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

  There were big movements of birds around in early October with big flocks of Goldfinches and other finch species flying around the hills but it was a much smaller but more spectacular flock that came over Dalkey Hill in the middle of the month. A flock of around thirty ravens croaking, weaving and rolling in the air heading towards the coast before turning around and heading back inland. I’d seen a similar sized flock years ago at the same time of the year and supposed they might be heading towards the biggest raven roost in the British Isles in Newborough in Angelsea in Wales, just a skip and a jump across the sea to a bird. At one stage the winter roost held 4,000 individuals making it the second biggest raven roost in the world. Though small family groups of five or six birds can be seen a flock of ravens this size is unusual. They can be distinguished from hooded crows or rooks by their large size, splayed wing feathers almost like fingers, their wedge shaped, as opposed to fan shaped tail tails and of course the range of deep resonant croaks.

A stroll down the West Pier in Dun Laoghaire can be a very good spot for seeing wintering birds. Apart from Red Throated Divers in the harbour itself dozens and sometimes hundreds of Great Crested Grebes can be seen in the Bay, we had over 800 grebes on one winter count last winter. Along the pier itself you might see Turnstones, Purple Sandpipers and sometimes even Snow Buntings. Grey Herons fish from the back of the pier and sometimes as the light fades you might witness the fly past of big flocks of Brent geese which rise up over the east pier dip down then back over the west pier as they head north to roost at the end of a days feeding in Wicklow.

Heron  West Pier
Heron – West Pier

  Sometimes on bird outings or Dawn Chorus events you have to draw comparison with some everyday sound to describe to people the call of a bird and sometimes when doing this I think we’re showing our age. Our smallest bird the Goldcrest is often easier heard then seen. It’s not particularly shy but its tiny size makes it very difficult to see since it keeps close to the trunk of conifers where it is often heard before it’s seen if it’s seen at all. Its protracted high pitched song is often described as sounding like a sewing machine but would that mean anything to anyone under 40 years of age? Would they have ever seen a sewing machine let alone heard one?
   At this time of year Mistle Thrushes often fly in extended family groups, small flocks that tend to make a double wing flap as they pass overhead. They have a very distinct recognisable call they make in flight which is often described as sounding like a football rattle but has anybody brought a football rattle to a match since the 1970s? Sometimes the comparison can be very accurate since the bird actually copies the man made noise surrounding it. There is a famous recording of a Lyre Bird (you can watch it on YouTube) in Australia whose display song imitates the calls of other birds but also incorporates sounds of camera shutters and camera motors (pre digital camera age), car alarms and an amazing imitation of the sound of a chainsaw being fired up and operated. I’m sure I’ve heard the sound of car or house alarms being incorporated into Blackbird’s song during the spring months. At this time of the year the blackbird won’t be singing but I always think of its alarm call at dusk as one of the most evocative sounds of winter. The Robin will be one of the few birds singing during winter to defend territory, most other birds having moved off their breeding ground.
   But there is one other glorious songster who can make the winter seem shorter. Often in mid winter in the dark hours before dawn a Song Thrush will begin to sing, the quiet cold air seeming to amplify its song. During last year’s generally mild winter Song Thrushes were singing from November right through till spring. There is a theory that these are young male birds practicing for their first breeding season but whatever the reason they’re very welcome. There is now a page on Facebook, Killiney Hill Red Squirrel Group, dedicated to the red squirrel conservation project on Killiney Hill. With lots of photos of the released squirrels and a means to record any sightings you might have of reds or greys in the locality. After release some of the squirrels dispersed quite far away from the pen. Thankfully most came back to the parkland though at time of writing one is still in residence in a garden on Military Road where it’s been over a month but it seems happy enough. It’s been a bad year for seed and nut production on trees and it might be the shortage of natural food that’s bringing the other squirrels back for the supplementary food left out for them near the pens. Last year had a spectacular crop of beech mast but it’s been very poor this year. Trees have a natural cycle when they’ll have one good seed year followed by a few barren years. The locally-released reds have been feeding on Scots Pine and Douglas Fir seeds which though smaller then beech have a high food value. Female reds need to obtain a certain body weight before they’ll be able to give birth so hopefully these seeds combined with the supplementary food will keep them fit and healthy and ready to breed in the spring.

Sunflower  seed sown by a bird
Sunflower – seed sown by a bird
  Gardening for birds usually means you planting trees and bushes that will provide food, cover and nesting habitats but occasionally you might experience gardening by birds. You can see which bushes berries are most popular with the birds when new bushes appear around your garden. Brambles appear everywhere as the blackberries pass through the bird’s digestive system before being ejected within their own little package of fertiliser. Berberis are another big favourite which will be spread by the bird and I’ve mentioned before the popularity of the Leycestaria, or pheasant bush. We had Blackcaps eating early ripened leycestaria berries in August with Bullfinches and Blackbirds tucking into them soon after. For years I’ve had new plants appearing all over the garden and I’m always reluctant to pull up such a valuable food source. But it was food eaten not from bushes but from the feeders that had two sunflowers appear in flower pots where presumably the birds had perched after eating the sunflower seeds. In a dismal year for gardening it was nice to have a sunflower opening in mid October thanks to a feathered friend.