Tim’s Glanmire Bird & Nature Diary
Bird Watching in Glanmire
If you have an interest in nature and in particular in bird watching Glanmire is a great location. In Glanmire itself, and in the surrounding areas there is a great variety of habitats – woodlands, rivers, estuaries etc. All you need is a pair of binoculars, a book on Irish/European birds, a watchful eye and a listening ear. For example, have you ever noticed the large quantity of cormorants that roost in the trees across the river from the O’Leary car sales in Glanmire village?
Have you heard the chiffchaff singing its distinctive “chiff chaff chiff chaff …” song in the car-park of St. Joseph’s church in the summer? The cuckoo was to be seen and heard in Ballyluacra graveyard on Brookhill on many days in May this year. Spotted flycatchers may also be seen in the summer darting from the tops of headstones in the graveyard. If you enjoy strolling along the river walk linking Brooklodge to The Hermitage then in the summer there are many interesting birds to be seen on route – colourful bullfinches, secretive blackcaps, persistent chiffchaffs, noisy long-tailed tits, tiny gold crests etc.
Once in a while you may even hear a jay (a blue/brown crow) in the distance in the cover of the trees. If you have a keen eye you can sometimes see a dipper in the river beside the garden at the John Barleycorn site. On the main roadways there is always the chance of seeing a Kestrel hovering overhead searching for food. Late in the summer evenings silent W formations of curlews and gulls can be seen overhead making their way back to the harbour islands for the night. The estuary at Dunkettle roundabout is a great place to see a good variety of waders when the tide is coming in.
I have counted 36 herons at one time on the wall built out in the water. Quite a number of little egrets can be seen at times roosting in the trees behind Pharmacia as viewed from the Glanmire Inter-change. If in the winter you go a little further to Little Island you will often be rewarded by the sight of many types of duck, grebes, and divers sheltering in the harbour. On the shore you may come across snipe, grey plovers, or lapwings, you may even be lucky enough to see a peregrine falcon chasing prey at speed out over the water.
A White Christmas
We didn’t have an overall white Christmas in Glanmire – but when we did get the snow, the whole landscape changed overnight. The full moon made the snow-covered fields and trees on the surrounding hills seem even more remarkable at night. Did you notice how still everything appeared in the snow, there was hardly a bird to be seen – just the occasional crow or sea gull flying by?
A closer look at the holly and whitethorn revealed blackbird, redwing and fieldfare busily devouring the red berries to keep warm. Santa’s robin made an appearance in the snow-white garden hoping that human presence might turn up some eagerly awaited food. Robins have always followed large mammals probably even as long ago as the ancient Irish Elk – hoping that the disturbed ground might reveal insects and worms.
Did you know that all of these birds are members of the thrush family? The bullfinches never strayed far from the crab apple trees on the “rocky road” walk near the Glanmire by-pass. The wren and the dunnock were lurking in the undergrowth waiting for the snow to melt. In the harbour the waders were foraging as ever at the waters edge – the oyster catchers (known locally as winerels), bar-tailed godwit, curlew, dunlin (known locally as sea-lark), lapwing (green plover) and ring plover.
Wigeon (pronounced locally as ‘wygeon’) and teal duck swam tamely along the shore. As soon as the snow melted the smaller birds – great, blue and coal tits, linnet, chaffinch and goldfinch magically re-appeared – flying about at a frantic pace as if celebrating the availability of food again.
Now that it has turned colder many of those smaller birds that were to be seen in plenty on the roadside hedges, fields, and river-walks of Glanmire have headed of for warmer climates. They have been replaced as always by larger birds down from Scandinavia and Asia escaping the cold. As soon as the swallows were gone the thrushes and starlings turned up in abundance. The nesting places of terns is soon taken over by ducks and geese. Curlew and snipe are to be seen and heard in the grass fields. Linnets and chaffinches take the place of chiffchaffs, blackcaps and flycatchers.
At this time of the year with the vegetation bare it is not difficult to see a colourful family of bullfinches busily feeding on a bush or a solitary blue, great, or coal tit flitting from branch to branch. While walking through wetish terrain a snipe may erupt nearby from the grass with a screech rapidly twisting and turning as it gains height. For the winter the lakes and ponds are now alive with ducks – mallard, teal, widgeon, shoveler, tufted and even gadwal can be seen.
