Dalkey Tidy
Brent GoosePainted Lady
Wildlife Newsletter for the Township of Dalkey
October 2011 - Michael Ryan

  If you have an interest in the natural world you’re always advised to keep notes on your observations. It requires a bit of dedication and discipline but will prove very worthwhile after a few years when you look back over your notes. Like looking at old holiday snaps for a few moments you can recollect your feelings and excitement at witnessing for the first time some bird, animal or aspect of animal behaviour you’d never seen before. Looking back over your records it’s fascinating to compare the first dates each year you might hear a particular bird species singing or when you see your first swallow or swift or the first leaves appearing on a tree. In the first days of September I was surprised to see one of the cowslips that had self planted itself on the lawn was in flower since they are of course a wild flower whose blooms welcome in spring. Very unusual I thought but you do occasionally get these strange aberrations. Later I was looking back at my nature notes for last year and saw in late September 2010 I had noticed another cowslip in flower, accentuating my surprise at the time by putting a question mark after my notes. Not such a rare occurrence then although last years flowering cowslip wasn’t the same plant as this years.

Killiney Woods in Autumn Killiney Woods in Autumn

  If you have a berberis bush in your garden, particularly the Berberis darwinii, you’ll know it’s one of the most popular bushes for birds visiting your garden. With small glossy green shiny leaves it produces very attractive orange flowers in spring, which by autumn will have produced dark purple berries, which are rapidly scooped off the bush by blackbirds, wood pigeons and many other birds. Well this September the bush in our garden evidently hadn’t been reading its instruction manual since although it had a great display of ripening purple berries it has also begun producing flowers at the same time. Apart from the robin, which sings through winter, most songbirds stopped singing in mid summer no longer trying to attract a mate or defend their territory. But every year in early autumn the double note call of the chiffchaff rings out from woodlands and gardens and nobody seems to quite know why. Although a few of these birds over-winter, most of them will soon be migrating south so why would it be sending out the same message it was delivering in spring. Some people speculate the singing birds might be this years juvenile males practicing next years song. Chiffchaffs singing on Dalkey Hill this autumn seem to be singing from the same patches of woodland even in one case from the same tree that chiffchaffs sang from early in the year so you’d be inclined to think its the same individual birds. I used wonder was the singing triggered by the day length in autumn being the same as in spring when chiffchaffs arrive. Birds behaviour, whether nesting or migrating is governed by the days getting longer or shorter. Weather is an influence but there can be great variation in temperature from day to day at any time of the year while the changing day length is always constant. Killiney Woods in Autumn Sandymount Strand 9 10 Anyhow for whatever reason they are singing it’s good to hear them.

 Sandymount Strand  Sandymount Strand
In September the sky over the eastern slopes of the hills was often busy with flocks of soon to be departed migrants scooping insects out of the air. When cool winds blow from the west and north the hillside around the sheltered Vico Road can have its own very mild even hot mini climate and the insects will be on the wing in the warmer thermals. Looking down from the top of Killiney Hill you can watch swallows streaming by but sometimes you can look down on big groups of house martins, distinguished from swallows by the white patch on their rump and lack of tail streamers, ‘hawking’ insects over the trees and on one morning we realised the birds sweeping above our heads were actually a large flock of sand martins. I mentioned before that counts of wildfowl, waders and seabirds take place around Ireland’s coast once a month from September to March every year. Counts are done on the east coast on an incoming tide and the following weekend on the west coast. Counts begin about four hours before the peak of the high tide so flocks of wading birds can be counted feeding on the edge of the tide or roosting together on the slowly disappearing shore

Wall Brown Butterfly
Wall Brown Butterfly

  All the information is stored and analysed and will chart increases or, sadly more likely declines, of wintering birds and will also monitor and record the importance of certain areas of shoreline or other habitats which might earn these areas a designation of special importance and thus increase its safety from unsympathetic development. The area we count begins at Booterstown Dart station and extends south to Blackrock and north to Merrion Gates. We begin by doing an initial count of birds in the marsh and in Williamstown Creek south of the station before going down on to the strand. Some people are often incredulous when you tell them you are going counting birds. How can you count birds they say? I’d be inclined to reply ‘with difficulty’. We begin by counting the birds that are back on the strand towards Blackrock Dart station.
  Sometimes the sun would be rising behind them and you’d be looking at a shifting blur of silhouettes against a glistening sea, which can be a bit intimidating. We might walk out on the sand to try and get a better view but the tide will be moving them down anyway. You always have to be careful that the incoming sea doesn’t cut you off. The very elegant Black tailed Godwits are often in the Marsh in good numbers but on the strand they’re often mixed in with a closely related and very similar species, the Bar Tailed Godwit, making separating them quite difficult. If possible we’d count the birds individually using mechanical hand held counters, which you click as, you count. If you get flocks of over 1,000 bird you can sometimes end up with a very stiff thumb. We’d count Redshanks, Oystercatchers, Curlew, Greenshank and also the smaller waders like Knot, Ringed Plover, Dunlin and the lovely little pure white Sanderling which are nearly always running back and forth at the tides edge like little mechanical toys. Four or five different species of gulls get counted as well as Red Breasted Merganser, Scoter or often hundreds of Great Crested Grebes bobbing along on the sea. Hopefully the separate flocks Black Tailed Godwits Wall Brown Butterfly 11 would all be standing out clearly on the tides edge a slight distance apart and not moving much but that doesn’t always happen. Sometimes the flocks of waders get restless and might start to move as you count them, other times they might all be packed together asleep in a big feathery mass, heads tucked under their wings. We’ve had some very wet and windy counts as well as some freezing cold ones when writing in your numbers into a notebook with shaky frozen fingers can often leave the resulting scrawl almost unreadable. Years ago we had to abandon a count when a thick fog made everything more then a few yards away totally invisible, only the piping calls of the birds letting us know they were still there. What we dread the most though is seeing someone approaching along the tides edge with a dog that is charging ahead bounding toward groups of birds sending them all into the air. Frustrating for us but a terrible waste of energy for the birds and keeping them away from feeding. Generally if we ask people to keep their dogs away from the birds they willingly comply and put them on a lead but occasionally you’d get a hail of abuse. Nearer to Merrion Gates there’s an area of sand that has gradually reclaimed itself from the sea. Here you’d often get flocks of Linnets and Goldfinches feeding on the seeds of the wild flowers that have colonised the new land and on our September count we had a beautiful Wheatear perched on a swaying blade of grass. The thought of getting up early on a Saturday morning and going down on to a cold seashore can be a bit daunting but when its over you’d be glad to have helped to hopefully gather important data. Seeing gold tinted Snipe sunbathing at the edge of the reeds in the marsh, a flash of brilliant blue as a Kingfisher flashes down the channel or walking across the sand pockmarked with the holes where the lugworms had submerged and seeing the footprints of the thousands of waders that were wandering around trying to eat them as the morning sun lights up the cranes in the docks, you’d be happy to have sacrificed a few hours in bed.
  Black Tailed Godwits
Black Tailed Godwits