Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Starlings: birds for all seasons

I was down at the coast last weekend and heard the clear mewing call of a Buzzard, or more likely, what sounded like a Buzzard..

A quick check of a nearby TV aerial, and there was the imposter: a juvenile Starling amongst a flock of youngsters, ever busy and giving off a mischevious air.  They remind me of a teeneagers out for an afternoon: only happy with their own kind, no adults in sight, lots of noise and chatter and always on the move.  I suppose if they were really like teenagers they would  sleep late and frequently require lifts.. but we wont go there!

Juvenile Starling: Plumage is subtle by adult standards (c.OOS)

The juvenile Starlings are quite subtle in plumage, compared to the showy, sparkling adults, who themselves sport two outfits a year.. Early season juveniles have a a plain sandy olive appearance , with pale creamy chin .

The juveniles in autumn begin to take on an adult appearance, their drab cloak reduced to a plain looking neck-warmer with the winter adults spotty body plumage beneath.  Flocks get bigger at this time too, particularly at evening roosts: look out for them in hedgerows: they are adept at stripping ripe black Elder berries or Blackberries from the trees; they're just a few weeks off ripening now.

Motley Crew: autumn juvs and winter adults (c. Shay Connolly)

Adults in winter are striking, particularly if seen in good light when the iridescent plumage is sprayed by pale chevrons sprinkled over dark base feathers.  These chevrons remain until the spring when they are gradually worn off but the bill then takes on a deep yellow colouration.

Sparkling winter adult (c. Shay Connolly)

There's also the winter murmurations to look forward to, the massive swirling waves of birds massing pre-roost.  Numbers are swollen at this time because we normally receive quite a large immigration of Starlings for the winter months with birds arriving from as far away as Russia.  These often arrive by day, the East Coast is the place to spot the Starlings, making steady progress, flying low and direct over the sea, to make landfall and immediately replenishing spent energy by feeding in coastal pastures.. 

Breeding plumage: less spots, pale bill (c. Shay Connolly)
Truly a remarkable species, I'm not surprised they mimic at all: they seem like the kind of bird that would have a good sense of humour!

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Off with their heads?

Pale pink Scabious in full flower (Knautia sp.), with cat mint (Nepata)

The great garden writer and plants woman, Helen Dillon, is the author of one of my favourite gardening books.  No great surprise there, except that the book is a bog standard black and white paperback, devoid of any illustration , except for a few basic vignettes at the end of chapters, it relies solely on the written word to enthuse the reader, unusual enough for the genre, but it doesn't fail.  The book is titled ' Helen Dillon on Gardening' and is based on weekly articles from the newspaper, The Sunday Tribune, 1992-1995, and was published as a collection in 1998 by Town House, Dublin.  

It is laid out in chronological order, so is ideal for dipping into, bedside perhaps, to check your progress through the months and seasons.  August 1993, brings a short but typical, straight talking serving: 'So its off with their Heads', more aimed at firing out an under performer, than merely pruning back plants that have flowered and then set seed.  Of course the latter action is widely recommended to prolong a show of fresh colour in traditional gardening circles.

Greenfinch enjoys feeding on the same Scabious plant, now gone to seed (c.OOS)

As a wildlife gardener I am happy to substitute extended flowering periods for bright birds, attracted to the 'duller' seed heads.. A win win situation!  

So Greenfinches to the fore again, what a great bird species..champions of the perennial in seed, not just a peanut nibbler.. they were joined on the Scabious (Knautia sp.) by a  Bullfinch, but the latter sloped away before the camera was in position.. shrinking violets and all that!

Thursday, 4 July 2013

A Woody tale

Ray O'Hanlon, a birding accomplice from the distant past ( late 1960s/1970s), was in touch recently from New York where he now lives and works. His letter brought back a stream of memories from the days of black and white TVs, cine cameras and the IWC, Dublin central branch, meeting once a month in the then Carrolls Theatre on Grand Canal Parade. 

He is missing the old sod: far away fields appear greener and all that.  It was great to get his perspective on the Irish birding scene, then and now and his thoughts on Woodpeckers.

I have reproduced his letter in full, it will surely appeal to all those who joined the cause back in the 70s, on the back of the old IWC (BirdWatch Ireland) talks and outings, spurred on by the clever animations of Amuigh Faoin Speir on our fledgling TV station.

Juvenile Great Spotted Woodpecker, Wicklow ( Dick Coombes)

Diary of an ornithological exile

 Ray O'Hanlon

      I remember it like it was yesterday. Actually better because life these days in New York is, as you can imagine, a little on the mad side, so yesterday slips fast into the hazy wake.

      1968 was rather less mad, especially if you were a 12-year-old kid living in the still calm and quiet suburbs of South County Dublin.

      It is a morning in May. Very early, just about dawn. I slip out of bed, quietly so as not to disturb sleeping parents and siblings. For the very first time I am going bird watching at dawn.

      The expedition doesn't require much as its limit is the back garden with its hedges, evergreen trees at the far end and ranks of Sweet Williams in my dad's fussed over flower beds.