Birds of prey can be spotted hungrily searching for a meal – the kestrel hovering overhead, the sparrow hawk among the bushes or even once in a while a short-eared owl searching low over a bog. The harbour now provides winter shelter for goldeneye and merganser duck, divers and auks. In Glanmire and the surrounding area there is an abundance of good habitats where there is much to be seen and enjoyed by all.
The Haunting Sounds of Nature
At this time of the year with daylight hours at their shortest we adapt our lifestyle and daily behaviour accordingly. Many of our normal pastimes are put on hold for a few months and for many of us a walk in the open air is limited to the weekend. Observing birds at this time of the year can be challenging due to shorter and darker days and the low angle of the sun. It is possible however to compensate very well by making more use of our hearing since every bird species has a unique call and song.
These sounds seem to be magnified and even more striking in the darkness when our imaginations are most active. We all have a great capacity to remember ‘in the back of our minds’ different sounds and to associate them for years afterwards with places, scenes and things. On a calm quiet winter’s night on a walk up any of the hills out of Glanmire you are likely to hear the distinctive repeated screech of a snipe (an gabharin rua) over the fields.
You may also hear the totally different eerie high-pitched screeches of a lapwing (an pilibin). At dusk you could hear for miles around the deep hollow calling of a pair of large black ravens returning to roost. On walking around the village of Watergrasshill at night you may be startled by the haunting blood-curdling screech of a barn owl flying overhead. Passing near a marsh such as at Cuskinny in Cobh you could hear the frightening high-pitched pig-like squeal of a small water rail – or see the dinosaur-like silhouette and hear the primitive deep croaking call of a grey heron.
With all of these haunting sounds to be heard on dark nights is it any wonder that in past times our ancestors had so many beliefs and stories about ghosts and fairies?
Folklore and Birds
Prior to the recent few decades the vast majority of Irish people lived a lifestyle which was immersed in nature – housing, transport and occupation brought people face-to-face with nature everyday. It is no wonder then that previous generations had so many sayings and beliefs about birds, plants and animals. There is an old Irish folk-tale that way back in time the oyster catcher (a very common wader easily seen in the Glashaboy estuary) once foolishly gave a loan of his webbed feet to the seagull (an excellent swimmer).
The tale goes on to say however that the seagull never returned the loan and for ever after the oyster catcher’s call is a forlorn screech (a good description) from the edge of the water – Iasacht an roilligh don fhaoileann iasacht na fillfidh go deo. Martin O’Direan in a poem encouraged people to persist when things are not working-out by pointing out how the small lonely sandpiper (a small lone wader often to be seen in the shallow water around the Glanmire Interchange) perched on a rock at the edge of the tide fails time-and-time again to profit from the incoming waves – however his expertise and persistence does ultimately enable him to have his fill – Minic a dhearcais ladhran tra ar carraig fhliuch go huaigneach.
Mara bhfuair eadail on toinn ni bhfuair guth ina eagmais. In the west of Ireland the fishermen – before the arrival of modern weather-forecasting – would predict the oncoming weather based on the flight patterns of the sea birds. An understanding of the weather was off-course a life-and-death matter for fishermen in small currach boats. To this day people predict the severity of the on-coming winter by the abundance of berries on the trees for the birds to feed on. Many of us are familiar with the sight of swallows swooping low over the ground as an indicator that there is rain on the way.
Farmers also believed that it would soon rain if the call of the curlew was heard. Other well-known occurrences of birds in folklore are swans and the Children of Lir (whooper swans can often be seen in Rostellan lake in winter), the robin and the crown of thorns and the wren and the betrayal of Christ.
A Native Irish Tree in Your Garden
As it is now spring there is much movement of birds again – the winter visitors – many ducks, geese, swans, thrushes, starlings (in huge awesome flocks) and northern gulls move back up to Scandinavia, Greenland, Russia etc. to breed and the summer visitors – swallows, warblers, corncrakes, nightjars, cuckoo, terns etc. will over the coming months begin to arrive from Africa. This winter there was a large influx of small finch birds called waxwings to Ireland.
In our own area they were seen in Midleton, Cobh, Douglas, Togher and Ballincollig. These birds normally reside in remote forested habitats in Scandinavia, however when they arrive in Ireland they usually turn up in urban areas. Large Influxes of waxwing occur about once a decade and this year was certainly one of those years. In February there was also great interest in a large white Snowy Owl which turned up at Lough Foyle in county Derry.
