Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Waxwings brighten winter days


c. Shay Connolly




With extremely cold weather on the Continent of Europe, and increasing pressure on food supplies, its no surprise really that an irruptive species like the Waxwing has made it to our shores this winter.


Their favourite food supply is the berries of the Rowan, a common tree species in Fenno-Scandinavia.  If the berry crop fails or, as in this case, is exhausted, the birds.irrupt out of their home territory. 

Arriving in the east of the UK in recent weeks, the birds will quickly locate and strip berry supplies.  They are more likely to be in urban or suburban areas, as here there are many ornamental tree and shrubs, some still with berries.  These berries last through the winter season for more than one reason: firstly they are less palatable to birds and secondly, their are probably fewer birds around urban parks in the autumn , when the rural Rowan crop is stripped by young Blackbirds and the like.

c. Shay Connolly



Ornamental Rowans ,such as the cultivors  Sorbus Joseph Rock and Sorbus vilmorinii are specifically grown to delight gardeners with their showy berry crop, in shades of white, orange and pale pink, rather than attract birds who will strip the native red berries at the first opportunity.  Come late winter though, with fresh arrivals of birds from the north, all bets are off and berries are ruthlessly hounded out by Waxwings and winter thrushes.  

c. Shay Connolly

Looking at the most recent run of records, Lucan in County Dublin has up to 120 Waxwings and smaller flocks have been reported from Belfast and further west with records from Monaghan,  Donegal and Sligo.  They are well worth looking out for, Starling like in silhouette and prone to hanging about telegraph wires when not actually feeding on Cotoneaster or Sorbus

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Blue Tits bottom out..

Hanging in there! (c.OOS)

Whilst the Coal Tit numbers continue to rise exponentially in the garden, well into double figures on view at any one time.  Typically this may be five on the ground, mopping up, six clinging to the circular feeder and another half dozen queing in the willlow tree.. hard to keep the feeders topped up but its not as rosy for at least one of their cousins:  Blue Tits are much fewer in numbers, so far this winter.   The most I have seen in one viewing is four Blue Tits, normally I might expect twice that number.  

Early winter numbers will reflect how the species fared coming out of the previous summer / breeding season. The BTO have just published findings from its 2016 ongoing studies and surveys in the UK: They reckon that brood sizes were smaller, due to poor spring weather.  The critical period is of course when birds are hatched and near fledging: this 14 day period in early June if wet and cold, results in casualties in fledged birds through reduced feeding opportunities.

In summary: BTO report that following the worst ever breeding season on record for Blue Tits in 2016, the numbers of this species using gardens during November 2016 was the lowest since 2003.

That Coal Tits had a different out turn in 2016 is not discussed by BTO in this media release, however I suspect a difference in laying and hatching dates might have ensured a completely different outcome for the smaller Coal Tit, and they have less winter feeding competition from Blue Tits, if there are fewer out there.

Of course Blue Tits are at the common end of the garden spectrum, present in the majority of gardens.  They are well capable of bouncing back, but will need a decent breeding season in 2017 to get back the losses of 2016.

c. (oos)

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Coal Tits in a Queue..

Two Coal Tits await landing space on the seed feeder (c.OOS)

There is a really decent procession of birds to the feeders: we are providing Peanuts, a seed mix with sunflower hearts added and a square of fat/nut mix.

After two weeks of the garden bird survey, we are seeing great numbers of Coal Tits, up to seven on view at any one time!  The other tits are not far behind  and other good showings include Chaffinches, nearly 20.

Gt Spot Pecker, gets stuck in! (c.OOS)
Best of all, after an absence all autumn, the local Great Spotted Woodpecker weighs in daily, a female, joined just this weekend by a second bird, a male: a much brighter bird with red nape and much cleaner underparts.  Both birds seem a little more relaxed towards our in house movements than heretofore,  and spend a bit more time on the peanut feeder, though the female does insist on zero tolerance and/or sharing the feeder with members of the tit family: reaching out its drill like bill towards any bold approaches to the feeder when it is in occupation.


Look, no Coal Tits! (c.OO'S)

Seed, Fat or Peanuts? Spoilt for choice! (c.OO'S)

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

News from the Garden Bird Survey

Greenfinch (Shay Connolly)

You might have noticed that activity around the feeders is stepping up somewhat: colder nights and shortening days mean more and more birds are including the feeders as part of their daily routine, if not survival plan.

The results from last winters Survey have just been published in Wings magazine, ahead of this winter's survey which is still a month away.

Greenfinches are back in the top ten, at ninth, showing a slight recovery, perhaps from the pervasive Trichomonosis disease that hit their numbers over the last decade.
Siskin drops in, end of season. (Shay Connolly)

You will have noticed no doubt that Goldfinches are swelling their ranks, at eighth, occurring in 86% of our gardens. Siskins were welcomed back, after a really poor showing the previous winter, they dropped by at the tail end of the winter, in February 2016, to nearly 60% of gardens.

