Thursday, 20 November 2014

Song Thrushes break the silence


Song Thrush (c. Brian Johnston)

What a lovely calm, bright day we had after all the rain.

Before first light  I was out the back garden and was delighted to hear at least two Song Thrushes in full song. (they are still singing at last light too!)
I presume the colder and brighter conditions are a trigger to bird song: it really punctuates the still air and the Song Thrush is probably our finest songster: clear and loud, they repeat the notes, just in case you missed them the first time! 

We tend to think of Song Thrushes as residents and a singing bird in winter surely is, but we get winter influxes of Song Thrushes along with the Redwings from northern Europe.  The latter are more obvious as they are gregarious in nature and appear only in winter.  Migrant Song Thrushes and Blackbirds usually get 'bumped' around the garden by the residents and bird song reinforces the residents claims to a territory.

Song Thrush: typically sing from deep cover (c. Dave Dillon)



Anthony Mc Geehan, writing in Birds of The Homeplace (available from BirdWatch Ireland), highlights R.M. Barringtons observations at Irish Lighthouses: in correspondence with light keepers, he noted very large numbers of Song Thrushes striking the light at Tuskar Rock, off the Wexford coast in late autumn.  It is true we are more accustomed to logging the thin contact calls of Redwings at night, indeed tonights weather will be ideal for listening out for migrating Thrushes, cold and foggy and as yet, not much wind...

All very welcome activity as the start up to the Garden Bird Survey is only 10 days away; who said the winter is dull?

Ivy berries will sustain Thrushes after the Haws and Holly berries are eaten (c. Brian Johnston)

Monday, 3 November 2014

Slowly, they return!


I am used to people recounting news of a lack of birds in late summer gardens, it goes with the job!  This phenomenon came much closer to home, an October scenario with us, for the first time. 


Great Tit samples the Peanut Picnic (c.OOS)

So distracted by the lack of birds in the garden I decided to freshen up the peanut feeder with a new stock of nuts (the existing residue had solidified and was disposed of) and filled up the Nyjer feeder, though only a couple of Chaffinches showed any interest. The cherry on this bird feast was a sample pot of Peanut Butter Picnic for birds, from a new supplier in Wicklow: hand made with best tallow, peanut flour, nuts and meal worms added in this treat.. surely a quickfire response was guaranteed?

Patience being a rare enough commodity around these parts, I decided to walk the dog around a decent 10 acre stubble that adjoins the garden: Right now the hedgerows are punctuated with blood and bright red berries, hawthorn and holly in profusion and also with the rich, dark black sloes of Blackthorn.

Greenfinches sample some weed seeds (c. OOS)

I was quickly reassured to meet with some nice flocks of what we reasonably expect to meet with in the garden: House Sparrows sat up high in the hedgerow, 10 or more, a great horde of Greenfinches barrelled over, I estimated about 30 birds.  Goldfinches chimed and Redpolls buzzed over.. all is well then in the countryside.  The Thrushes seem to be arriving too, Redwings numbered about 5 or 6, their thin calls always a wake up for me at first light.  Mistle Thrushes continue to patrol the fields in loose flocks, 12 to 20 birds being the norm at the moment.  

Goldfinch (c.OOS)

Much closer to the patio door and even more satisfying was the scene on the morning of 3rd November: 0 degrees at first light, bright and sunny for 3 or 4 hours, perfect conditions for a rush into the garden: sure enough, I wasn't disappointed: my first Coal Tit for a number of weeks, Great and Blue Tits in numbers and a Robin was attracted to that Peanut butter treat: (must be the meal worms).  The Greenfinch horde that was observed over the fields descended on the peanut feeder and then patronised the gravel and perennial border: never a shortage of seeds there, the total number of birds was 26, the 'flyovers' watched in the fields some days ago, surely.  

A Treecreeper was heard in the trees, a Jay flew over, light and airy and then that raucous scream as it landed up the garden in its favourite hedgerow oak tree.. A Kite patrolled the garden and moved out over the broader landscape where it jolted upwards at the sound of a volley of shots aimed lower: the Pheasant shooters, no doubt welcoming the hunting season ahead.

Its all in the stubble (c.OOS)

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)