Dalkey Tidy
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Wildlife Newsletter for the Township of Dalkey
May 2006 - Michael Ryan

Summer Visitors
I saw my first swallow on the 2nd April over Killiney Bay. It was during that spell of very cold northerly winds that made this Spring such a cold one and as is often the case when the winds blow from the north the Bay around the Vico Road has its own warm, sun drenched, mini climate. There weren't going to be any insects in the cold air on the exposed side of the hill but probably lots around there for a hungry swallow.
Once it was thought Swallows hibernated underwater during the winter before emerging again in the Spring. In late summer or early autumn the birds were seen swooping low over the water and soon after they were gone, not to be seen till the following year when they reappeared.
Of course what the Swallows were doing in late summer was gathering in large groups before migrating, often at lake side reed beds catching insects or actually scooping up water to drink as they skimmed the water's surface.
We might think it ridiculous now that a couple of hundred years ago people believed swallows could survive a winter underwater but the thought that these little birds were about to fly to southern Africa and then return next year to the same spot would have been equally unbelievable to them.
But that's what they do, flying across Europe, crossing the Mediterranean, down past the vast Sahara desert to spend the winter in the warm insect filled air of southern Africa with lions, elephants and zebras as neighbours then doing the same trip in reverse the following spring. Being totally dependent on insects caught in the air, which are missing from our colder climes in the winter, they have to follow the food south in Autumn, returning north in the Spring. Coming here in the summer also gives them much more daylight in which to find food for their young. Swallows will rear two broods (families) during the summer and have been known to have three broods in long warm summers. There are seventy-five types of swallows found worldwide but our summer visitor is known as the Barn Swallow because of its habit of traditionally nesting on rafters in barns where it can fly in or out at will. The Barn Swallow is also found in the United States and Asia. They can be found nesting in outhouses and ruined buildings as well and a few years ago it was in a derelict roofless room of an old house in Galway, where a family of swallows had nested on a roof beam, that I was lucky enough to witness a family of young swallows taking their first flight. With much chattering the young birds took to the air circling and swooping before perching on another beam calling to their parents all the time. Apart that is from one young bird which was still clinging on to the outside of the nest as if it lacked that little bit of confidence to launch itself into its first flight. One of the parents decided to speed up matters, flew over and gave the young bird a gentle but firm push, launching it into the air where its instinct kicked in, its wings spread and it was flying instantly, hesitantly at first but with confidence growing by the second. After fledgling young swallows will be fed for four days as they perch on rafters or telegraph wires after which the parents will encourage them to take food on the wing flying after the parents or flying out to meet them. After a week they'll be catching their own food.
One of the latest migrant birds to arrive is the Swift, again often seen over the Vico Road and sometimes nesting in the Heritage Centre in Dalkey where they often fly around in noisy little groups late on warm summer evenings. They usually arrive in early May and are gone by mid August being totally dependent on high flying insects. These birds, apart from when they are on the nest, spend all their lives in the air and their legs are so far back on their body if they are forced to the ground, which may happen during thunderstorms, it is very difficult if not impossible for them to take off again. They take brief snatches of sleep while they are in flight and have been picked up on radar many hundreds of feet up in the night sky.
Thousands of years ago they would have been exclusively cliff dwellers but as with many birds they have evolved to become almost totally dependent on human habitats and many of the crevices under roofs of buildings they may have nested in before are being filled in or insulated and very few new buildings being constructed have suitable niches for them to nest in. With their high pitched shrieks, often in towns and cities on warm summer nights, they are to me, along with the Cuckoo, one of the most evocative sounds of summer.
I heard my first Blackcaps singing in early April. These birds are often known as 'Northern Nightingales because of their exuberant melodic song. Increasingly common at garden feeders in the wintertime (they love apples) research has shown that the birds we have in winter are probably birds that will return to breed in Eastern Europe in the summer to be replaced by our breeding Blackcaps which will be returning from migration in southern Europe or Africa. Due to milder winters in Britain and Ireland and provision of food in gardens these wintering blackcaps have changed their migration journeys cutting down the distance they have to travel and any dangers they face on the way. They also get back earlier to their breeding grounds ensuring they get a good territory to nest in. They have done very well in Dalkey in recent years with seven or eight different male birds singing from dense cover on Dalkey and Killiney Hills.