Dalkey Tidy
Brent GoosePainted Lady
Wildlife Newsletter for the Township of Dalkey
February 2009 - Michael Ryan


  We went to Gambia for a week’s holiday in late November. Although Gambia doesn’t have any of the great herds of grazing animals, elephants or giraffes or any or any of the big cats that people go on safaris to watch in Kenya or South Africa it is very well known as a great destination to see birds. Long known as a big favourite with British birdwatchers, being only six hours flight away in the same time zone its birdwatching popularity has created an important niche in the tourist industry. Many of the hotels have their own birding guides and there are bird guides at all the good bird habitats some of them officially sanctioned others just local guys chancing their arm.
  A special feature of the hotel we stayed in was a bird feeding display every day at 11.30. This was far removed from my own feeders at home in the garden with small birds coming to take seeds from hanging feeders. Here the resident bird guide would bring out a large metal tray filled with pieces of raw meat. Prior to this the trees around the hotel garden would have been filled with hooded vultures arriving for their daily feed because vultures and black kites are the recipients of the bird feeding exercise. As the guide approached they would swoop down from the trees, the heavy wing beats passing just inches above your head. The vultures would land and mill around on the ground like a big flock of turkeys hoping for a piece of meat to be thrown in their direction. Vultures of course are scavengers known for feeding on carrion they would find already dead or dying. Their large wingspan allows them to float effortlessly on hot air thermals while their superb eyesight can spot a dead or dying animal or the activities of other vultures on a carcass.
Although vultures are known as scavengers rather then killers themselves we sometimes wondered had they read the reference books. The onlookers at the feeding ceremony would find they were very close to these hungry scavengers often surrounded by them and both my companion and I found we were having our legs pecked by the vultures.   Although this species, the Hooded Vulture wasn’t too big they still had a formidable big bill and all unfortunately have a very malevolent expression. As the vultures crowded around on the ground the guide would intermittently whistle to
call down the black kites which were wheeling around overhead. He would throw a piece of meat in the air and the birds would dive down catching the meat in their claws. When the meat was gone the guide would move over to a tap on the lawn from which he would fill the tray with water for the vultures to drink and bathe from. Then the vultures
would stand, all facing the same direction with their wings outstretched to dry, although after a few days you might suspect they were lining up as a photo opportunity. Vultures tend to be held in low esteem because of their feeding habits but they serve a very important function clearing away carrion that, if it was left to rot, could incubate diseases.
  Three species of Asian vultures, the Oriental white-backed vulture, the long-billed vulture and the slender-billed vulture have been driven to the verge of extinction within the space of a few years, in some areas declining 95% in 12 years. Initially nobody knew what was causing the rapid decline in numbers until scientists were able to prove the vultures were dying by poisoning after eating the carcasses of livestock that had been treated with a common anti-inflammatory veterinary drug diclofenac which farmers would give to their animals as a painkiller. When the vultures had eaten dead animals that had been treated with diclofenac they would rapidly die of kidney failure and gout. One result was a big increase in the population of wild dogs which would feed on the carrion the vultures would previously have taken. This wild dog increase subsequently caused a higher incidence of rabies in India and Nepal.
   Nepal and India have now banned diclofenac and it has been replaced by a safe drug called meloxicam. In Nepal they have also developed what they call vulture restaurants where they leave out diclofenac free cattle carcasses especially for the benefit of two of the endangered species. Old and sick cattle are bought specially and allowed to die natural deaths, cattle being sacred to Hindus, and the vultures being fed on them daily are making a slow recovery. The spectacle at our Gambian hotel was purely for the entertainment of the tourists and some critics complain all the vultures have intimidated away the smaller birds from the hotel grounds. But in Nepal the vulture restaurants are doing
valuable work to save endangered birdlife.

  The new year and the very cold spell over Christmas brought lots of birds into the country, many from Europe and the UK where the weather was far worse then ours. Heavy snow in Europe would have made feeding very difficult for many species. One of the most exotic visitors we ever get, Waxwings, were seen taking berries from gardens near Cabinteely Park before Christmas and subsequently were reported from numerous locations around Ireland and Dublin including Dunnes Stores in Tallaght and from Meath Street and O’Connell Street in the city centre. Waxwings often turn up at out of town supermarkets where pyracanthia bushes are often planted around the car parks. They also love the berries of rowan trees.
  Siskins reappeared on my feeders in the week after Christmas, initially one solitary female then up to 6 at a time. The feeder containing the much finer niger seeds had been left almost
untouched for months until now when the siskins flocked to it.
Flocks of redwings moved around on the cold bright days and blackcaps and bullfinches finished off the pheasant bush berries.
Blackbirds spent almost as much time chasing each other as they did feeding while the ever present robin sang its lovely little winter song. One of the few birds to sing and defend territory in the winter there is another song bird which can be heard outside the breeding season often in the dark days of November. That is the Song Thrush, its melodic song often to be heard before dawn or in the last minutes of dusk on the shortest days. Its equally melodic close relative, the Blackbird, has a much shorter singing time rarely starting before March and stopped singing by mid June. Saying that, I heard one singing in the car park of our office in late January last year so any mild spell can get the bird up and running.   A bit like us really, any bit of nice weather can raise the spirits and give us a boost of energy.