Dalkey Tidy
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Wildlife Newsletter for the Township of Dalkey
April 2011 - Michael Ryan

  Looking at photographs I’d taken last year in April I came upon a sequence of photos I’d taken of the Mountains of Mourne looming up behind the hill of Howth. Nothing unusual there, the mountains are often visible from any reasonable elevation and more times then not are visible from Dalkey Hill. What was unusual though was that on the 9th April 2010 they were covered in snow, late enough in the year and hopefully not to be repeated this year.

Snowy Mourne  April 2010
Snowy Mourne – April 2010      Photo: M. Ryan

  Many years ago, before I used to actively go out looking at birds, I used to think that of all European species Great Crested Grebes were one of the most beautiful. With its dagger sharp bill, long thin pale neck and head surrounded with a ruff of brown feathers and topped with a black crest, which it raises for display at mating time, they looked the personification of elegance. I’d seen film of them when a pair of birds would approach each other on a pond or lake and perform an elaborate courtship display which included diving underwater to grab a beakful of weeds from the lake bottom. Back on the surface it would swim to its potential partner and present it with this gift, the grebe equivalent of a box of chocolates or a bunch of flowers. Another aspect of the display would have them stand almost upright in the water and paddle rapidly towards each other or throw their heads back, pointing their bills at the sky. I’d always considered these birds very exotic and never even hoped I’d ever see one.

Great Crested Grebe
Great Crested Grebe   Photo: Dick Coombes
  When I got more involved in birdwatching I realised they were quite common in Ireland, found on many inland lakes and waterways. I can’t remember the first time I saw one in the flesh but there’s every chance it was from the back of the West Pier in Dun Laoghaire. It was a revelation to me that they spent time on the sea and were commonly found in Dublin Bay in winter, up to 50 sometimes I was told. Since then I’ve seen them many times and was often lucky enough to witness the wonderful mating display, birds presenting each other with gifts of tasty wet weed and all manner of ornate posing. We’d often see them in the bay in winter, a long line of birds bobbing up and down between the waves.
  At our last Iwebs (Irish Wetland Birds Survey) count of the winter in March this year we had a motionless sea which merged seamlessly into the sky. After we’d counted the birds on the strand we looked seawards. It was a dull morning but wonderfully calm and we could see little flotillas of grebes sharply silhouetted, some asleep on the water their heads tucked back into their wings. Counted them twice since there was every chance some of them would be below the surface fishing. At least 257 grebes! There could be that many there on other days but very difficult to count on choppy water. And although I’ve got used to seeing them I’ve never got tired of looking at them, they’re still as lovely as the first time I saw them on the TV. Incidentally grebes play a very important part in the history of wildlife conservation. In the 19th century their feathers, skin and the soft under-pelt of their breast feathers were being used in the millinery trade to decorate hats and in the fashion trade as a substitute for fur. The birds were killed in the wild in huge numbers and were rapidly facing extinction in Britain and Ireland until a number of ladies, concerned for the birds fate formed an organisation and lobbied parliament to bring in protection for them. Their efforts combined with the vagaries of fashion resulted in the trade becoming unpopular and their organisation eventually went on to become the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, one of the pioneering conservation organisations
Mating Display Great Crested Grebe  Mating Display
Great Crested Grebe
Photo: Dick Coombes
  If you were asked what’s the commonest summer migrant to come to Ireland you might be inclined to think its the swallow. The beginning of April has a lot of our summer migrant birds arriving and beginning to sing. Maybe because it’s often milder on that side of the hill I’d often hear my first Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps singing in the trees above the Vico Road. They do often appear in gardens as well, maybe feeding up after a long flight over the sea. Last April we spent an awful long time trying to identify a little warbler that hung around the garden pond for a few days. I knew it was either a chiffchaff or a Willow Warbler but couldn’t decide which. These two birds are notoriously difficult to tell apart and if it’s identity is in doubt a individual may be referred to as a ‘Willow Chiff’ or a ‘Wiffwaff”. Chiffchaffs usually, but not always, have much darker legs and a prominent lower eye ring. hey’re a bit duller then the Willow Warbler but that’s not a great diagnostic when the light is very bright. One good tip is the chiffchaff flicks its tail more often but often it barely flicks it at all. Even professional researchers who catch birds to put rings on them can find it difficult to separate them except for one foolproof method.
  The primary wing feathers on willow warbler are longer then those of the chiffchaff possibly because they actually spend winter much further south and thus have to fly farther distances to return, needing longer wings. They were at one time considered to be the same species and it was the famous naturalist and writer Gilbert White author of The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne who separated them by observing that they had dramatically different song. The chiffchaff, which is named after its song, has a repetitive almost monotonous two note sound, common in any woodland in summer while the willow warblers song is a longer burst of descending notes trailing away wistfully. A few years ago while staying near Portumna I got up early one morning and went for a ramble over the bog and the scrubby hillside. In places the tallest vegetation was little clumps of willow and in almost every one, and there were dozens, there was a willow warbler singing. With over a million pairs breeding the willow warbler is Ireland’s most numerous migrant and indeed one of its commonest breeding birds.