Dalkey Tidy
Brent GoosePainted Lady
Wildlife Newsletter for the Township of Dalkey
March 2012 - Michael Ryan

A few years ago the Parks Department dug out some of the lower floor of the quarry to create three ponds. A very welcome addition to the hills where the only other water is what gathers in small pools in the rocks, which quickly dry up during a warm spell. Water is great for attracting a wide variety of wildlife from amphibians to insects which themselves attract feeding birds and bats. Last summer we saw a beautiful blue iridescent dragonfly darting around one of the pools, which were surrounded at the time by a display of wild flowers. Cornflowers, poppies and oxeye daisies and many other native and garden escapees formed a colourful blanket over the quarry floor. Digging up the quarry might have disturbed old seeds but I did suspect that it may not have been the hand of nature but the hand of a well intentioned wild gardener.
Mallards in Dalkey Quarry
  I was told recently that a pair of Mallard ducks were the latest arrival to the ponds, probably not a great place for them to breed but it’ll be there for them if they want a quick paddle. A few years ago a little group of mallards used frequent the cliffs near White Rock. There they used perch on the remains of a semicircular wall below the Dart line. Unusual enough to see ducks perched on the top of a wall but sometimes they’d be joined on the wall by a perching raven whose dark form towering over them might have been slightly intimidating for them. I was told a raven, probably one of Dalkey’s nesting birds or their offspring, hangs around the base of the East Pier where it mingles among the pigeons. As the pigeons are being thrown food the raven subtly turns around to grab one, quietly devouring it among the feeding clamour.  

  I usually look for the first new leaves on a particular Horse Chestnut on the Vico Road where it’s mild location must help it produce the earliest growth. Except this year the first new Horse Chestnut leaves I saw had already appeared on another tree. In November. The leaves were only on one of its lower branches but they were big healthy looking leaves. This bright green sprig among the bare grey woods was one of many unnaturally unseasonal occurrences reported this winter. Although the leaves were looking a bit tatty by late January they were still alive and by then there were leaves appearing on some Sycamore trees as well. We often hear them before we see them, honking calls coming out of the south eastern sky. This particular occasion it was 5.00pm on a cold mid January evening with the little light from the grey day fading into the blustery cloud. What we were hearing then saw coming out of the gloom was a little group of Brent geese, probably not much more then twenty, flying in the classic v shape. Their rapid wingbeats made a whooshing sound as they passed overhead. When geese are on the ground they are known collectively as a gaggle but when they’re flying in a group it’s called a skien.

Horse Chestnut leaves
Photo by M.Ryan

  This little skien had flown across Killiney Bay then came over Dalkey hill before dropping down and heading across Dublin Bay. They were heading back to Sandymount Strand or to Bull Island where they would meet up with many more geese all settling down for the night. Like many wild creatures they gather together at night applying the old adage that there’s safety in numbers. If a fox is creeping up on them five hundred geese are far more likely to see it then one single bird no matter how alert it is. Brent geese travel farther then any other species of goose to get from their wintering grounds in the UK and Ireland to their breeding ground in high Arctic Canada, a distance of over 3,000kms but that doesn’t happen till April and our little group this evening were only on their daily commute. They’d flown down along the coast to farmland and grassland on the BirdWatch reserve in Kilcoole or Newcastle in the morning, spent the day feeding and were now returning in the last minutes of daylight. When Brent Geese first arrive in the autumn they will feed on Zostera inter-tidal eel-grass and when that gets scarce they will feed on grass in parks and playing fields around Dublin.
   During the last couple of winters there have been good numbers of Brent feeding in the playing fields in Blackrock College. Later in the winter and early spring they will start flying down to Wicklow every day for undisturbed feeding. In the evening they return, usually along the coast as well but if there’s strong winds blowing from the west or northwest they’ll fly into the shelter of the hill and soar up above it, gaining altitude before gradually descending. We noted the time we’d seen our little group flying over and the following evening with similar winds blowing we made sure we were outside at the same time. It was a bit raw and cold but we soon forgot about that when from almost the same direction as the previous evening a similar sized group suddenly soared above the trees. But this time they were followed by two more arrowhead shaped skienst, about 100 birds in each of these groups. Then we heard another group passing by on the far side of the house. They had all disappeared into the gloom within seconds. By mid to late March the birds numbers will be peaking and as the days get longer the birds often set off back to Dublin while it’s still bright. Coliemore Harbour or Dillon’s Park is a good spot to see them pass by and at this time of year you might get a thousand birds flying past.
   I know I’ve often mentioned it before and for a few months every year it’s a daily occurrence but I always find it a thrilling sight. Maybe it’s the flying v shape that seems to give them such a sense of purpose as if they’re on a pre determined flight path and when they do eventually set off for the far north, flying to Iceland then later over the vast area of Greenland I hope their flight goes as surely. I’ve heard quite a few people last year recounting little tragedies when neighbour’s or busy gardeners had cut hedges only to expose nests with baby birds in them still too young to fly. There’s very little chance of these birds surviving, either the parents will desert the nest or predators will get the eggs or the young birds. If there are birds nesting in dense hedges you probably won’t know they’re going to be very careful that nobody sees them or their nest so, if you can, check out the hedge before cutting. Looking up from ground level is a good way of seeing the nest against the sky and you might save a little family. It’s never too late to put up a nest box and if any birds have failed in their early attempts to nest they might be glad of the home that you provide.