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)

Monday, 28 December 2015

Sing It: Happy New Year!

Dawn just before 9 am, 27 Dec, looking south towards Avoca (c. O OSullivan)

We are all a bit washed out since last November, endless rain, storms racing across the Atlantic and picking up names from the Alphabet: We are on 'Storm Frank' as of tonight, at this rate, we might be at 'the Notorious Storm McGregor' within a few months!

I really enjoyed a calm and crisp dawn, just a day ago; well worth recording the event and snapping the now gaunt and bare Elder trees and the mist rising up over the Avonbeg river valley, it might be a while before we get these conditions again. Next, after coffee, straight out into the garden to top up the feeders and then on to the nearby oakwood for some excercise . Incessant rain over the holiday period brings on cabin fever to this man and his dog. 
The woodland was relatively quiet, compared to the garden, but we did hear a few Treecreepers, Redwing in search of Holly berries and a party of Long Tailed Tits was a nice, chance encounter.  

Just before exiting the Oakwood, we heard the chattering calls of Great Spotted Woodpeckers in the canopy, at a point very close to last years nest hole, I reckoned there were two or three birds and there seemed to be a bit of chasing through the upper branches.
 This would appear to be classic territorial behaviour, unusual I imagine in late December, but it has been so mild apart from this one cold,crisp dawn ( it was raining again within four hours and the temperature then rose sharply to 11 or 12 degrees.

Song Thrush delivers its message from a bare Willow ( c. O OSullivan) 
 No real wonder then that Song Thrushes are singing daily, for two weeks now, at least and Dunnocks, Mistle Thrushes and of course Robins join in.  Territorial activity continues around the feeding station,  though the Tit family and Finches seem to be content in mixed flocks and just quarrel and display over food and feeder etiquette.

A rain soaked Robin sits out another wet one. (c. O O Sullivan)

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Happy Monday!

This winters Garden Bird Survey gets off to a start on Monday 30th November. For many of us, the 12 weeks of survey time between now and the end of February, are the highlight of the winter.  It has been running in its present format for over 20 years and we have witnessed some significant trends in that time. Goldfinches are the headline gain, but we have decent results for others, such as the House Sparrow, which holds it own here, despite the often quoted declines we hear about from the UK.  The mixed farming landscape probably favours the Sparrows here more than in the UK and we have a pattern of housing settlement that provides lots of nesting opportunities.  Sparrows utilise the house and garden area throughout the year, whereas your winter Chaffinch flock may be comprised of both local birds and winter migrants from Scandinavia.  

Male Chaffinch ( c. Michael Finn)

 Chaffinches are day migrants and can be seen arriving off the Irish Sea along the East coast round about this time. They have a hooked migration route, choosing to curtail long sea crossings by heading south east out of Sweden, down through the low countries and then bending up north and west from France across the English Channel before dispersing across the UK.  The Chaffinch population shows a split in pattern with the females travelling further over the winter, with males remaining closer to their breeding home, all the better to set up a territory and assess the conditions for the nesting season, when spring arrives.

Brambling (c. Jamie Durrant)
Look out for Bramblings amongst the Chaffinch flocks.  They are particularly fond of Beech mast, which is  more widely available in central Europe.  Bramblings form absolutely enormous flocks in some winters in places like Slovenia, whereas we can usually only muster flocks of less than ten birds.  When beech mast is scarce or exhausted, the birds may well come to seed feeders, what a lovely sight!  

Beech Mast or nuts (c. O OSullivan)
Two Top tips for the Garden Bird Survey: keep a notebook and pencil near your favourite watch point in the house. Note best numbers of the commoner birds and date them. By the end of each week you will already have noticed a pattern emerge.  The weekend days are crucial for recording if you are out working, so notes are really a good idea and finally, keep the feeders topped up, even if you have to perform this task pre dawn or post dusk.  Your reward will be decent garden bird watching, all weekend.

Friday, 30 October 2015

October Migrants

Redwing (c. Brendan Shiels)

If you are watching a local headland or studying migration on one of our many offshore islands, movement and associated 'falls' of birds are central to the October scene.  There is certainly no beating the excitement of a rare find, even if its an annual occurrence, such as a diminutive Yellow Browed Warbler or Firecrest: the former should be wintering in India but finds itself as a garden bird amongst the sycamore trees of west Corks headlands, courtesy of a reverse migration out of Siberia.

