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Wildlife Newsletter for the Township of Dalkey
February 2012 - Michael Ryan

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THE GARDENERS FRIEND
   Some years ago our local Birdwatch Branch Secretary voiced to a small assembly a quick test of observation skills. Asking the group not to consult field guides he asked did a Robin’s orange breast plumage extend to above or below its eye? The answers from the people he addressed were equally divided between the correct and wrong answer but it aptly demonstrated how much we take for granted this very familiar little bird. In mid winter when the blackbird and other resident songbirds will have fallen silent and our melodious summer migrant songsters will be wintering in Africa the robin will still be singing in our gardens on the coldest, darkest days. It’s winter song is different from its exuberant song in springtime, more restrained, quieter and almost plaintive but it doesn’t need to sing loud since it usually has the garden stage to itself.
Robin red breast
   Of course the robin isn’t singing for our benefit either, its song is only meant for other robins and since robins are one of the few birds that defend a territory in winter it’s sending out a message to any interloping robins that if they invade this territory they’re in for trouble. Robins are notoriously aggressive and it’s estimated that 10% of robin mortality is caused by attacks from other robins. That’s hard to imagine since robins always come across as very amiable and approachable whether singing from branches a few feet away or perched on the handle of a gardeners fork waiting for a few worms to get dislodged. They seem very trusting of us and seem to know we won’t do them any harm. You wouldn’t get a magpie perched a few inches away from you on a garden fork and if you did you’d probably think it quite sinister and be very suspicious of its motives.
    I used to wonder was it a recent development that robins became so trusting but apparently their approachability and song was written about, by Chaucer in the Middle Ages. They’re still much shyer in other parts of Europe maybe due to the fact they used be caught and eaten there. They were called robin redbreasts before the colour orange came into common usage since orange is a more accurate description of their ‘waistcoat’ colour. As for the question does a Robin’s orange breast plumage extend to above or below its eye? Have a look at the next one you see or if your Christmas cards have not been discarded yet, there’s every chance you’ll have one with a robin on it.

WELCOME AND UNWELCOME COLONISTS

   I often think it’s unfortunate that the beech isn’t a native Irish tree. Although considered native in the south of Britain (although a non native introduced species in the north), there is no record of beech being inhabitants of Ireland before the Ice age. If anyone is applying for a grant to grow native woodlands it’s now a pre condition that any existing beech trees on the land be removed since their dense canopy prevents other trees getting a foothold underneath them. Its Latin name is Fagus Sylvatica but the common name of the Beech tree, found in varying forms throughout old Teutonic dialects, apparently means either ‘a book’ or ‘a beech,’ the early books having been made of this wood. Fagus is from a Greek word meaning ‘to eat,’ referring to the edible character of the Beechmast. Although non native trees are much more valuable to wildlife, having had hundreds of thousands of years to form interdependent relationships with insects and birds which pollinate them and spread their seeds, many of the introduced trees have made their own niche on the landscape and can provide a limited but valuable source of food or shelter. With their large majestic smooth grey trunks and interlacing branches spreading out to form a rounded crown it’s easy to believe that beech trees were the inspiration for the architects of medieval cathedrals whose rounded columns and flying buttresses draw the eye upwards towards the heavens.
    The density of foliage and the bitter tannin of the leaves of the beech prevents most plants and other trees from growing underneath them, leaving them standing in solitary splendour, their roots mirroring their branches above, spreading across the ground like great gnarled limbs. These roots don’t go very deep though and beeches are prone to blow over in very strong winds. In the infamous hurricane in 1987 thousands of beech were devastated but many of the oldest survived because their central core had rotted away leaving them hollow and much more flexible against the wind. One of the few plants associated with beech are bluebells which will have grown and flowered before the dense leaf cover blocks out the sunlight and this scene is reproduced in many spectacular photographs, a sea of blue against the smooth grey trunks. The beech’s seeds, known as beechmast, appear in cycles, some years having a very poor harvest, but this year seeming to have had a very good crop.

   At the time of writing we hadn’t seen any red squirrels in the woods on Killiney hill for over six weeks and have been getting very worried about their survival. The last reds we did see were feeding on beech trees and for a while I was wondering why one of the red squirrels we’d disturbed was low down the trunk, near the fork of the beech. The beech seeds grow inside a husk and this squirrel was carrying one in its mouth. I realised later it was of course ‘squirreling’ it away, storing it for later in the winter in a crevice in the trunk. Another day we saw a red eating away at the top of a beech then suddenly bounding across the treetops before arriving at a oak tree. The seed of the oak, the acorn, is toxic to red squirrels until it’s fully ripe although grey squirrels can eat them at any stage, possibly because they evolved in the US where there are many more species of oaks. 
    Anyhow as we watched the red it turned around and dived into a crevice in the oak, possibly storing more beech husks which it might have carried over within its mouth.
Red Squirrel
Red Squirrel
Photo by Michael Ryan
  Later when I looked at a photo I’d taken of it I saw that it was one of the reds that had been trapped earlier this year and still had a metal clip fitted on its ear, clearly visible in the photograph. Unfortunately since then we’ve seen lots of greys, feeding on the beech as well but not a sign of a red. Every time I’ve seen a red recently I’m conscious it might be the last time ever I’d see one in our woods. It’s not that many years ago, before the greys arrived, we’d see a red nearly every morning gathering beechmast on the ground but I fear those sightings may be gone for ever. Incidentally this year is the centenary of the introduction of the grey squirrel to Ireland. It’s taken them over 90 years to reach Dalkey and Killiney woods but they’re here now, probably forever like an unstoppable tide, washing away the native reds ahead of them.

SNOW BIRD –

   Many years ago when I was young I persuaded my parents to buy a case of stuffed birds which has pride of place in the hall ever since. The birds were probably trapped in nets or by the horrible practice of putting lime on a branch or the ground to which the birds would get stuck. They might have been shot (although some are so small you’d imagine a bullet would blow them apart) which was a fairly dismal fate for them.

Snow Bunting
stuffed in a case
   The little creatures are posed around the central figure of a Barn Owl, a species which has declined drastically in Ireland though more from ingesting rodents and being hit by traffic then from losses from hunting. A Song Thrush is the next largest bird in the case, which also contains a Coal Tit, a pair of Bullfinches, and a Willow Warbler. Pied and Gray Wagtails are posed on moss-covered twigs although most wagtails feed on the ground or in the grey wagtails case from rocks in streams or rivers. Pied wagtails are not too likely to be seen on a branch unless they’re huddling together in a tree or hedge in a winter roost. But there’s another bird in the case, also placed on a twig but tilted downwards as if it’s about to swoop although it’s possible it slipped off its perch over the years.
    In reality it almost certainly would never be seen in that position since it’s a bird nearly always seen on the ground, a Snow Bunting, a sparrow sized bird that doesn’t breed in Ireland but occasionally comes here in the winter time. They nest in the Arctic Circle the nearest breeders to us being in Scotland. The male has a snow white head and under parts in the breeding season that will have became streakier by the time they head south in the winter. They winter by the coast and where they have been frequently seen locally over the years on the end of the West - and sometimes - East Piers in Dun Laoghaire. I’d seen some on the East Pier once totally indifferent to walkers to the extent that you nearly had to step over them and following reported sightings some years ago I went down and eventually found a few at the back of the west pier. I found out later they’d been eating seed, which a local ‘birder’ had kindly provided for them. They’d usually be eating insects in the seaweed and among the rocks and a couple have been seen this winter along the top of the West Pier wall, well worth looking out for when out on a brisk winter’s stroll.

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