This year the second week of March was ‘National Tree Week’ – why not plant a native Irish tree in your garden this spring? An ash or whitethorn tree provides a whole living space for many different types of birds. Both the tree and the type of birds living in it will vary with the seasons and the tree will of course remove some of that unwanted C02 from the atmosphere. Over the next few months listen out the fabulous dawn chorus which you may be lucky enough to be able to hear from your bedroom window as the daylight approaches.
See if you can distinguish the song of the robin and the blackbird – a helpful hint is that in the evening the blackbird’s song is usually the last song heard – right up to when it is almost totally dark – the male can often be heard singing from a chimney pot.
Birds as Winter turns to Spring
As the Winter turns to Spring the bird populations are on the move again – soon the redwing and fieldfare thrushes, many ducks, geese, swans, waders, gulls, chaffinches and starlings will leave our area and head back north to breed in places like Scandinavia and Greenland for the summer. In no time now the smaller insect eating birds – swallows, martins, swifts, and warblers will arrive up from Africa. The grating screech of terns on our shores will let us know that summer is here again.
At this time of the year as the birds prepare to nest much activity is noticeable as males display and compete for mates. The dawn chorus will soon be awesome as territories are declared at the emergence of daylight. Glanmire is full of excellent habitats for many of these birds so keep your eyes and ears open over the coming months. I wonder if the cuckoo will arrive in Glanmire again this year?
Spot the Difference
At this time of the year most of the winter visiting birds have left to nest further north and our summer visitors are still winging their way towards us to seek out those same favourite spots where they fed and nested last summer. It therefore a good time to take a closer look at our own resident birds. Take the crow family for example – in Glanmire with all its woods and fields there is a good chance that if you look around for a few minutes you will see at least a few different species of crow. We are all familiar with the Rook, the Jackdaw and the Magpie. Some of us know of the Grey Crow and may have heard of the Raven. How many I wonder have heard of the Jay and the Chough?
Well the first six species listed are to be found in Glanmire itself and the Chough which likes sea cliffs is to be found as near as Inch, near Roches Point. The Rook is the commonest crow. They gather at night in large noisy rookeries, often in beech trees. The Jackdaw is a small crow with a greyish neck and whitish beady eyes – often seen it parks and roadways. The Magpie has a long tail and a very noisy cackle, is a blackish/blue and white bird and is notorious for raiding the nests of smaller birds. It roosts in groups in small bushes with dense foliage.
The Grey Crow is often seen in ones or twos and is a belligerent creature often attacking herons and even birds of prey. It is larger than the Rook, has a harsh call and has grey wings. It often perches high up in trees. The Raven (all black) is the largest crow with a very deep call that can be heard for miles as it passes by, high up in the air. It likes mountain-sides and sea cliffs and is superbly skilful in the air. The Jay is most unusual in that it is coloured brown/blue/black and white. It is very shy and lives deep in woodlands where there are oak trees. Its call is very noisy and distinctive.
Lastly the Chough is a medium sized black crow with a long curved bright red beak and red legs. It is found on sea cliffs and mountain-sides and has great aerobatic skills. Its call has a great echo which announces the bird long before it can be seen flying by.
The Waxwings Visit Glanmire
The waxwings (sciathán céarach) mentioned last month did visit Glanmire before heading back to Lapland for the summer, probably not to return to our area for years to come again. A flock of 80 birds were seen feeding on the half mile stretch of red cotoneaster berries opposite the Cheshire Homes near Dunkettle. Now that it is spring the chiffchaff can be heard singing in the car park at St. Joseph’s church again having returned from Africa as it does every year without fail.
Soon all the other summer birds will be here and nesting will begin – look out for the Sparrow hawks (spioróg) and see if they will nest in the woods at Riverstown again this year. The mild weather at the end of March also saw the emergence of the bumble bees and the bats from their winter shelter. There is no doubt but Glanmire is a beautiful area – its natural beauty comes from its many rivers, glens, its extensive woodlands and of course the fabulous Glashaboy estuary. These woodlands and rivers are home to many natural Irish plants, animals and birds which developed over millions of years and so are very precious.
