Dalkey Tidy
Brent GoosePainted Lady
Wildlife Newsletter for the Township of Dalkey
December 2010 - Michael Ryan

  As the days get shorter and colder, birds have to work very hard to keep themselves fed. They use up body fat at night keeping themselves warm but they have very limited capabilities for storing fat since overweight birds wouldn’t fly well reducing their chances of escaping from predators, sparrow hawks or peregrines in the air or cats on the ground. So they have to feed constantly especially when the weather is cold. Providing food for birds in our gardens can make the difference between life and death for them as well as it’s also nice for us to have a constant passage of wildlife in our gardens. There’s lots of 47different feed and lots of appropriate feeders to put them in.



  Peanuts used be the most popular food to leave out but gradually most birds seemed to have developed a preference for sunflower seeds. The edible heart, or kernel of sunflower seeds are also now available without the shell making it a lot easier for the birds to digest and removing some of the waste that falls under the feeders . You can get dried worms for Robins and Dunnocks and mixed seed for finces. One delightful little bird which still seems to prefer the peanuts is the Long Tailed Tit which nearly always arrive in little flocks which crowd on to the peanut feeders overlapping each other in a charming bustle of long tails and pinkish feathers Being very small and having even less ability to store fat they are often the last birds visiting feeders in the evening.

  Niger seeds, which are very fine and need a specific container to stop them spilling out, are great for attracting goldfinches and redpolls. Round balls of compressed fat and seed are fantastically valuable nutritionally, a choice food for robins and members of the tit family. Of course you can prepare your own fat or seedcakes for the birds and there’s lots of tips available online. The RSPB in the UK has a number of bird feeding recipes suggested by celebrity chefs. Rick Stein’s ‘suet and nut log’ sounds fine but I wouldn’t see myself in the kitchen preparing Antony Worrall-Thompson’s ‘crumble pastry maggots’. As I mentioned last month apples can be given to birds that wouldn’t normally come on to feeders like blackbirds or wintering thrushes. You can cut them up and leave them on the lawn or stick them on to twigs or branches.

Blue Tit
  I hang my feeders from the hook of wire clothes hangers and you can impale the apples on these as well. Blackbirds aren’t usually nimble enough to perch on feeders but they soon learn how to feed on apples. Don’t forget to clean the feeders regularly and clean away the fallen husks under the feeders.                        Photos: Courtesy Birdwatch Ireland

 Saturday 16th October found the woodlands on Killiney Hill resounding to the sound of loppers and saws cutting down saplings and trees in the undergrowth. Normally if anyone is cutting wood on the hill at the weekend it would be a cause of concern but in this case the intentions were good. The people wielding the tools were Conservation Volunteers and they we reengaged in cutting down and clearing out Sycamore trees. As anyone who has a garden will probably know sycamores are incredibly successful at spreading themselves and any bit of land left untended will often have a young sycamore breaking through the soil. They’ll even seed themselves in tarmac or any crack in a cement surface. They’re introduced, non-native and, although I do believe their flowers can be attractive to bees, they are generally of very little use to birds or any other creatures. Their ease of establishment and quick growth gives the man advantage over native trees and once they become established in woodlands they can out compete native plants and trees, shading the ground where otherwise native seeds could sprout and then become the dominant species.

Dalkey Hill in Autumn      Photo: M. Ryan

   So it was good to see them being dealt with by a little group of well-intentioned people who had given up their Saturday morning to help the woods. Their good intentions were helped by a beautiful dry sunny morning and afterwards the light shone through where a dense mass of undergrowth had previously stood. Nearby there’s a good demonstration of how woodlands evolve. As one walks down the steps from the obelisk you come to the bottom of one set of steps where the remains of a large fallen branch from an oak tree are cut up and left by the path. Covered in moss the sections of wood are deliberately left by the parks rangers to slowly break down, feeding back into the soil and enriching it while many species of insects and fungi will feed on the dead wood. Just behind these logs in a very dense cluster of sycamores and elders are a little group of oak trees all strangely stunted at the top with jagged stumps and spindly branches.

Winter Snow in Dalkey Quarry        Photo: M. Ryan

For most of us our longest lasting heat wave (I know it’s a strange thing to be writing about in December) in living memory was in 1995 when, after a grim cold, damp Spring, the sun came out and stayed for three months breaking many weather records both for high temperatures and lack of rain. Although the sunshine and warm nights were wonderful, the drought became a serious problem for farmers, gardeners and many others, including firefighters. The ground was baked dry and all over the country fires broke out in gorse and woodland causing terrible destruction to the environment. Much of the soil and gorse was burned clear off the Sugarloaf and the smell of burning gorse was sadly prevalent for many weeks. Although there was a small possibility some of the fires started accidentally or naturally, the vast majority were deliberate and Dalkey and Killiney hills didn’t escape. Large areas of the hill were incinerated. Fires on the hills have always occurred and usually not too much permanent damage is done.

The fires will sweep through, burning up the ferns and gorse but most of the vegetation will survive and be back within a few years. But the impact of many months of drought meant the fires that summer kept simmering long after the flames had gone. These fire burnt, sometimes for days down into the ground like a peat fire, destroying the top soil, sometimes even burning right down to the granite underneath. A particularly destructive fire on Killiney hill in mid August had swept down the hill destroying mature birch tree and burning off the gorse. The fire brigade had come and dealt with it but for days after you could still see the glowing embers under the blackened soil. You could see the fire was still simmering away and it was slowly but gradually moving down the hill towards that stand of oak trees.Concerned about the oak trees but hesitant to call out the very severely stretched fire brigade a relative helped me ferry containers of water from our house to the car, which we drove up to the car park.

Red Squirrel in Oak Tree
Photo: M. Ryan

Red Squirrel in Oak Tree
Photo: M. Ryan

  We then took them over to the oak trees where we doused the water around the roots. Despite our efforts the fire flared up again within a few days and I was very distraught to find the oaks had been scorched, outer branches and leaves burnt off.   The fire had gone past them down the slope and taken it’s biggest victim, a Douglas Fir, which up till then was one of the tallest trees in the wood. The fire had burnt through its roots and it had fallen. Its trunk is still lying down against the side of the hill. Anyhow it was a great relief the following year to see buds with new leaves appearing on the oak trees. They had survived though they always looked like they’d been through the wars and it was probably because they’d been weakened that the big branch had fallen off. At the moment they’re surrounded by the opportunistic sycamores who saw a niche and filled it but hopefully the volunteers will come deal with them as well, restoring the oaks back to their solitary splendor.