Wildlife Newsletter for the Township of Dalkey
February 2015 - Michael Ryan
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Elder Bush
unseasonal growth
  
  Last year hadn’t even ended when there were all sorts of unseasonable things happening due to the mild weather and possibly due to the effects of last year’s warm summer. There were new green leaves opening on elder bushes on Dalkey Hill before the end of December, wild cranesbills were in flower over Dalkey quarry and of course the gorse was in bloom over the Vico. Early flowering and growth has now become such a regular occurrence that there is now an annual count done in Britain and Ireland on the first day of the year with amateur and professional botanists going out to record what native wild plants were found in flower. This year 368 different species of native plants were found in flower in Britain and Ireland, many four or five months before they would traditionally have bloomed. One of many interesting reports from Ireland during the count was of a Strawberry Tree (Arbutus Unedo), one of Ireland’s few unique indigenous trees, being in flower near Muckross in Kerry. The total number counted doesn’t include flowering garden plants which would probably have exceeded that number, the white tips of snowdrops were already peeping above the ground on our lawn on Christmas day.

  In February you tend to get that crossover when some resident birds are already planning to nest while birds that have come here for the winter are still arriving in gardens. Last year in early February a lovely male goldfinch was declaring his territory by singing gloriously from the path above the Vico Road while within the same week we had our first ever brambling, a Northern European finch who move south during the winter, coming to feed on our sunflower seeds. Although we might be getting some of our coldest weather of the winter now some hardy birds will begin nesting and if you have a dog that gets regular grooming save the hair and leave it out to provide cosy nest lining. Feathers from old pillows will be gratefully collected by long tailed tits. Don’t forget to clean out nestboxes to rid them of parasitic insects.
  Every January, usually on the first Saturday, a group of keen birdwatchers assemble before first light in Booterstown car park where the Annual Bird Race begins at 8.00am. This is an event which has been running for over twenty years where teams comprising three or four individuals spend the whole day travelling around within the confines of county Dublin to count how many different species of birds they can count within the day. Anice aspect of it is that it’s all done on trust and relies on the integrity of those taking part. It would be a hollow victory indeed if anyone invented sightings. Saying that, undoubtedly some people may be a bit hasty giving themselves the benefit of the doubt when getting a brief sight of a distant bird. I remember someone who claimed to have seen a long eared owl in the dusk
then discrediting his sighting by saying he’d heard its wings beating overhead whereas of course owls are known for their totally silent flight so whatever it was, it wasn’t an owl. But most people taking part are very scrupulous and enter the race with the right spirit.  I haven’t taken part myself for some years but many participants have been doing it since it began and get a great adrenaline rush from the thrill of the chase. Over recent years there has been a tendency for the same teams to do best every year and they are usually teams that put in a lot of time beforehand, scouting out locations and finding spots for more difficult species. But it really is a event where taking part is as enjoyable as winning and you can get to see dozens of species of birds within the space of ten hours, a great way to start the year. Booterstown is a good place to start as you’re likely to notch up good numbers of birds in the marsh, one of the best spots to see snipe and always a possibility to see kingfisher there, as well as a good number of waders and wildfowl species on the shore and the sea.


There are a number of species you’d expect to see, though being real life nothing is guaranteed on the day and a bird you may have seen every day on the preceding week might be nowhere to be seen on that particular day. Once you reach a certain number it starts to get difficult to get new species especially as the light begins to fade in the late afternoon. I remember in a past Bird Race our team driving around the beach at the Bull Island in the dark trying to see sanderling feeding at the tide edge, lit up by the car’s headlights.
 
 
Kestrel hovering over Killiney Hill
another bird the team missed on the day?


  Getting in to the top three winning teams might depend on knowing where you might see a short eared owl (probably on cereal farmland in the north of the county) or a water rail but what causes most frustration is not seeing a relatively common species like tree creeper or kestrel. On the morning of this year’s Race any guilt I had about not taking part was dispelled when I awoke by the sound of heavy rain drumming down on the roof. Abitterly cold wind was blowing as well. I’d told some friends who’d formed a team that if they were in the vicinity they could call round if they hadn’t already seen some of the garden bird species that I might have coming to my feeders. It’s perfectly fair to go to gardens though of course the zoo is out. When I got a call from them they were all feeling the effects of the cold and wet but despite the harsh conditions they were still in high spirits and they’d already spotted some good birds including raven and peregrine and at Dun Laoghaire harbour had got black redstart and a red necked grebe both relatively uncommon winter visitors. We’d seen a blackcap feeding on berries opposite our kitchen window earlier and thankfully when the team did call the blackcap reappeared in full view.
   The garden also provided them with bullfinch for their count and a dunnock, one of those very common but often difficult to see species. Our dunnock is usually a ground feeder but has now figured out how to feed from one of the sunflower feeders and it was while perched on it that the team were able to add him to the list. Then they were back on the road and at the end of the day had notched up a impressive final score of 83.5. The .5, or half point, is what you get when you hear but don’t see a bird, in this case that elusive water rail which though often unseen has a very distinct squeal-like call often compared to the sound a pig makes. Although they did well, considering the unfavourable weather conditions, the winning team had seen 101 species, a fantastic tally.


Jay on Killiney Hill
also missed by the team on
the day of the National Bird Hunt
Photos: M. Ryan  
 
  It’s interesting to note that this year probably most of the teams would have seen species of birds that wouldn’t have been seen anywhere in the country when the race first began two decades ago such as buzzard and little egret and when the Wicklow Bird Race takes place next month there’s every chance someone might see a Great Spotted Woodpecker another previously unknown species that has naturally expanded its breeding range to include Ireland. We were up in the Killiney Hill woods later that day and were lucky enough to see another species our friend’s team hadn’t managed to get on the day, the jay. We hadn’t seen any jays for weeks and now a group of four jays were moving through the trees. We followed them till we saw one perch. If we hadn’t seen him land we’d never have noticed him, silent and motionless almost blending into the tree trunk. If we’d been looking for one we probably wouldn’t have found it!

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