Wildlife Newsletter for the Township of Dalkey
July 2012 - Michael Ryan
Two days later the sky would be blue and cloudless, the sun would be blazing all day and the bushes would be humming with insects and birdsong but unfortunately the Killiney hill bird walk in May organised as a DLR Heritage event had fallen on what would turn out to be the last day of the long cold spell. The day had began damp, dull and grey with a fresh east wind blowing but nevertheless a hardy group gathered at the car park from where the walk began. Chaffinches sang from the woods and the wren’s machinegun-like bursts of song exploded from the bushes as we entered the woodlands but the low temperature kept silent the songs of the summer migrants, the chiffchaffs, willow warblers and blackcaps that would normally be singing. A Song Thrush singing from the top of a ash tree gave us our first decent look at a bird. Blue Tits and Coal Tits foraged among the gorse as we approached the obelisk then back among the trees we saw high above us a pair of Mistle Thrushes. Mistle thrushes are one of the few songbirds that will nest openly on branches or the fork of a tree rather then concealing their nests. Larger and much bolder then song thrushes they will defendtheir nest against any
predators. . A few
days before I’d seen one dive bombing and driving away a perched sparrowhawk.
Everybody could see where the thrushes had placed their nest on
a high branch of a larch tree and we all watched the pair of birds busying
themselves around it and later seeing one of them gathering mud from the ground,
taking it back up to add to its construction. Further down the wood we saw
a Treecreeper moving up a beech tree then disappearing into a crack in the
trunk. On last years walk we’d stood opposite the same tree for about
15 minutes knowing the Treecreepers were nesting inside it but we never saw
them. I hadn’t realise they’d nested in the same tree this year
and moments later we had the delightful sight of another Treecreeper moving
up the trunk then passing food to its mate whose head appeared from the well
We were on our way back to the car park when a couple of members of the group thought they heard a cuckoo. We all paused but didn’t hear it but after the group had dispersed a couple of us had a look around. Then we heard it, definitely a cuckoo, back in the trees near the car park. Eventually we got a sight of it flying from tree to tree. It’s no accident of nature that the sleek long silhouette, pointed wings, long tail, barred chest and grey plumage of the cuckoo strongly resembles a bird of prey especially when seen in flight. Small birds mob raptors and the theory is that when the birds fly up to harass it thinking it’s a hawk the cuckoo can then see where their nest is. He called a few more times then, since no female cuckoo was answering his call, he flew out of our sight and sound. Last year I mentioned I’d heard a cuckoo calling briefly on Dalkey hill one morning so I had a look at my notes to see what date that was. Last year’s cuckoo was calling on the 20th May. This year the cuckoo we heard on our walk was on the 19th May. Coincidence? Anyhow, on a day when at times it seemed more like winter, it was heartening to hear the ultimate bird song of summer.
A sad footnote occurred the next morning. Making our way up to where we’d seen the mistle thrushes nest the previous day we saw a dead bird lying on the ground and we realised it was one of the thrushes. What made it even sadder was its mate was above us in the trees fiercely trying to defend the nest against a group of hooded crows. It’s fierce defence was in vain because even if it had driven them off it would never be able to hatch or feed the nestlings by itself.
One good piece of news from the woodlands was hearing that there is at least one red squirrel still surviving on Killiney hill. It had turned up in one of the baited traps set by the squirrel researchers and they identified it as a adult female that had previously given birth. We hadn’t seen a red on the hill since last October and was convinced they were gone forever since winter is usually the time they’re most easily seen. A week after the squirrel was reported we saw what was presumably the same animal in a Scots Pine. I wouldn’t be surprised if she had moved out of the woods to breed somewhere else and had returned. A couple of years ago red squirrels were seen around Ballinclea Heights though sadly one was later found dead on the road. Although evidently one animal on the hill isn’t a viable population at least where there’s life there’s hope.
An Ill Wind That Blew No Good
I thought we’d seen the last of the ferocious north easterly gales that hammered the coastline in April and early May. Despite having tons of water crashing on them some of the nest boxes we’d fixed to the surface on Maiden’s Rock had survived but most were either washed away or smashed so we took out a few replacements and some more gravel that the birds can use as a nest base. We always put reference numbers on the boxes so we can identify them from the shore and although we had less then a dozen boxes positioned we followed our tradition of numbering one of them 21a since that’s the number of the box in which the one pair of rarer Roseate tern had always nested in during previous years. So I was delighted then a week later when I saw a pair of Roseates waddling around box 21a before both of them went into the box together. It looked like the replacement box had met their approval and nesting looked likely. All was looking well until the June Bank Holiday weekend when another north easterly gale combined with a very high tide on the day before a full moon brought back those high seas with waves crashing onto shore and offshore rocks. The following day Maiden’s Rock was empty of birds, all the Common, Arctic and Roseate terns nesting there having been washed off. Down in Wicklow a similar disaster had occurred with all the Little Tern nests being washed away at Kilcoole. At time of writing there are at least twenty pairs of Arctic Terns nesting on Lamb Island, the big outcrop of rock which is joined to Dalkey Island though cut off at high tide. Safe up there from the high seas as long as they’re not disturbed by goats or people there’s a chance they might succeed in breeding so hopefully their long journey from the southern Atlantic seas won’t have been in vain. There will be seabird viewing evenings at Colimore Harbour every Tuesday evening in July from 6.30 to 8.00pm where apart from terns many other birds should be seen including Manx Shearwater, Gannets, Black Guillemots, Razorbills, Shelduck, Greater Black Backed and Herring Gulls and many more.