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)

Friday, 20 June 2014

The Young Ones

The middle of June and the nest boxes are buzzing with activity.. well, not really buzzing, this is the "tsee-tsee, see-see" season after all!

The cutest of them all..  a young Blue Tit  (c.OOS)

Once the new recruits from the tit boxes and elsewhere vacate their first home, its time for them to sit around in deep cover and beg their parents to feed them, one more time.. to the confusion of us birders who can't sort out the "see-see" calls of the young birds, closer than 'one of the tit family'.

A young Great Tit also sports lemon cheeks (c.OOS)

I have noticed that the adult birds fondness for peanuts, even in the summer season doesn't abate.  One pair of Blue Tits with young in nest box were quite happy to take the short trip to the peanut feeder, repeatedly, to bring a swift feed back to their youngsters. This in spite of the hot, dry weather and presumed abundance of wild prey in the form of caterpillars and various tree living inverts or creepie-crawlies around the hedgerows ( the flowering elder trees are particularly productive at this time). The birds are happy to take to the feeder for a handy high protein food, broken down in to small morsels for the young birds.  This is important as large lumps of nuts or full kernels would likely choke the birds, so keep the nuts in a well maintained mesh feeder and the adults will sort it from there.

Young Coal Tit waits its turn at the nuts (c.OOS)

Once on the wing, the young make for the willow tree with hanging feeder and have quickly learnt that begging is less productive than actually clinging on and self feeding.  When the feeder was empty , the adults had no bother reverting to the elder tree and bringing back juicy invert. prey.. 

So the lesson,if any, is: protein snacks from the feeder are well appreciated, but natural food is easily as important, probably higher in protein and comes with moisture locked in, handy in these hot,hot days.

A Young Greenfinch called all evening from the Elder tree  (c.OOS)

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Summer nights

Long eared Owl (c.OOS)
Yes, its actually warm enough to be out and about the garden after the sun goes sliding down.. Have had a few evenings of 40 minutes watching and listening at dusk.. the chorus of Song Thrush , blackbird and Robin drops to a few individuals, ever more distant and fading.. time for the Pipestrelle bats to catch the eye, their jerky flight keeps this viewer on his toes.  I was lucky enough to hear a roding Woodcock on 2 evenings:  the  short flight call, 'whiss-ick'  followed by the hint of the grunting pig like note, all carried out while on the wing in a kind of slow motion celebration of the night. 

 It's Long eared Owls I am really after: the pursuit of nocturnal birds on the island of Ireland is somewhat challenging: not too many species to choose from and then their is scarcity of those that do occur, the Barn Owl being a case in point.  Long eared Owl is relatively common in Irish woodland.. they have no competition from the likes of Tawny Owl, as happens in the UK. 

 They are not great in the vocalisation department though.. however the young have a distinctive call , the so called food begging call, which can be heard by day as well as at dusk.  The bird books refer to it as sounding like a squeky, unoiled hinge or gate.  Now is the time to listen out for this food call: 'a whining, metallic 'zeen'.  We would love to hear of any observations, e mail me at if you have anything to report.

Great Tit (c. OOS)

A few nestboxes are occupied, a pair of Great Tits make the short flight from their box on an old Sycamore to the Peanut feeder.. A protein boost for busy parents: the pursuit of inverts., or creepy crawlies will begin in earnest when the young hatch.

I have refilled the Nyjer feeder, the Siskins and Greenfinches are regular enough visitors, a great chance to see them and compare their size and plumage.
Siskin on the left, and Greenfinch. (c.OOS)