In Glanmire we are lucky to have native Irish red squirrels, stoats, badgers, bats, jays (scréachóg) and lizards in the woods, dippers (gabha dubh), grey wagtails (glasóg liath), trout and salmon in the rivers, and many types of waders, swans (eala) and ducks (lacha) in the estuary. In these days of rapid housing development it would be a great pity not to protect the precious habitats that we have in our area.
A Stroll in the John O’Callaghan Park
On walking through the John O’Callaghan Park recently I was delighted to see a Tree Creeper (an Snag). This small brown bird with a curved beak has a very regular pattern of behaviour – it flies down to the lower trunk of a tree and then creeps all the way up the tree searching for insects as it goes. On reaching the top it flies back down to the bottom of an adjacent tree (it can’t creep down the tree trunk) and begins all over again.
As I reached the point where the Glashaboy and Butlerstown rivers meet – a large pool of swirling water – I was surprised to see a cormorant (an Broigheall) descend from the trees into the water – it seemed almost out of place so far up river. This is a large black bird that likes to snorkel while looking for fish.
On the bank of this pool stood a tall motionless grey Heron (an Corr riasc) waiting to reach out its long neck and snatch an unsuspecting fish. On seeing me it flew off a little and began to prance elegantly to and fro on the silty ground among the trees.
Next, to my delight I heard a familiar metallic zzz zzz coming down stream – a bright blue and orange coloured Kingfisher (an Cruidín) flew along over the river in front of where the John Barleycorn Hotel was – is it nesting in the area?
A kingfisher’s nest comprises of a three foot deep tunnel into the sandy bank of the river, with a small cavern at the back. Further up the Butlerstown river I saw a pair of Dippers (an Gabha dubh) – surely preparing to nest on the nearby river banks.
Why not call into the Glanmire Library in the Hazelwood Centre and take a look at some of the excellent bird books there?
The Dawn Chorus
As you probably know this is the time of the year when bird songs are at their best. The songs are most noticeable at dawn and again at around dusk. The Thrush family are very talented songsters – the Blackbird singing strongly from perhaps a chimney pot, the Robin’s softer melodious song from a shrub in the garden or the Song Thrush’s more erratic collection of forceful notes from the depths of a bush nearby. We have always heard tell of the beautiful song of the Nightingale; well unfortunately we do not have this bird in Ireland. We do however have the Blackcap – a member of the Warbler family which it is suggested comes a close second to the Nightingale.
The song of this bird can be clearly heard these days on the river walk from Brookhill to the Hermitage. On that same walk with a little patience and luck you may hear the very soft song of a family of Bullfinches. Two other members of the Finch family are worth a mention – the male Chaffinch whose sharp-short almost grating call can be heard repeated over and over and the Greenfinch’s bell-tingling song which is nearly always delivered from the top of the highest tree around. Other famous song birds are the Linnet and the Goldfinch (both once kept as a cage-birds), the Skylark (often heard by the sea), and the Yellowhammer (seen in open country but diminishing in numbers) whose song is popularly described as “a-little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheeeeeese”.
Chickens and Eggs
In the last few weeks there has been an element of ‘anticipating quietness’ in the bird world as eggs are patiently brooded. The motionless white of a female swan is glimpsed on its nest through the reeds. Only the male mallard ducks are swimming in the ponds and rivers. A pair of glaring yellow eyes look out over the top of the sparrow hawks nest in the woods. The distracting call and feigning of injury of a ring plover draw attention away from its nest on the bare ground. The white fulmar sits endlessly on a single egg high up on the cliff edge.
Then one morning all appears to awaken – a pair of swans venture out for a short spell in the water with nine cygnets in an ordered line between them. Four mallard chicks swim randomly in the green of a lake followed closely by both parents. Three young ravens make a racket on the rocky beach with adults on guard in the large trees overhead. Sparrow hawk chicks squabble noisily in the branches over the regular deliveries of food brought by both parents.
Four ring plover chicks on the gravely lakeside stand motionless at the alarm call of a parent as a scavenging grey crow flies overhead. A speckled young robin – without its red-breast – scratches through leaves on a garden path looking for worms and insects. A single fluffy white fulmar chick dives perilously from its nest on the vertical cliffs to the sea below where it will be fed and eventually learn to fly. Two young kestrels practice hovering at the water’s edge on a deserted inlet one very windy day. For the next few months the bird population will explode in numbers.