The October fare here in the middle of Wicklow is a little more restrained.  We are situated on a pleasant slope at 150 meters altitude between the Avonmore and Avonbeg rivers, well inland, but it has its moments too:  

 The scene around the garden boundary is quite busy, not surprising really, given the crop of ripe elderberries that are reducing in stock daily.  The 16th October marked our first movement of winter thrushes: over 25 Redwing and a solitary Fieldfare flew out of the hedges at first light, along with a good number of Mistle Thrushes and Blackbirds.  This is early enough for us, sometimes it is November before we experience those kind of movements, so I expect harsh conditions are already apparent in Northern Europe, leading to an early exodus south and west.

Fieldfare (c.David Dillon)

Other visitors this month are what we often refer to as altitudinal migrants, involving birds moving shorter distances and out of nearby higher ground which is utilised for the breeding season.  So the stubbles and hedgrows have Meadow Pipits and Skylarks, the first Linnet flocks and a Reed Bunting popped in to join the few resident Yellowhammers and House Sparrows.  'Flyovers', or visible migration consists of Grey Wagtails, Crossbills, Redpolls and Siskins.  In these cases it is probably best to describe it as 'audible migration', for it is the flight and contact calls that alert you to the movement of birds.

Skylark (c.O O Sullivan)

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

A Harvest in the Hedgerows

September sky, near Rathdrum (OOS)

The fields around here are looking tidy, newly shaven of their summer crops: oats and barley mostly, the stubbles remain, reflecting brightly in a sunlit,patchwork quilt, south and west facing landscape.  Lovely to look at, but what's in it for the birds and bees?  The stubbles have a few pairs of Yellowhammers, a parade of various crow species and the odd young Buzzard wandering around trying to figure out the handiest prey to be found for the least amount of energy expended. This. frequently ends in a persistent, almost sad chorus of mewing calls aimed at parents recently freed of parental duties..
Speckled Wood on Blackberry blossom (OOS)
At the moment there's lots of life in the hedgerows. a walk down the lane usually results in a selection of Blackcaps, thrushes and blackbirds exiting ahead of the walker, often reluctant to leave the berry heavy boughs of Blackberry, Elder and Guelder Rose. 

Elder berries: good for birds and humans! (OOS)

Sharing this early autumn bounty are countless bees, wasps and butterflies, the Speckled Wood being the most prolific at the moment, seeking nectar from pale pink Blackberry blossom. 

Guelder Rose: great flowers, berries and foliage (OOS)

Elder berry has already peaked, no doubt the berries will be consumed before the late autumn arrival of our Scandinavian winter visitors. Showy Guelder Rose berries, like small bright cherries, look like they are ripe for consumption now, but in fact will last 'til late November before small birds can strip them from their stems. A time of plenty!

Monday, 24 August 2015

Swifts and Swallows Scarce?

Swallow feeding fledged young (c. J. Fox)

Every year we end up discussing the summer migrants and how they are faring, a bit like discussing the weather, its a kind of Irish thing.

We tend to advise caution on subjective assessments based on just the personal experience of a few folk.  However, Swift watchers are reporting less birds from known haunts,and they are noway near as widespread as Swallows. They have of course departed for Africa at this stage, on of the first to leave our inky skies for the African winter.  Seeing and hearing them in numbers in say the old perched villages of the south of France, I always feel that our migrant Swifts draw a short straw or something, heading into such an uncertain season that is the Irish summer.

Swallows are still here, beginning to gather on wires, I wouldn't expect any solid migration movements until mid September and onwards, so this is a good time to take stock:   I reckon the late brood is all important for a good return on the breeding season: it was a pretty mixed/poor summer, weather wise. 

 Quite a few people e mailed us to air their suspicions about a lack of numbers around farmyards and buildings.  However, recent Atlas results reveal they occur in 98% of survey squares, certainly one of the most widespread breeding birds we have.

2 Young await a nourishing feed (c.J Fox)

I would be happy to get local opinion, news of Swallows in your area, 2015, and now is the time to check around telegraph wires and sheds!