Dalkey Tidy
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Wildlife Newsletter for the Township of Dalkey
October 2010 - Michael Ryan

  Although it was inevitable it would one day be developed for building I was still sad to see a planning application appear on a little area of walled land which I’d walk past every day. An old walled orchard, which had got very overgrown in recent years it, had long ago stopped producing apples and cherries in enough quantities to make it worth anyone’s while to try and pick them. It had become impenetrable with a mass of brambles growing through the trees. But while it was ignored by man, it proved a great haven for wildlife. Bullfinches, signalling their presence by their plaintive little call were regular visitors all year round feeding on the buds and berries. Every summer in recent years it has hosted a singing male Blackcap, the dense greenery being an ideal nesting habitat and I’d be surprised if there wasn’t a family of blackcaps nesting in there. Blackbirds and Songthrushes also serenaded in the springtime from the apple and cherry trees. We’d often seen foxes squeezing through the bars of the gate and many years ago saw a badger there during the daytime. But it was in the late eighties when the orchard had its most spectacular visitors.

Photo: Richard Coombes

  It was mid winter and we had just had a very heavy fall of snow. All of Western Europe and the UK were, as usual, getting far heavier falls then us but it was one of the biggest whiteouts we’d had in years, just like last winter. Crunching my way up the road through the fresh snow in that low light you get during snowfalls I saw a flurry of activity in the apple trees. At that stage it was still a well-defined orchard with low grass between the trees and there was still much of autumn's harvest on the trees. On every level of the trees and hopping around on the ground were Fieldfares, large members of the thrush family which breed in northern and Eastern Europe. We saw quite a few of them on their breeding grounds in spring when we were in Poland a few years ago. They move in large numbers to Western Europe in the wintertime when the land gets frozen in their breeding grounds. They do come to Ireland in the winter, usually moving inland but this particular day it looked like they might just have arrived off the sea maybe coming from England or Wales. Anyhow they were devouring any apples they could find, on the branches or on the ground. Fieldfares are striking looking birds with grey head and tail contrasting with brown wings and yellow bill and make a chucking like call as they move around. This flock had struck lucky and were able to feed themselves, safely secured in a walled garden. Sadly this little patch of nature’s time had come. I’ll be very sad when the chainsaws start and the JCB moves in.

Photo: Richard Coombes
  Our cold spell at the very beginning of the year had Fieldfares coming into a few suburban gardens but it seemed for a while as if everybody's gardens were getting hungry flocks of Redwings, another northern breeding thrush which comes here in the winter. Our usual winter numbers were swelled in January by huge flocks of starving birds escaping the cold. Many birds were observed literally falling over dead after arriving, their energy resources totally drained after flying over the sea. Birds that did survive the flight were so concerned with getting food their natural caution and alertness were severely reduced and many became easy prey for predators, many falling victim to cats and sparrowhawks. As I watched a flock of redwing in our back garden a fox pounced on one and carried it away when normally the fox wouldn’t have had a chance of sneaking up unseen on a flock. Early breeding bird survey results suggested that the cold winter caused a serious decline in smaller breeding birds in Ireland especially in the midlands where birds like Stonechats and Goldcrests seemed to have been badly hit during the winter.
  Smaller birds nearer the milder coast don’t seem to have fared so badly. We saw young stonechats near White Rock this spring and a family flock of over 25 Long tailed Tits passed through the garden one day but undoubtedly there were big losses in other parts of the country. Without doubt many birds only made it through January’s big freeze by surviving off food provided in gardens. Fieldfares and Redwings wouldn’t usually come to feeders but if you have apple trees you might keep a few apples for hungry thrushes and if they do arrive just cut up the apples and throw the pieces around the lawn. When the redwings came into our garden we didn’t have too much fruit but I concocted a cake made of oatmeal and Niger seeds. I made porridge from the oatmeal then mixed the Niger seeds through it, put it in a baking dish and baked it in the oven. I wouldn’t have eaten the results myself but the redwings did. I baked a few more of these pies, they were rapidly devoured and hopefully it helped keep them alive for a few days. The Redwings migrate by night and they can often be heard flying overhead, especially on mild misty nights when they stay low to the ground. They make a ‘Tseep’ like call as they fly which is a means of keeping contact with each other. The first flocks usually arrive in the first or second week of October.