It will then in the course of the year gradually return to normal size as the strongest survive and the rest succumb to the food chain. Noteworthy at the moment are the little egrets nesting high in the trees at the back of Pfizer’s near the Dunkettle Interchange. Note also the spotted flycatchers have returned again this year to nest in Ballyluachra graveyard.
Swallows Signal Summer
To many people the mention of Swallows is synonymous with summer. Barn Swallows (Fáinleog) begin to arrive in Ireland in mid-April and the last few are gone back to South Africa (7,500 miles away) by mid-October (small numbers of Swallows have been known to over-winter in the South of England). These are the months of the year when there are sufficient insects in the air to feed these birds. In olden times before people understood the phenomena of bird migration it was believed that Swallows spent the winter concealed in the mud at the bottom of our lakes.
The rearing of young is timed for the height of the summer when insects are most numerous. On a good year a pair of adults can rear up to three broods. Swallows nest under a roof often against a rafter, whereas their near-relation the House Martin (Gabhlán binne) nests against a rough outside wall of a building – the House Martin’s nest is constructed of up to 4,000 beak-fulls of mud and can be built in as little as 10 days. On alternate days the House Martin gets its mud from a different source giving extra strength to the nest. Another relation – the Sand Martin (Gabhlán gainimh) constructs a nest by burrowing a tunnel into the face of a sandy cliff – Sand Martins nest each summer in the sand quarry which is now Pynes Valley in Ballyvolane.
At a glance it is possible to mix up Swallows with Swifts (a different species entirely). Swifts (Gabhlán gaoithe) are masters of the air, they even sleep on the wing using the warm night updrafts over towns and cities to reduce effort while sleeping. Swifts only land to nest and even then the nest is on a cliff edge so that the bird can take off again (it’s very short legs do not permit it to take off from the ground). A Swift even gathers its nest building material from airborne items such as feathers. A good location to see Swifts in Glanmire is in the evening, high over the pool of water between the old John Barleycorn Hotel site and the John O’Callaghan Park.
Each of the nine tiny cygnets at Cuskinney Cobh survived to be young grey swans. The four white fluffy sparrow hawk chicks are now almost big enough to make their own way. They can be heard these weeks screeching playfully in the woods beside the Glanmire football pitch. The ringed plovers did not succeed to rear young – perhaps there was too much disturbance on the ground where they were breeding. The spotted flycatchers in Ballyluachra are a mystery – they arrived from abroad, built a nest, and then totally disappeared? Several families of little egrets were raised on the tree tops at the Glanmire Interchange. To date the white gull-like fulmars are still sitting on their nests on the steep cliffs by the sea.
Two families of Choughs (crows with long curved red beaks and red legs) with three chicks each were successfully reared at Inch beach. At times a young speckled dipper can be seen in the Butlerstown river from the wooden footbridge. On the estuary in the village it is possible to see young gulls on the mud – they are brownish in colour in these early weeks. Also look out at the moment for tiny black fluffy waterhen chicks on the riverbanks and ponds. Watch as the parents continually draw food to them passing it into their beaks.
Priceless Treasure in Glanmire
There are many priceless treasures in the Glanmire area in the form of natural woodlands. These places have largely been untouched by human development down through the thousands of years. One such natural Irish woodland stretches back along the Butlerstown river valley from Brooklodge. On approaching this valley from Brookhill, just at the point where the trees close in over the road near Glencree there is a large tree which is continually inhabited by Irish red squirrel.
The squirrels are easiest seen collecting nuts in October/November and again in February/March after hibernation. Look out also for “Fox” and nesting pheasants near here. Heading down to the wooden footbridge there is a wall to the right-hand-side on which small lizards can sometimes be seen. Going down-stream from here to the lime kiln and heading north on the ancient Dublin road you will find a wooded area with many hazel trees where again the red squirrel can be seen preparing for the winter months, feeding off the hazel nuts from September to November.