      And what wonders are to be found in this familiar piece of walled-in sod. The dawn chorus is going full belt and the place is alive with flapping wings and darting colours. And it being the late 1960s, absolutely nobody else is up. Ireland used to get its eight hours then, and then some.

      I am clutching a copy of "The Observer's Book of Birds." It is a volume of wonders and endless promise, from the frame showing Passer Domesticus to the Hoopoe, to which I have already extended an open-ended invitation to visit my little sanctuary.

      And sure what bird wouldn't want to be in this place, the very center of the known universe? My known bit at any rate.

      I am, of course, standing in a time long before the power to observe just about everything down a thread-thin wire. Books were reliable windows to the world and "Observer's" was my wide open one that morning, and subsequent mornings when I wandered in ever widening circles in search of the conspicuously common, and relatively rare.

      One thing I quickly understood about bird watching is that you could easily end up seeing what you weren't in fact watching. The imagination could run riot, especially in the early morning half light.

      I still lacked binoculars, so that brown blob twenty yards away was a Corn Bunting, even if the Observer's, and common sense, said otherwise. And wasn't that Sparrowhawk a little on the large size. An eagle perhaps, lost and looking for the way back to Scotland.

      "The Observer's Book of Birds" was, of course, a British publication, though Ireland did get mentions throughout its alternately colour and black and white pages.

      So what was available to me as a budding Irish birder was wondrous indeed; what were even better were those birds that didn't make their home in our back garden, or Ireland in its then vast entirety.

      No Woodpeckers then. Ah Jaysus!

      And there were a few more absentees, not least the aforementioned Hoopoe. That didn't shut down the imagination though and forays to the local golf course would always require sharp ears as well as eyes just in case a Green or Greater Spotted Woodpecker had hitched a ride from Holyhead, a place which, after all, was closer than Galway.

      Hoopoes being exotic and far away I could understand. But why Woodpeckers? The Observer's waxed poetic over the Green Woodpecker and stated it could be seen in woods, parks and gardens and in trees "everywhere."

      But that was everywhere over there, not here.

      In the years that followed, I became firmly attached to my new hobby, joined the Irish Wildbird Conservancy and learned, grudgingly, to accept the absence of Woodpeckers from Ireland in general, and our back garden in particular.

      Fast forward 45 years. I am sitting in my new back garden, or "yard" as the natives call it. It's early on a weekend morning and I'm gazing at a tall and very dead tree in the next door neighour's.

      Dead trees are drive-through eateries for Woodpeckers and in my new universe, about an hour north of New York City and overlooking that avian interstate, the Hudson River, I am thinking back to that morning in 1968 when feathered songsters were only rivaled by the Beatles letting loose with "Lady Madonna."

      It's high summer and the trees are fully leafed out. So Woodpeckers can come and go with relative privacy, only not on the great dead Maple with its peeling bark. Downy, Hairy and Red-Bellied Woodpeckers are up, down and across the blighted arbor as are their Nuthatch cousins. Even a Flicker, a Woodpecker that more often feeds at ground level, has been dropping by.

      And there's always the chance of that local king of bark peckers (no, not Woody) the Pileated Woodpecker, a species that can grow to the size of a crow - and may a few years back have set in motion that great hunt for the most likely (and sadly) extinct Ivory Billed Woodpecker in the swamps of the American Southeast.

      Woodpeckers then, once imagined, and now so frequently seen, are a particular favourite of mine. They are agile, industrious and seem especially aware of their world.

      So you can imagine my joy when, over the last couple of years, I have been reading of increased sightings of Great Spotted Woodpeckers in Ireland, and the likelihood that there is now a viable breeding population as close to the old homestead as County Wicklow.

      That house and garden of so long ago is still in the family and peanut feeders dangle from the mature apple trees at the garden's end. All in the house are under instruction to keep an eye out for possible Woodpecker sightings, especially in winter.

      Nothing as yet. But perhaps the Great Spotteds, which look like Eurasian versions of the Hairy, are holding back, waiting for a visit from yours truly, an ornithological exile living just over the wall, and three thousand miles away, in Picidae Central.

      I wouldn't put it past them.

      Ray O'Hanlon is a journalist, author, and member emeritus of the IWC.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

New Broods

After a late and often faltering spring, its great to see young birds around the garden feeders and,naturally, around the perennial plants.  We have plenty of bee and butterfly activity around the latter.

The peanut feeder is maintained full or nearly so, all summer, to catch the passing woodpeckers that are within a few hundred meters of the garden.. but so far, no closer!  However we had a family party of  7 Great Tits, some of the young feeding themselves, but others holding back in the Willow tree and fed morsels by the attentive adult. 

 Blue Tits are showing similar behaviour but noisy Greenfinches are less shy: 3 or 4 compete for space on the feeder, young and adults and lots of threat displays are employed to gain possession of the feeder. 

The Greenfinches are great foragers in the hardy geraniums,(Cranesbill), seeking out the seeds after the showy flowering season.  As garden plants go, they are great weed suppressors, have brilliant showy flowers over a long season and also provide food for bees and birds with pollen and seed.