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Sing off at 05.30

Male Blackbird (c. Oran O’Sullivan)

 With sunrise officially at about 06.10 at the moment, there’s a great opportunity to witness the dawn chorus, at a reasonable hour (from about 05.30). Leave it for another month and you are talking 04.30 or earlier!

 It’s not really dark at 05.30, though its much colder than you might expect. You can of course enjoy the chorus from the comfort of your bed and open a window to increase the volume, or get up and brew a hot tea or coffee.  Right now, the chorus begins with the lazy and gentle trickling song of a Robin, delivered without hurry, perhaps from the cover of a prominent shrub or tree.

Robin (c.Liam Kane)

 Next up, its often the Blackbird, its song has a lovely fluty tone, richer than a Robins and a little more lively, though  not in a hurry at all .  The serenity, sense of control and melodic rich notes make it my personal favourite song bird: no wonder The Beatles then, when writing a song about race relations in 1960s America, incorporated actual birdsong into the eponymous, Blackbird, from the White Album.

The Song Thrushes have started up, no chance of falling back to sleep now with the contrasting, rich and urgent sounding song,  one in which phrases of the song are repeated twice or three times in quick succession. 

New singers from the same species are joining in and the echo of  singing Blackbirds and Robins, map out audible territories: the chorus is building!

The concept of territory goes a long way towards explaining why birds sing.  Male birds sing to warn other males to keep out of their territory and the song is also an advertisement to attract a passing female.  Birds require a territory in order to have enough space and feeding opportunities to build a nest and raise young.

Song Thrush collecting food for young. (c.Oran O’Sullivan)

The cool air and lack of noise around dawn means that bird song travels further. Also, while it is still dark, or only barely light, it is not bright enough to search for food. An hour or so after the chorus takes hold, it can go surprisingly quiet, as if somebody switched off the music: this is because the early morning songsters must get an early feed and break their fast.. they’ve earned it!

 

 

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First Swallows, make a Summer!

When does the bird hide open? (c.OOS)

How great it is to see and hear the first Swallows of the season.. I’ve noticed them around the village for the last few days,  but also now over the garden:  That soft twittering is reassuring, suggestive of running water, soothing and vital.  Their arrival confirmation of what we know is an unrelenting march towards longer, warmer days, though there may be setbacks along the way.

Wires are convenient look outs and advertising pitch for singing birds (c.OOS)

For a bird that has recently arrived from Africa, they still practice glides and meandering flight as if flying for fun, celebrating.  They have a long association with humans and human endeavour, living out the summer months in barns and sheds, in fact their choice of man made locations is sometimes surprising.  They are regular nesters in bird hides, taking this nature reserve thing very seriously, the tool shed is also a cornucopia of nesting opportunities.  But plenty of time for all that , though in a good year they rear up to three broods, often necessary to bolster potential losses on what is a hazardous return journey south, in just five or six months time.

For now they are content to hunt for aerial insects, over land and water, from a few feet up to 500 feet or more.  The existence of pastoral or agricultural activity is symbiotic for Swallows, as they hoover up flies and aphids, they make our sunny summer excursions into the countryside much more tolerable.

Nest and five eggs inside a hard hat in the tool shed. (c.OOS)

 

A typical nest located in a corner of a bird hide     ( viewing windows left open all season!) (c.OOS)

 

                 

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Sparrows, no butts please..

We know for quite a while now that smoking damages your health, in fact it kills.

Birds such as sparrows and crows are long known to smoke bathe over chimney pots, in an effort to reduce feather parasites.

However, Scientists in Mexico City have discovered that levels of genetic damage results in city birds caused by toxic chemicals from cigarette butts used in nest-building.                      

In a paper published in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution on February 3, lead researcher Monserrat Suarez-Rodriguez reported on studies carried out on two common songbird species found in Mexico City and throughout North America: the house finch and house sparrow.

Blood samples taken during and after nest-building, brooding, and rearing of chicks revealed that the female finches showed more genetic damage than the male finches, and amount of damage increased with the number of unravelled butt filters used in the nest. Both sexes of sparrows, though, showed comparable levels of genetic damage.

Conversely, research carried out several years ago demonstrated that the usage in nest-building of contaminated cotton fibres from cigarette filters had a positive effect in repelling potentially harmful blood-sucking nest parasites such as lice, fleas, mites, and ticks.

Chemicals used in pesticides and present in the filters, such as arsenic and nicotine, were thought to be responsible, as well as other toxic substances such as “ethylphenol, heavy metals (e.g., titanium dioxide), propylene glycol, diverse insecticides, and even cyanide”.

What is not yet known yet is the ultimate breeding costs to urban birds because of the genetic damage caused by the use of anthropogenic (originating as a result of human activity) nesting materials, and whether or not that cost, if any, outweighs the parasite-repellent effect of the cigarette butts.

Suffice to say, the practice of discarding the remains or butt of the cigarette represents a straightforward act of littering and should not be tolerated.. for birds and man.