The Butlerstown river is home to many fish – Brown Trout are most common and can easily be seen in the water from the footbridge. White Trout can be seen in the river in the summer months and in the winter the Salmon still come back from the Atlantic to spawn here. The Salmon can be seen up-stream in December/January leaping the weir under Glen Brown’s. Traditional fishing spots on the river are “Nah’s” hole behind the east goal posts at Sarsfield’s Hurling pitch and on the Glashaboy – the “Long Reach” behind “Jack Morgan’s Quarry” at John O’Callaghan Park and “Poll Caun” at the bend in the river before Glanmire Bridge. (In the 1930-40 era there was a local rhyme popular at election time “Vote for Corry, you won’t be sorry, you’ll get plenty of work in Jack Morgan’s quarry”).
Seaside memories are often conjured up by the smell of the salt air and the sound of screeching gulls and terns. At this time of the year on many shorelines you are likely to hear the cackling call of soaring Herring Gulls or the high pitch screech of diving Sandwich Terns. There are many types of gulls – since the beginning of August the Glanmire estuary is once again full of noisy Black-headed Gulls (small with a hint of black on the head, red legs/beak). With luck when the tide is out you may also see there the Lesser Black-backed Gull (larger with dark grey wings and yellow legs/beak).
These birds may also be seen in loose W formations flying south high up in the sky over Glanmire just before dusk. Further out in the harbour at the waters edge you are likely to see large lone Great Black-backed Gulls – formidable scavengers they will even take small birds. Over the sea itself you may hear the familiar call of the Herring Gull (medium size with light grey wings, a yellow beak and pink legs). Far out in the sea is the normal habitat of the small Kittiwake Gull. They form very noisy colonies such as at Cliffs of Moher during nesting.
Among the Black-headed Gulls it is possible to find a few not-so-common Common Gulls (similar size with yellow-green legs/beak). Terns (sometimes called swallows of the sea) are generally smaller and sleeker than gulls. They contribute to the seaside atmosphere through their continual high pitch screeching as they fly along close to the shore or across the beach to their nests in the dunes or rocks. Sandwich terns (seen at Rostellan) dive vertically into the sea from a height to catch fish. Common terns can be seen between Glounthaune and Little Island.
Other sea birds not to be mistaken with sea gulls are Shearwaters and Gannets – Shearwaters such as Fulmars (seen at Inch) nest on cliffs and then spend the rest of the year at sea flying low over the waves. Gannets are large black and white birds which nest on Little Skellig and also perform spectacular almost vertical dives from great heights into the sea to catch fish.
Our Extended Garden
So what is happening in the woods, fields and rivers beyond the wall of our gardens at this time of year? The swifts have gone away for another year. They were seen congregating in large numbers on the Cork coast around the 12th of August. Swifts are excellent time keepers always leaving in the second week of August. The Swallows, House Martins and Sand Martins will stay until October. In the harbour the Sandwich Terns are fishing incessantly to put on condition for their long migration to Africa. Their cousins the Arctic Terns will soon leave us for the long journey to Antarctica. Some of the residents of Glanmire village get great pleasure from watching the comings and goings in the estuary behind their homes.
At the moment at low tide there are many Curlews, Godwits, Black-headed Gulls, Little Egrets, Herons, Mallards, Water hens, Cormorants, Redshanks, the odd Greenshank, Swans and much more to be seen. As soon as October comes and the Cygnets begin to turn white the parent swans will relentlessly chase them away down the estuary to find their own homes. Early in the morning in the Glashaboy river near the Brook Inn you can easily see Dippers and Grey Wagtails.
Dippers dart in a straight line up or down the river low over the water – even through the road underpass. Dippers are capable of walking on the river bed and their presence is a sign of quality water. The grey wagtails on the other hand flit about erratically high up and low down. Another wonderful river bird that you may see there if you are lucky is of course the very colourful Kingfisher.
In ancient times the Greeks believed that Kingfishers nested at sea and that the Gods commanded the seas to remain calm and the weather beautiful while the eggs were brooded – they called these halcyon (the Greek word for Kingfisher) days. We now know of course that Kingfishers lay eggs in a horizontal 3 foot burrow in the river bank.
On the Move Again
During the months of October/November there was again the annual global south-wards movement of birds – Ireland because of its location out in the Atlantic was like an avian international airport. Masses of birds of many types arrived on our coasts following favourable winds – some to stay the winter, some on route further south and others – such as American strays off course due to strong winds or poor visibility. Wigeon, Teal and Pintail ducks as well as Gulls were early to arrive (easily seen around Cork harbour), followed by garden birds such as Greenfinches, Chaffinches and Starlings.
