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Wildlife Newsletter for the Township of Dalkey
December / January 2016 / 2017 - Michael Ryan

One of the red squirrels born this year, high in a tree top stripping the scales off a Scots Pine cone to get at the seed.
Photo: M. Ryan


   We’d gone down to Booterstown for our October count of wintering waders, waterfowl, geese and gulls. The day hadn’t started very promising, the rain had been fairly pelting down earlier but at 7.45 it seemed to be easing off. The other counters had been sitting in their cars waiting for the rain to clear so we all prepared ourselves and crossed over the DART line down to the strand. Behind us to the west the sky was a very ominous curtain of black from cloud to ground. We hoped it was rain moving away but unfortunately it wasn’t, it was coming towards us and we’d barely started to count the birds on the strand before it started to torrent down on us. We splashed back to the shelter of the covered pedestrian bridge over the DART station. Out of the rain and being able to see through the telescopes again we resumed the counting and were looking down on the marsh with its little flocks of Black Tailed Godwits, Redshank and Dunlin when Lucy drew our attention to a drama taking place on the other side of the railway line. A raptor was diving down on a shallow stretch of seawater near the tidal wall. Through the rain we couldn’t figure out for a minute or two what it was then realised it was a fairly bedraggled Peregrine, a bird usually seen scything through the air to get its prey but here it was diving on a Bar Tailed Godwit wading in the pool. Every time it dived the godwit, itself quite a tall wader, would duck down under the water, completely submerging itself.
   Perhaps the peregrine was trying to get the godwit to take to the air where it could probably snatch it more easily but the godwit had no intention of going anywhere but underwater. There was a Oystercatcher in the pool as well which seemed indifferent to the life and death struggle going on a few feet away. Maybe it knew it was too heavy for the peregrine to carry away and it barely registered any reaction. Between the peregrine’s dives the godwit edged closer to the oystercatcher till it was standing right beside it.

   Don’t know what the godwit’s strategy was, did it think standing beside the oystercatcher would make it a more difficult target. It looked like a desperate attempt to save itself and you couldn’t help but pity the godwit. The peregrine kept diving, the godwit kept ducking while the oystercatcher stood immobile. The peregrine broke off its attack perching on one of the metal posts on the DART station platform where hooded crows harassed it. We had to return to counting birds in the marsh but when we looked back a few minutes later the peregrine was gone and we were delighted to see the godwit had survived and was striding around the pool poking its long bill into the mud for food. The name godwit is a derivative of ‘good to eat’ from the time when they used be hunted for the table but this particular individual had no intention of being the peregrines delicacy this particular morning.
   I often mention that Booterstown Marsh is a fantastic place to see wintering Snipe although, since they’re usually at the edge of the reeds in the farthest corner and naturally well camouflaged, you’d need a telescope to get a decent look at their splendid plumage
and long thin bill. That same morning we had one appear directly opposite us in the corner nearest the car park and we got great views. Although earlier we’d got soaked by the dark clouds, the peregrine and godwit drama and now the great views of the snipe turned out to be very adequate silver linings. I mentioned last month we’d seen, and later the researcher had trapped, a female squirrel which had recently been lactating, signifying it had recently given birth but we didn’t see any sign of offspring till early November when we spotted two red squirrels, neither of which had ear clips indicating they were offspring of released animals. One tore around the treetops and eventually came down through the trees till it was only a few feet above the ground flat against
a tree trunk just a few feet away from where we stood on the footpath, big red bushy tail protruding but otherwise hidden to walkers and dogs passing just a few feet away. The next day we checked out the same tree, a big very dense Scots Pine, and this time spotted a red carrying a big clump of moss in its mouth. This was a different squirrel, possibly that adult female and we could see it had a ear clip. We followed it and saw it disappear into a old dead tree trunk completely covered in ivy. We presumed it was carrying the moss as lining for a winter dray which it was probably building in the midst of the ivy and a couple of minutes later it emerged and tore off across the treetops. Red squirrels build drays in spring and winter, the former to give birth and rear young in, the latter a more sturdy construction to keep them warm and secure through cold and windy winter nights.

  The view over Killiney Bay from the rocks near the obelisk is lovely in its own right and is often enhanced by the sight of a porpoise, dolphin or some interesting bird passing by. In early autumn we’d seen late swifts, then flocks of swallows and house martins sweeping south in the shelter of the hill where the air is calmer and warmer and would support a lot more flying insects for them to feed on. I was sitting on the rocks when a pair of ravens
drifted across the tree tops below before settling on the tops of two adjacent macracarpa trees and having a croaky conversation with each other. Ravens have a fantastic range of sounds, apparently producing at least thirty distinct sounds, and more than any other bird they sound like they actually might be articulating thoughts when they call. When flying they often fold their wings and roll over for seemingly no other reason than to have a bit of fun.
    After exchanging some more calls to each other they took off, flying south round towards Killiney but seconds later they had returned flying up towards the summit of the hill. Just then I heard more croaking behind me and looked around to see more ravens approaching from the direction of Dalkey Island. The first two ravens joined this group and the flock, now numbering ten, headed off towards the Dublin Mountains; not a big flock in
number but a very impressive collection of these wonderful creatures. Ravens were once only associated with remote mountains and cliffs so when we were in Oak Park Wood in the very flat countryside just outside Carlow Town in October a pair of ravens croaking over the treetops were quite an unexpected sight but a clear indication they’re expanding their range and habitat.
Usually in the grove of pines where we saw the female squirrel I’d be keeping my eyes trained upwards to the treetops so it was lucky I spotted a beetle on the ground before I stepped on it. It moved with the rear of its long body curved upward like a tiny scorpion, shiny black apart from two tiny white tips at the end of its abdomen which on closer inspection turned out to be two tiny pincers. Afraid that somebody, probably me, would step on it I tried to move it somewhere safer. I attempted to get it to climb on to a leaf then held my hand down flat so it could climb on but it refused my entreaties and eventually dug down under some leaves and twigs, moving a fallen pine cone in the process which I thought quite impressive for a tiny creature. I had my suspicions what it was and sure enough on subsequently checking I found it was the dramatically named Devil’s Coach Horse Beetle (Ocypus olens). They are ‘voracious predators active at night, when they consume small slugs and snails, and a wide range of other invertebrates’. I also read that the scorpion’s pose was a defensive action and when threatened it can emit a foul smelling odour from the two white pincers as well as inflict a nasty bite so I was glad it had ignored my hands-on approach. This beetle has been associated with the Devil since the Middle Ages, hence its common name. Other names include Devil’s Footman or Devil’s Steed.

The same squirrel, this time a few feet above the
ground on a tree beside a busy footpath
Photo: Michael Ryan