 

 

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First Spring Migrants

We had a light dusting of snow last night, and just 2 degrees this morning, but already there are reports of spring migrants arriving in Ireland.

Chiff Chaff: a restless olive and cream bundle, (pic Michael Finn)

We heard a Chiff Chaff delivering its pleasing if not monotonous disyllabic song, on 16th March, perhaps a few days early for us.

They are the first of the warblers to arrive, indeed a few even winter around the coast. They are incredibly similar in appearance to the Willow Warbler. This is a classic example where a little knowledge of bird song greatly simplifies separating the two species, rather than relying on identification by appearance. The Willow Warbler, not due with us until April, will announce its presence with a contrasting and very pleasant descending cadence, as soft as a summer shower. They are the commonest warbler in Ireland, on arrival, rough and scrubby patches of woodland will echo with Willow Warbler songs producing an impromptu concert.

Black legs are diagnostic on Chiff Chaff ( Willow Warblers are brown). (pic Michael Finn)

Other migrants seen in March include Sand Martins, seen even earlier in the month, but they are traditionally the earliest migrant to arrive from Africa. Its more a trickle at the moment, rather than a rush of migrants, that wont be until April when the variety and quantity begins to mount up. That said, despite the current cold conditions, the sounds of spring are with us, and the welcome is out for the promise to come!

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After the Garden Bird Survey, the Audit..

Great Spotted Woodpecker: a regular visitor (Oran O’Sullivan)

It’s been an interesting 13 week garden bird survey, December to February, as always. 
In a mild winter you don’t expect to be mobbed with birds, numbers or variety, but there were a few highlights and noticeable troughs as well.
The top most species in our garden, in terms of abundance were Chaffinch and Coal Tit: both hitting 20 birds or more on a number of weeks.  Blue Tits, in contrast, peaked at six birds and virtually all other finch species were thin on the ground.

 

Sparrowhawk (Liam Kane)

At the scarce end, Sparrowhawk was a remarkable absentee, present in the garden on only one occasion, in contrast to Buzzards and Red Kites which regularly patrol the extended garden area, particularly the latter species.

The BTO has recently commented on the current status of the Sparrowhawk: it is felt that the reason for its scarcity this winter is linked to last summer’s damp conditions in June when many clutches of Blue Tits failed and the effect was felt through the food chain.  I myself have recently cleaned out two Blue Tit nests that were abandoned last summer, with an egg or two still in place.
A noticable absentee for us this winter is the Siskin, though I am still hopeful of spotting one upside down on the peanut feeder, before the survey closes in two days time.

Blue Tit: scarcer than both Great and Coal Tits (Oran O’Sullivan)

Other woodlanders that presented themselves regularly were the Great Spotted Woodpeckers (a male and female, recorded every week of the survey), and a couple of Jays each week from early January.
Already there are signs of the breeding season advancing: a Blackbird carrying nesting material and woodpeckers drumming in the woods.

 

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Dawn in winter

A crisp winter morning (O.O’Sullivan).

We are all a bit washed out since last November, endless rain, storms racing across the Atlantic and picking up names from the Alphabet: We are on ‘Storm Frank’ as of tonight, at this rate, we might be at ‘the Notorious Storm McGregor’ within a few months! I really enjoyed a calm and crisp dawn, just a day ago; well worth recording the event and snapping the now gaunt and bare Elder trees and the mist rising up over the Avonbeg river valley, it might be a while before we get these conditions again.

Next, after coffee, straight out into the garden to top up the feeders and then on to the nearby oakwood for some excercise . Incessant rain over the holiday period brings on cabin fever to this man and his dog. The woodland was relatively quiet, compared to the garden, but we did hear a few Treecreepers, Redwing in search of Holly berries and a party of Long Tailed Tits was a nice, chance encounter.

Long-tailed Tit (MOC).

Just before exiting the Oakwood, we heard the chattering calls of Great Spotted Woodpeckers in the canopy, at a point very close to last years nest hole, I reckoned there were two or three birds and there seemed to be a bit of chasing through the upper branches. This would appear to be classic territorial behaviour, unusual I imagine in late December, but it has been so mild apart from this one cold,crisp dawn (it was raining again within four hours and the temperature then rose sharply to 11 or 12 degrees.

Song Thrush delivers its message from a young spruce (MOC).

No real wonder then that Song Thrushes are singing daily, for two weeks now, at least and Dunnocks, Mistle Thrushes and of course Robins join in. Territorial activity continues around the feeding station, though the Tit family and Finches seem to be content in mixed flocks and just quarrel and display over food and feeder etiquette.

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Coal Tits and Woodpeckers in a queue

Two Coal Tits await landing space on the seed feeder (O.O’Sullivan).


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.

Great Spotted Woodpecker gets stuck in! (O.O’Sullivan).

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.

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Blue Tit numbers bottom out

a fledgling Blue Tit (c. Oran O’Sullivan)

Whilst 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 queuing 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.

Many nest box families failed in 2016, due to wet weather at fledging time.