Whooper Swans (the Gearagh, Macroom) and many types of Geese also arrived. A Short-Eared Owl was to be seen in daylight at Power Head (near Inch beach). Some unusual strays arrived – Waxwing (from northern Scandinavia), Turtle Dove (from the Continent), Snow Bunting, Lapland Bunting (both from Norway), Spotted Crake (from Russia), American Golden Plover, American Wigeon and many other species.
Redwing Thrush have already arrived and soon we will also have the Fieldfare Thrush (easily seen on high trees and in grass fields). As the winter progresses and the weather in the UK and the Continent gets colder and the berries and seeds there become scarcer, more and more birds will seek temporary seasonal refuge Ireland.
Wonders of Nature
Nature continues to amaze us today as it always has despite all of the great advances of 3science and technology. Did you ever wonder how a tiny young Swallow at this time of the year can make its way to south Africa from Ireland, having never travelled the route before? Crossing 1,400 miles of Sahara desert on route and travelling also in the dark of the night. On return the swallow can find the same nest that it left behind the previous year. Recently, at dusk in the space of about twenty minutes I noted that the mass of feeding swallows were replaced by equally agile bats flying in the same territory and feeding on the same food – this time there wasn’t a swallow to be seen – I wonder where do the swallows disappear to all of a sudden each evening at dusk?
How can the Corncrake which at the best of times seems to find it an effort to fly a few yards when flushed, actually make it all the way to east Africa and back each year? The Corncrake arrives back in Ireland just as the grass has grown long enough again to conceal its movements following the winter. Imagine, the Swift (a summer visitor not to be confused with the swallow) only lands to nest, even then it lands on a ledge since it cannot take off from the ground.
The Swift even sleeps on the wing flying up to great heights over our towns in the evening, resting on the warm rising air. Did you know that the small black and white Dipper that we see in feeding in our fast flowing rivers and streams is believed to be able to walk along the river bed searching for food – it is a wonder how it is not washed away by the fast flowing water. How does the Cuckoo know to lay its egg in the nest of a meadow pipit? If it laid its egg in another nest its egg might not match the colour and size of its hosts eggs and so be forsaken.
Travelling on the dual carriageway to Midleton it is amazing to see the speed and agility of the Godwits, Curlews and other waders flying across the road. They seem to run rings around the vehicles which themselves are travelling at high speed.
Mí na Nollaig/December
The King of All Birds in Glanmire
Early on St. Stephen’s day the welcome lie-in following Christmas could be interrupted by the sound of a small group of wren boys knocking at the door and singing …
“The wren, the wren, the king of all birds.
On St. Stephen’s day was caught in the furze.
Up with the Kettle, down with the pots.
Give us our penny and let us be off.”
With their faces blackened, their unusual dress with holly and ivy they would be unrecognisable. From a sprig of holly would hang a dead wren – caught in the earlier hunt. The singing might be accompanied by some traditional music. Territories were respected – for example the Mayfield wren boys would not come down to Riverstown. As always the younger groups had to look out in case they came across the older boys who might take their money. Later that day the Riverstown lads could be seen walking up Barnavara hill heading in to the Coliseum to spend their spoils at the pictures.
It is believed that the wren boy tradition pre-dates Christianity with the pursuit and capture of the wren related to the pagan custom of sacrificing a sacred symbol at year’s end. Other lore suggests that a wren betrayed the hiding place of St. Stephen before he was stoned to death and became a martyr. Another legend holds that during the Viking raids of the 700’s, Irish soldiers were betrayed by a wren as they were sneaking up on a Viking camp in the dead of night. They were about to strike when a group of wrens pecked on the Vikings drums and awakened them.
This mythological association with treachery is a probable reason why in past times the bird was hunted by Wren boys. In contrast the wren has also been revered in Ireland as the “king of the birds.” An Irish folktale tells of a contest held among birds to see which could fly the highest and should be accorded this title. The eagle (we had eagles in Ireland in the past) soared higher than any other bird, but lost the contest when a clever wren, who had been hiding on the back of the eagle, flew off the eagle and soared higher in the sky.
Note that it is easy to understand why the wren is associated with betrayal – In any garden or woodland today the wren keeps up a very noisy clicking fuss while there is any human or bird of prey in the vicinity.