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Wildlife Newsletter for the Township of Dalkey
April 2013 - Michael Ryan

  Whatever it is about Lower George’s Street in Dun Laoghaire its narrow road always seems to channel the coldest winds down that stretch whether they’re blowing from the North or from the East, making it one of the bleakest spots to be in during bad weather. Thankfully, since it had been a bitterly cold day, we weren’t walking but were in the car driving around looking for a parking spot, as the last light faded from the angry sky. Stopped at the traffic light my partner suddenly exclaimed and looked upwards. She’d seen directly above us, in classic ‘flying v’ formations, flights of dozens of geese crossing the sky. They were the Brent Geese returning to their nightly roost on Sandymount Strand or the Bull Island after a day spent feeding in Wicklow. Seeing these birds battling against the wind above us and thinking in a few months they would be nesting in Arctic Canada, Dun Laoghaire didn’t seem that bleak after all when it could provide such a sight.

  The bird feeders in the garden produced some interesting sightings in March. I’d given up on seeing any siskins in the garden this year, they usually come soon after Christmas, stay till April and then return to their preferred nesting habitat of conifer woodland, but the days were getting longer and we still hadn’t had any visiting. Then they seemed to arrive almost simultaneously in many gardens in early March. Vivid green and yellow on the wings and body, the male having a dark crown on his head, Siskins are one of the smaller members of the finch family and they’re delightful visitors to the bird feeders where their preferred food is nyger seeds. These seeds are so tiny they require their own feed containers some of which sit on a circular tray on which the siskins can stand to extract seeds from the tiny slits. Before nyger seeds came on the market they used eat peanuts, always facing downwards on the feeders, and it was noted they seemed to have a preference for red coloured feed containers.

Apart from the pleasure of having a seasonal visitor returning again, the male siskin has a wonderful song which he delivers in long trilling phrases from trees near where they’re feeding. I used think at one stage it was a group of birds making all the noise but then gradually came to the realisation it was just one individual pouring out the song with barely a break.

In the wild they feed on the seeds of Alder and Birch trees and in late winter or spring they can often be found in little flocks near the alder trees beside the tea shop at Victoria Gates on Killiney Hill.During that particularly nasty cold spell with wickedly bitter winds blowing from the north east I was hard put to keep the feeders topped up. Bullfinches, which only began coming to feeders about three years ago, have been constantly feeding on sunflower seeds since then, even bringing young birds to feed with them in the summer, but maybe it was because the sunflower seeds had run low that started them turning to eating peanuts and nyger seed, another first for the garden.
Dunnocks are perhaps the commonest and simultaneously least known bird that inhabits many gardens. Often described as being mouse like in appearance and behavior our resident dunnock often appears on the periphery of the feeding frenzy and will pick discarded seed from the ground and so I was surprised to see it had graduated on to the sunflower feeders where, although he will always give ground to other more aggressive birds, he is getting more adapt at perching and taking seed.
But the real highlight in the garden was to come when looking out the kitchen window I noticed a bird amidst the bare branches of the apple tree I hang the feeders from. It was a Brambling, the first I’d ever seen in the garden.
Similar in appearance to a male chaffinch but with a lovely orange breast fading into white, bramblings, which breed in Northern Europe from Scandinavia to Siberia, form into huge flocks in winter sometimes numbering hundreds of thousands. We usually only get them here in single figures mixed among flocks of other species of finch. Our particular visitor would feed on the seed scattered on the ground, sometimes awkwardly attempting to perch on the feeders. He’s been in the garden for a few days and hopefully he’ll return next year and maybe bring a few friends.

It was two years ago this month the first cases of Squirrel Pox Virus were reported in Ireland, spelling bad news for our native red squirrels since this disease had devastated Britain’s population of reds for years but up till then hadn’t been recorded in this country. One theory from Colin Lawton, a expert on squirrel behaviour at Galway University was that the harsh winter of 2010/11 had activated the virus in grey squirrels which frequently carry it (and spread it to the reds) though it does them no harm.


   To further add to the distressing news was the fact that it had occurred among a population of reds that had been doing very well thanks to the effort of a dedicated group of volunteers in Tollymore Forest in County Down. I mentioned before that we had gone there to that beautiful woodlands specifically to see the squirrels and had spent a delightful hour watching them in the garden of one of the people involved in the project so I was very sorry for the volunteer group, especially when 90% of their red population died and it looked like all their reds might be lost to a particularly nasty disease.
Happily I’m able to recount that after being in touch with one of the group volunteers recently she told me that thanks to grey squirrel control and supplementary feeding of the reds they are making a recovery and they have counted up to thirteen individuals in the forest recently. They’re hoping they will breed this year so let’s hope that’s a lucky thirteen.