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)

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Blossom time

Blackthorn in flower near Wicklow town (c.OOS)

Its been a great spring for blossom in the hedgerows: Blackthorn putting on a fine show since March, defining the lines of hedges with brush strokes of white flowers spilling down the field boundaries, up to just a few weeks back.  Now its the turn of the May Bush, or Hawthorn, just coming into flower with us.  It augers well for autumn berries, that's for sure.

Japanese Cherry, before hitting the deck! (c.OOS)

In the confines of the garden, the showy Magnolia and Japanese Cherry are all frothy white with a haze of pale pink.  Well in truth, they are all blown out over the last few days, with the display lying like confetti on the lawn.

My favourite flowering tree is the June berry, or Snowy Mespilus: a tidy tree, its blossom is very short lived and well gone, but its berries are due in the next month or so, first in the procession of fruit for birds.. 

The bird population in our garden has taken on a different composition at this time: Siskins are now regular and Redpolls too, presumably nesting in the nearby Birch and Spruce forests, but happy enough to pick off the fine Nyjer seed on offer. 

Male Chaffinch, persistent singer (c.OOS)

Bird song is well developed, from 04.30 each morning, usually a Robin first followed by a Blackbird or two, and then the noisy elements: Chaffinch and Great Tit can be particularly persistent! 

 Dawn Chorus day is this coming Sunday, 18th May.. well worth the effort to attend any one of the numerous  BirdWatch Ireland events taking part around the country.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Food for young

From evening song post.. (C.OOS)

I have noticed a few Blackbirds in recent days, apparently carrying food for young. I  watched one closely this morning,  a male with a beak full of worms.. It seems early but we have Swallows back here for a week or so now, again earlier than last year, the weather is much milder so far, this spring. protein shake: food for young. (c.OOS)

A less frequently observed but bold visitor to our garden, was a Red Fox, probably with young cubs to feed.  It made its way up to the back door of the house, to raid some dry food put out for the cats.. 'all's fair', I suppose.  

I saw the same animal sniffing under the bird feeders and on another occasion it ran along the hedgerow with what seemed to be a rat in its mouth.  I think the den must be close by, and I can look forward to frolicking cubs in due course.. They are of course much easier to admire if you don't keep poultry: a friend was cleaned out of hens and ducks the other night, a serious reverse.  

Hungry fox opts for an easy meal (c. OOS)

I recently attended an enjoyable talk by gardening writer, Helen Dillon.. She bemoaned the fact that she can't spread bone or fish meal for compost, due to the persistent unearthing by her local, urban foxes.. she reckoned there are more urban foxes in Ranelagh than their country cousins in Rathdrum..tally ho!

Under the bird feeders (c.oos)

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

and now for some migrants..

End of March, some really nice bright days, and now a shift to south and south easterly conditions: great winds for the first migrants to arrive: a singing Blackcap was our first spring migrant, 29th March, followed by a Willow Warbler and a Chiffchaff in song, all by the end of the month.

it was nice to hear from my occasional correspondent, Ray O'Hanlon, now based in the Hudson Valley, north of New York and a former member of the Dublin Central branch of the IWC ( we're going back 40 plus years here!).  Ray is enjoying the first migrants too, after a harsh American winter.. I suspect that his list of migrants will be extensive by the end of the season..

Ray writes:

Throughout the nesting season there is a lot of scurrying about in the eaves of the house.
                Indeed, the dawn chorus is more akin to the dawn racket as members of the Hudson Valley branch of the Starling family set about adding to their already considerable North American numbers.      

Starling (Shay Connolly)
They are, like me, immigrant in origin. They breached America's borders by means of 19th century facilitators calling themselves the American Acclimatization Society.     
The society, as ornithological historians know, was intent on introducing to the new world every bird mentioned by Shakespeare.       
It's a good thing they did not succeed. The Bard was a literary check-lister of some note, mentioning about 600 species in his copious works.              
Had the society managed to import even half this number, the result would have been chaotic and America’s gardens, fields and forests very different sounding places.  
As it was, the society did manage to give the Starlings a little old world company.
                It also shipped in the House Sparrow, Passer Domesticus.
But if ever there was a winged citizen of the world it was this little fellow. He shares the eaves with his larger neighbours, immigrants all.            
The Starlings’ first adventures in America occurred in Manhattan's Central Park when a number of them were released in 1890 and 1891.              
 In a little over half a century, they had spread their wings across most of North America, from Canada to Mexico, and across the span of the United States.
                And into our eaves.
                Starlings stay in the Northeast during the winter months, even when, as has been the case this year, winter has been especially worthy of the name.
                Put it this way: St. Patrick’s Day arrived and receded and there was still ice in the Hudson below us, and this about thirty-five miles north of the aforementioned Central Park.
                Starlings, then, do not qualify as harbingers of spring.
But an avian pal fits the bill:  the Common Grackle.
                Grackles are like Starlings on growth hormones, a half way between the Shakespearean interlopers and the Crow family, though they are most closely related to the American Blackbird.
                They appear black from a distance, but up close, according to the online Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “their glossy purple heads contrast with bronzy-iridescent bodies. A bright golden eye gives grackles an intent expression. Females are slightly less glossy than males. Young birds are dark brown with a dark eye.”
Grackles do not hang around when the first chill of fall sets in but fly down the eastern seaboard to warmer climes, to the Carolinas, or to winter dormitory states like Florida.
                But when they return to the frigid Northeast it is a sure sign that winter is waning. Indeed, you can set your seasonal clock by them.
                Locally, the first sign of Grackles is the cackling that passes for their conversation on electric wires.
                The sound of them does not evoke the romance of the first Cuckoo call.              But they are my adopted version of the first Cuckoo or Swallow.
And after a northeastern American winter, especially like the one now reluctantly giving away, I am not fussy.
                The wires down by the train station are their first point of local arrival.
Here, the Starlings have been waiting for them.

Migrant Starlings (c. OOS)
                Walking to the train I barely glance upwards at the sound of those grizzled veterans of December, January and February.
                But when I hear that Grackle cackle I stop in my, well, tracks.
                I did so on March 12th. This was a full three weeks later than last year when the Grackles returned with days in February to spare.
                So they not only announce spring, they confirm, loudly, that winter was a doozy.
                And it was.
                But fear not! With the arrival of the Grackles its numbing days are numbered.
                Their arrival, the first croak of spring if you will, doesn’t inspire poetry, letters to the New York Times, not even a spoof correspondence to the Irish Times.
                But it does speak of the kind of climate change that is actually good for us – the humdrum, normal, natural, seasonal one.

Ray O’Hanlon is a journalist and author who lives with his wife and family in the Hudson Valley, north of New York City