Wildlife Newsletter for the Township of Dalkey
May 2013 - Michael Ryan
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THE EARLY BIRD CATCHES THE COLD
   We were walking on the Killiney Bay side of the hill which is usually sheltered from the worst winds but this day offered no shelter from the bitter east wind that seemed to have been blowing for weeks. Less then a hundred miles north, farmers were digging out sheep from deep snow drifts, some alive but many dead, after experiencing some of the worst weather ever for a time of year, normally a time when newly born lambs could be expected to be finding their feet in the spring sunshine.
Here we’d escaped the snow and the power cuts but still had the bone chilling cold winds. I had just been thinking that despite the heavy snow covering much of the UK and Ireland early Swallows and Sand Martins would surely already have been seen. Arriving early is a gamble for migrant birds, the advantage being they can get to a good nesting site and claim it before other birds of the same species arrive, the disadvantage being the chance they’ve came while the weather is still bad. If it is bad, cold or very wet, there’s likely to be very few insects around for these aerial hunters to feed on and it’s hard to imagine this year’s weather could be any worse for them.
  Would they turn around and fly back south to warmer regions or try to find some meagre food on coasts or in milder pockets of land. Or would they gradually weaken and die, a tragic end to a journey of thousands of miles. At this stage our walk had brought us into the shelter of a fence and trees when a bird shot past us into the brambles ahead of us. It was small and initial impression was of a light colour bird, almost yellow. My companion saw it too and noted it had dark legs almost certainly confirming its identification as a chiffchaff. Chiffchaff are another early migrant species but unlike the swallows and martins they would feed on insects in bushes and woodlands rather then in the air. Hopefully it will be able to find enough to eat in th undergrowth. The northerly winds may have slowed down the arrival of some migrants but you could only hope for the best for those that had already arrived.

Chiffchaf

SONGBIRD SLAUGHTER
   Further south, for millions of migrant birds the problem facing them isn’t the weather. Every spring millions of birds are slaughtered as they cross the Mediterranean. After crossing big expanses of sea, birds will make for land where the warm thermals will help them fly and they can stop over for food and rest. Unfortunately a lot of the places they will land or pass over have long traditions of killing migrants. They’re shot for ‘sport’ in Malta and Italy and trapped in Spain and Sardinia, totally indiscriminately and completely illegally.
In Cyprus a old tradition of trapping birds to eat has seen a resurgence, apparently partly because of the financial disaster befalling the country. Small birds are caught on limesticks, the branches which have been coated with glue or jam. The birds will perch on the branches maybe to roost overnight but their feet, wings and tail feathers will then get stuck on the glue and they usually end up hanging upside down either dying from exhaustion, hunger or when the trapper comes along to collect his haul.
   Other birds are caught in nets lured in by the sound of bird calls played through a speaker. In one article the writer describes the bird catcher disentangling half a dozen blackcaps from the net then breaking their necks with his teeth before dropping them in a bucket. The birds caught, blackcaps, robins and other warblers are known as ‘ambelopoulia’ and are served boiled or pickled in the country’s tavernas.
When Cyprus joined the EU in 2004 strict laws were brought in and trappers were cast as greedy villains out to line their pockets without regard for the ensnared birds. The threat of a maximum €17,000 fine, a three-year jail term or both persuaded many to quit trapping. But with the present economic crisis, many people consider the risk of being caught balanced out by what they can make by selling the pathetic remains to restaurants. I heard an item on the radio recently about a organisation The Committee against Bird Slaughter who every spring send a group of volunteers to Cyprus to try and counter the trapping. Escorted by local police and anti poaching officials (their spokesman has twice been beaten up by trappers) they search the countryside for mist nests and limesticks. If they find birds trapped on limesticks they will clean their feathers with soapy water and release them if they are fit to fly, otherwise they bring them back to their hotel, keep them overnight and release them the following day when they have recovered.
   Although they can help only a tiny percentage of the over two and a half million birds they estimate are caught and killed in Cyprus every year, it helps to raise awareness of the problem. Since the limesticks are totally indiscriminate they catch many other species as well and there are many very distressing photographs of hoopoes, kingfishers and many other birds dangling helplessly from branches and nets.


OLD BIRDS

  
A sparrowhawk perched in the back garden giving me very good views and a chance to take a photograph. I sent the photo to a friend who estimated it might be a one to two year old male but it would be very hard to know for sure.
It’s disappointing to learn that many of our commonest and most liked garden birds, robins and blue tits, have a very short average life span, most only living two years or less. That robin, who for years has been coming and serenading us as we work in the garden, is probably not a old friend but a succession of different birds.

Sparrow Hawk
  There’s a very high mortality rate for young and juvenile birds most not even surviving to their first birthday but it would seem that if a bird exceeds a certain average age it can live considerably longer, benefitting from its experience and refining its survival skills.
   This is where ringing birds can provide some very interesting information and a list of longest living birds recorded provides some fascinating facts. Some of the birds would have been ringed as chicks in the nest but others would have been caught as adults so the researcher would know only what their minimum age was meaning they could even be older then recorded. Some of the record oldest birds were caught alive and some were found dead.
  A robin that was found dead in the Czech Republic had achieved the grand age of 19 years and 4 months.
  A blackbird in Germany was still alive when its age was recorded as 21 years 10 months.
  Another common garden bird, the dunnock, had at least one of its species live to 20 years 10 months.
  A lot of people wouldn’t be happy to learn that a magpie had managed to live to the age of 21yrs 8mths before being shot.
  As for sparrowhawks, in Denmark the remains was found of one who had lived to 20 years and three months.

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