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Wildlife Newsletter for the Township of Dalkey
April 2015 - Michael Ryan

 Male Teal
Photo: M.Ryan
 Our last IWebs (Irish Wetland Birds) count for the Winter 2014/15 season took place on a lovely mild bright Saturday morning in early March. Alinnet was singing from atop a bush beside the Booterstown DART car park. Male linnets had been singing for weeks before but another bird bursting into song a few minutes later was a pleasant surprise. It was a blackcap, the first time this year we’d heard one singing although both a male and a female blackcap have been constant visitors to our garden throughout the winter, feeding on fat balls, apples and occasionally sunflower seeds. I’ve mentioned many times how lovely their song is, earning them the name of ‘Ireland’s Nightingale’. Within weeks Dalkey and Killiney Hills should be resounding to the sounds of male blackcaps who have arrived from southern Europe or Africa declaring their territory but here in Booterstown it was still only March and almost certainly this bird wasn’t a summer migrant but a bird that had spent the winter here and would probably soon be setting off to summer breeding grounds.

  Wintering blackcaps have been trapped and, causing no discomfort to individual birds, have had stable isotope analysis done on nail clippings and feathers which have revealed the birds originated in areas of eastern Europe including Germany and Poland. So our wintering blackcaps are from there but the ones we’ll have breeding throughout summer will have migrated back to us from further south.
  Why birds would sing in places they’re not going to try and hold as territory isn’t known for certain, maybe they’re just polishing up their vocal abilities before they try to attract a mate on their breeding ground. Nice birds to hear and we were still in the car park! But we had a count to do so we applied ourselves to the task and checked out the marsh. Little spouts of water shooting up from the shallow tidal flow were a cause of speculation as to their origin later with the general consensus being they were caused by shellfish, probably a razorshell expelling water. We dutifully counted the birdlife in the marsh, Black tailed Godwits, Redshank, Dunlin, Greenshank, Teal, Grey Herons and Little Egrets, feeding in the shallow water or sitting on the banks, heads tucked in as they slept, all beautifully lit in the low early sunshine.
  But once all the clearly visible birds were counted we turned our attention down to the reedbed in the corner of the marsh. That’s where the snipe are found. Always a treat to see, particularly since it’s sometimes a challenge to actually spot them. Often if you’re scanning trees or undergrowth you might mistake a leaf or a flash of light on a branch for a bird. With snipe they’re so well camouflaged to blend into their habitat you get almost the opposite effect, you’d be looking at a clump of reeds which would suddenly move to reveal it’s a snipe. Sure enough there were snipe, basking in the sun at the edge of the reeds and three of them actually walking out in the open, prodding the mud at the water’s edge. All the birds in the marsh are handsome in their own way but there’s something very endearing about snipe, their ridiculously long bill, big soft eyes and that beautiful zig-zag plumage that shines gold when the sun hits it. We counted 22 and no doubt there were many more hidden within the reeds. Sadly the snipe that breed in

 Ireland are in serious decline and many of the birds that we see in the marsh are probably birds that are wintering here from Europe. Today would probably be the last time we’d see any till next winter so it was really nice to see so many in such good light. Out on the strand, though the sea was choppy, there was real heat in the sun, so pleasant compared to counts in cold winds and lashing rain in December and January, even warm enough to leave off gloves. Disturbance can be a problem and when you’re trying to count birds on the edge of the tide the last thing you need is a dog arriving whose idea of fun is bounding up and chasing them all as often happens, but today any of the dogs on the strand were content to wander along beside their owner or chase balls rather than waders, which seemed very considerate of them.

Kingfisher     Photo M. Ryan

  The group of Knot on the strand was reduced from its higher mid-winter number of over 2,000 but there was still a flock of over 700 which would suddenly take to the air and twist around in a dense flock like a swarm of bees. They were joined later by a flock of Dunlin and all the birds bunched together on a rapidly disappearing spit of sand as the tide drew in.
  We’d gone up to the footbridge to have a last look over the sea and the marsh from an elevated point and were about to call it a morning when we saw a Kingfisher flash along the stream below us. We knew it had landed in some dense undergrowth but couldn’t see at first it as kingfishers, though a spectacular mix of deep blues, orange and turquoise when the sun hits them, blend in incredibly well with the colours of a riverbank when they’re perched and motionless. Eventually we picked it up, perched on the base of a branch. The female of many species of birds is much duller then the male, an adaptation to keep them safe from being spotted by predators when sitting on their nest, but since kingfishers nest in deep holes dug into riverbanks the female has no reason to ‘dress down’ and has the same spectacular plumage as the male with one significant difference which allows male and female to be told apart. The lower bill, or mandible, in the female kingfisher is orange whereas the male has a totally black bill so we knew this was a female we were looking at. What a treat, and a lovely way to finish the morning.