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!