums

Juvenile Starling ( c. Dick Coombes)
There's lots of interest from members of the public in exotic looking birds sporting a luminous orange head: apart from the flame coloured crown, the birds are fairly drab, greyish or beige in colour without any other distinctive markings evident.

They are of course, young Starlings, the most recently fledged birds are the plainest, later on in the summer the lines of pale spots on dark ribbons of plumage brings the birds closer to the more familiar autumn/winter plumage.

Starlings beak is well suited to accessing the long flower tube (c. Dick Coombes)
The exotic looking orange head and crown on starlings is a residue of pollen, picked up by the birds in the course of foraging for nectar from the Phormium or New Zealand Flax as it is also known.  The plant has tough, leathery, sword shaped leaves which can grow to 3 meters long, though cultivars of Phormium tenax are neater and sport a range of leaf colour combinations.  The rigid flower stalks can add up to 5 meters on the height of a plant.  The tube like flowers are bright red and produce large  quantities of nectar to attract birds such as starlings ,whose beak seems to be ideal in shape and length for accessing the flowers.

(c. Dick Coombes)
As well as Starlings, House Sparrows are known to visit the plants, I wonder have you noticed any more species availing of this source of food? 

Special thanks to my colleague, Dick Coombes, who photographed these birds on the North Wexford coast recently.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Subsidies for Seed Eaters

Ken Thompson, writing recently in the Daily Telegraph, cited some very interesting data concerning urban birds and differences in garden bird populations across the bird families.

Why, for instance, do Finches frequent bird feeders more readily than say buntings ( Yellowhammers and Reed Buntings) ?

Yellowhammer: an increasingly scarce seed eater (c. David Dillon)

Birds have had to adapt to our modern landscape, a built up urban sprawl with green areas dotted about and usually enclosed by hard landscape. Firstly, he cites a European study that suggests it is about brain size: Finches have bigger brains than Buntings and might adapt more readily to the modern, urban landscape.

A UK study found other reasons why some bird families might thrive in urban conditions: Generalists find it easier than specialists, and Yellowhammer would fit the latter category, despite being a seed eater, they are closely associated with larger seed crops such as Oats and Barley and their distribution closely reflects this preference. 

 Here in county Wicklow we are surrounded on two sides of our acre by two big fields of spring sown Barley: definitely Yellowhammer country, the Elder bushes on the boundary of our acre are enlivened daily by the distinctive song delivered right through the summer months.  In  winter Yellowhammers fly over our garden en route to their night time roost, though they are never tempted to join the flock of Chaffinches under the bird feeders, despite the fact that they form loose mixed flocks in the winter stubbles. Next winter, I am tempted to provide a sack of Oats, specifically for Yellowhammers, just to see if it makes a difference to this iconic farmland bird.

Adult Robin (c.OOS)

So,  the winners are likely to be generalist seed eaters, rather than insect eaters.  The UK bird food market is estimated to be worth stg.£200 million per annum with the vast majority of this is aimed at seed eaters.

As I watched the Greenfinches and Great Tits camp on the sole peanut feeder, I felt heartened by the sight of other birds patrolling the mixed beds and grassy areas: a family of Blackbirds and 4 or 5 Robins were sticking to what they like best: a mixed diet of insects and soft  fruit..( I've given up on actually tasting our own Strawberries, but will need to cover the ripening Blackcurrants for jam making).  

Juvenile Robin: same shape, but different plumage! (c.OOS)

Ken Thompson is a plant ecologist and is the author of 'No Nettles Required, the truth about wildlife gardening'. (eden project books)