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Wildlife Newsletter for the Township of Dalkey
June 2015 - Michael Ryan
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Dalkey Raven
Photo: M.Ryan

 
  It’s twenty years since the Dalkey Tern Project began in 1995 which means it’s also twenty years since the longest, warmest summer that many people ever knew. If I recall correctly the spring of 1995 was cold and wet and held little promise for the long days to come but eventually the sun arrived and when it came it stayed. For months. The country sizzled in the heat and with weeks of endless clear blue skies and warm windless nights it seemed as if the whole country had moved a little closer to the Mediterranean. There were 35 days of consecutive warmer-than-average high temperatures from July 24th to August 27th. Kilkenny recorded the highest temperature of the year at 30.8ºC. The east coast had less than half the average rainfall and the odd downpour had little effect on the browning vegetation.
  We spent many an evening in the car park of what was then the Dalkey Island Hotel where we had a telescope set up to monitor the terns on the rock and to show the birds to any passing member of the public who might be interested. It was lovely to hear the birds’ calls drifting across the motionless water but on many of those evenings our watch was accompanied by an acrid smell in the air. Because the silver lining of those long sunny rainless days had a dark cloud which was literally dark clouds, smoke from burning gorse and vegetation.
  All over Wicklow and the Dublin Mountains fires burnt, sometimes for weeks on end, as the tinder dry soil itself simmered beneath the ground’s surface. Virtually all the vegetation was burnt off the slopes of the Sugar Loaf right down to bare rock in places and the smoke from gorse fires on Howth hill drifted all the way across the bay. Dalkey and Killiney hills didn’t escape with the worst fires in decades destroying acres of habitat and incinerating vegetation, nests and insects. Fires broke out in the banks below the Vico Rd and beside the Dart line. Fires are a regular occurrence with gorse, whose dry foliage makes them very incendiary but whereas normally the flames would sweep through the gorse, heathers and other vegetation. However, the fires of 1995 simmered under the ground’s surface sometimes flaring up and burning through the soil and the roots of the plants. In previous fires trees might have escaped with some burning of the trunks but the ‘95 fires destroyed many old mature trees on Killiney hill. There had been two Douglas Firs which had grown to tower above the rest of the trees and may have been two of the tallest trees in the parkland until a smouldering fire whipped up by the wind burnt through the roots of one causing it to collapse. The skeletal remains of its mighty trunk still lie against the hill where it fell.
    Already this year there have been very bad fires at Glencree in Wicklow and around
Muckross House in Killarney suspected, though unproven, to be caused by individuals
burning off undergrowth to promote new growth for grazing sheep. The timing of the fires
couldn’t have been worse for ground nesting birds. The north end of Glencree has for years been one of the few constantly reliable spots to hear a cuckoo calling in the spring and that’s because the area has had lots of breeding Meadow Pipits, the host bird whose nest cuckoos will lay their own egg in. Meadow pipits are ground nesting and very susceptible to fires so if they are in decline in the area that might have a knock on effect on the cuckoos,
birds whose own numbers have been dropping for a long time. 
   It had been a unusually dry spring this year up till the May Bank Holiday weekend’s heavy rainfall, even the pools in the lower level of Dalkey quarry were bone dry but after over 24 hours of rain by the following
Monday they were full to the brim again, hopefully attracting the dragonflies that have been a very welcome addition to the area in the last few years.

Dalkey Blackbird
Photo: M.Ryan

  The Sunday of that weekend happened to be International Dawn Chorus Day and Derek Mooney hosted a midnight to dawn series of programmes on the radio with broadcasters at different locations around the country. One of the locations was a live broadcast from the Presidential residence, Áras An Uachtaráin where a group of people from Birdwatch branches would attend and I considered myself very lucky when I found I was had been invited to the event as a past Branch member . An early morning walk in the grounds followed by breakfast in the house itself was very appealing. The previous day before the event it had rained relentlessly from dawn to dusk but the forecast had said it would clear up before the following morning. It didn’t, it was raining as heavy as ever at the unholy hour of 2.00am. As we drove in through sheets of rain we listened to Mooney’s show and the Dawn Chorus had already begun in Cork with many birds singing there where the weather was much kinder.
  When we reached the President’s residence at 4.00am there wasn’t any sign of the rain easing off. Through the gloom the grounds looked lovely, rows of mature trees and an ornate walled garden of clipped box hedge. The trees with heavy foliage soon attracted a huddle of sheltering bird people under them. The birds were very slow to start singing though, possibly the rain laden clouds delaying the morning light so while a marsh in Cork resounded to a symphony of bird song, in the Phoenix Park all we could hear was a solitary robin and the sound of raindrops drumming off soaking clothes. But around five a.m. a blackbird began to sing and, as if in competition, another one began almost instantly. Soon the grove of conifers opposite the President’s residence was a glorious chorus of singing blackbirds. You’ve probably noticed blackbirds singing joyously during showers, maybe it makes the ground softer to pull worms out and therefore it makes it more important to proclaim their territory but, whatever the reason, it’s a lovely sound. I’m always a bit sad when we reach the longest day of the year as summer will have peaked but even before then the blackbirds will have stopped singing, taking on parental duties and falling silent till another cycle of seasons has passed and the first blackbird song of the year will begin again next year on a cold winter morning. After a very welcome breakfast in the President’s house, served by cheerful staff who had also arrived at an unearthly hour, we left, soaked wet and a little bit weary, to make our way back to the car park. As we set off through the park the clouds cleared, the sun appeared and soon steam was rising off the warming vegetation. Typical!


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