Wildlife Newsletter for the Township of Dalkey
December / January 2015 / 2016 - Michael Ryan
We had a very enjoyable break in Lisbon at the beginning of November. It seems to be a very popular city break destination and when I mentioned at the office where I was going it turned out that at least four other people from my workplace had been during the course of the year with everyone speaking very highly of it. I had thought it would have been reasonably quiet in November but if it was quiet then I’d hate to be there when it’s busy, the city and surrounding areas was bustling with tourists enjoying the very pleasant weather and beautiful streets and buildings. But it wasn’t just tourists that had arrived there. The Tagus river that flows through Lisbon and the lands that surround the banks of the river are of world importance for huge flocks of waders and wildfowl that fly south to spend the winter there from breeding grounds in the Arctic circle and northern Europe. Enormous glamorous cruise ships were docked by the river but a few hundred yards away at the water’s edge Turnstones and Sanderling were feeding among the seaweed and rocks.But it was in one of the most popular tourist destinations, the São Jorge Castle with it’s commanding views over the city that we saw our first new bird of the trip, a Firecrest, flitting among the trees. Ireland’s smallest bird, weighing just 6.5 grammes is the Goldcrest but in a lot of Europe their place is taken by these firecrests, similar in size but the male firecrest has a bright red crown and the bird is generally brighter then our little goldcrests with its olive green plumage. Near our hotel was a park and walking through it we saw our first Short-toed Treecreeper. Almost identical to our own Common Treecreeper you certainly couldn’t tell them apart from a quick glance at their feet but we knew for sure what it was by the geographical distribution of the bird, basically you don’t get common tree creepers here but you do get the short-toed species.
There semed to be lots of Jays in the park and they were easily seen as well, unlike our shy and secretive Irish jays (the Irish jay although the same species is a different race to other European jays). The symbol of Lisbon is a sailing ship and two ravens (apparently two ravines guarded the body of the patron saint of Lisbon, St. Vincent of Saragossa after he died then, centuries later, when his body was exhumed by the then reigning king and taken to Lisbon it was said two ravens accompanied the ship that carried his remains) and this appears all over the city as mosaics, on police officer’s badges and as brass designs on top of lamp posts. We saw one of the park’s jays fly on to a lamp post, perch on the ship image and take a drink of rainwater from the ‘crows nest’ of the ship. London and Amsterdam and probably many more European city parks are now host to substantial populations of introduced parakeets which can be a problem through occupying nest sites that would have been taken by native birds.
As well as having the more numerous Rose-ringed Parakeet, Lisbon also has Blue-crowned Parakeet and Monk Parakeet all now breeding in the city. Like many other popular city destinations Lisbon now has a tour company which takes people out birdwatching for half or full day tours and we’d booked for a half day tour of the Tagus Estuary. Our very pleasant and knowledgeable guide picked us up at the hotel and drove us across the very impressive 17 kilometer bridge to the farther bank. At various stops along farm tracks we saw Green Sandpiper, Wood Sandpiper, Kingfisher, Lapwing and our best ever views of Snipe. We saw Night Heron and Squacco Heron as well as Little, Greater and Cattle Egret, the latter perched on cow’s backs the same as they would perch on buffalo in Africa.
We drove along roads between rice fields and saw Black Winged Stilt and flocks of Flamingos. Our guide and driver Pedro was turning the car around when he realised the recent rain had softened the ground and the car was sinking into the mud. He thought the best way out was to drive ahead and swing around but within minutes the car had stuck and wasn’t going anywhere. He was very embarrassed and apologetic and offered to call a taxi for us but we didn’t mind in the least and were very happy to hang around. It was warm and sunny and we could wander among the cork oak trees while he rang the Portuguese equivalent of the AA. We saw Tree Sparrows and a Black Redstart while he went to the nearest farmhouse and it wasn’t long before he returned with the breakdown man and the farmer driving a tractor behind them and they soon had the car back on the road. It turned out the breakdown assistance man was the nephew of the farmer’s wife and they were both delighted to see each other.
Our last stop was on the sandy shore of the Tagus River with Lisbon on the far bank shimmering in the sunshine. Flocks of waders fed among the retreating waters, Spoonbills and Avocets scything their bills across the water surface as they marched in little flocks alongside big flocks of ducks and cormorants. A colourfully painted fishing boat resting on the sand nearby was filled by resting turnstones and the whole scene was very peaceful and relaxing, a fitting way to end our outing. A couple of days later as we waited to catch the coach to the airport Lucy spotted yet another jay flying over the park, a fitting last bird for our break.
We spent a happy ninety minutes in the woods of Dalkey Hill in autumn, following a red squirrel which we’d originally seen in a Scots Pine but which then made its way on to an oak where it began to eat the fungus growing on the trunk. Fungus and lichen is a very valuable source of protein for them and it is said that a wet autumn is beneficial to squirrels since it encourages fungal growth on the trees. This particular red didn’t have any ear tags which meant it was probably born this year and hadn’t yet been trapped and recorded by the researchers which added to the pleasure of watching it. I don’t know if it was because it was young and lacking caution but it seemed to be holding on very precariously at times, often hanging upside down underneath the branch by its hind legs as it held the fungus between its front paws. Of course squirrels are built for this, very light with long nails perfect for gripping and a long bushy tail to help them balance.
We heard later that a untagged red had been trapped, recorded and eartagged so I suspect that was the little acrobat we’d seen. Taking the dog for a walk down Knocknacree Road on a quiet Saturday morning when I saw a squirrel bouncing across the road ahead of me I presumed it was a grey. Grey squirrels do develop brown fur on their coats but this one looked redddish enough to merit a second glance and when I stopped at the gate of the garden it had ran into I was delighted to see it was indeed a red. It scampered up a sycamore tree and glared at me while twitching its tail. I know reds are now recorded regularly outside the park land but it certainly made my day.