With all these positive finch stories, no surprise then that the stand out garden predator, the Sparrowhawk, was present and attending the vicinity of the feeders in over 40% of gardens.  This is a very high position for this species and is a good indication of the balancing act that goes on in bird populations and the dynamic relationship between predator and prey.  


Juvenile Sparrowhawk (Shay Connolly)

So, we have a little over a month to get our garden birds primed and ready for this winters survey, I have a couple of  Pied Wagtails, Meadow Pipits and Linnets visiting right now, I hope they are still around when the form filling begins!

Monday, 10 October 2016

Meadow Pipits move in

Meadow Pipit  (c. Shay Connolly)

Autumn migration, inland, never really reaches the dizzy heights of the coast, its headlands and islands. October here opens with a steady stream of Meadow Pipits, moving over recently stubbled fields, in small groups, their thin 'tseep- tseep' calls and weak flight as subtle as their brown plumage: Not exactly a straight swap over the same fields for departing Swallows, a bit subtle themselves this year, with no obvious pre-migration gatherings.

 However the pipits are both long and short distance migrants to us. These birds may be just moving to lower altitude for the winter,from higher ground in county Wicklow, like the Linnet flock which is also building.  


Meadow Pipit (c. Liam Kane)
With counts of over 1,000 a day recorded at migration stations such as Cape Clear, the movement there is thought to be more long distance, birds migrating to us or just passing through from Iceland and Scandinavia, moving as far south as North Africa to spend the winter.

One of my favourite October migrants is the Goldcrest, spotted on the coast or in the home garden, they are often heard calling from cover as they feed incessantly. This bird was spotted sitting up, perky enough on the doormat: most likely it was recovering from a collision with the patio door, it flew off into the sycamores as I approached it, seemingly none the worst for wear. I was happy to put it to flight before a cat discovered it on the ground.   


Goldcrest (c.OOS)





Monday, 12 September 2016

September song

Robin in song (c. Liam Kane)


I have discovered a new alarm clock: pleasant on the ear and reliable to go off each morning, currently at about 6.00 am.

The Robin is one of the few birds that sings nearly all year round. We have just come out of the moult period when even Robins have to remain silent and inconspicuous.  This is in order to avoid detection when they might be flightless or partially so, and thus vulnerable.


A juvenile Robin: now all moulted into adult plumage (c. Liam Kane)


Because Robins hold winter territories, they resume song in Autumn. Both sexes sing, though audible, they usually remain in cover while singing to lessen the threat from passing predators.

The song at this time of the year is different from the early spring version: more melancholy and understated, aimed at forming and holding a territory as distinct from attracting a mate.  Both sexes sing but in spring it is the male that delivers the strongest performance.

 Because Robins can sing and forage in very low light conditions, they are usually last to finish and first up in the morning, and if there is an artificial light source, will sometimes sing through the night. 



C. (Liam Kane)



Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Leaving it Late



Here on the east coast, if you miss the early spring rush of Cuckoos on migration, well you may have to wait til end of season.  So it was for me this year, but I did get lucky just in time.  The Wicklow coast can often produce a late adult or an even later juvenile bird, tempted to remain with us if the weather is warm and their favourite prey is in evidence.

The adults are most evident in late April when calling birds attract all kinds of attention, from small birds and diligent countryside watchers.  Because they get their breeding business done relatively early, that is, lay the eggs but pass on the raising fledglings bit, they are free to depart for Africa in mid-summer.


In Ireland they typically use a Meadow Pipits nest to drop their egg in and move on around their chosen territories, repeating the act and trusting the unfortunate Pipit to raise and foster the soon gigantic young Cuckoo.  By late July it is only the successful juveniles that are to be seen: Remarkably , these young birds must acquire or inherit  information that that will first guide them south into Africa and return in spring with the knowledge of what to lay and what host to seek, always ensuring their egg matches the colour of the hosts.

The diet of Cuckoos is  highly specialised, mainly composed of  Caterpillars and often the hairy or more toxic ones.  So no wonder really that a bird that depends on the fortunes of its host species and also has a specialist protein diet that is in decline, mainly due to intensification of the landscape over the last half century, struggles to show off its iconic spring status in numbers.



The bird that appeared on the railway line at Newcastle was a very dark juvenile, quite confiding as it had found a decent food supply in the unkempt meadows and dune slacks on the fringes of thetracks.  This is traditionally a very warm and dry strip, well known for basking lizards and lots of butterflies and Burnet Moths, so a temporary sort of home for a young Cuckoo, making its way south.


This wonderful set of photographs of the juvenile Cuckoo were taken by c. Shay Connolly,