Sunday 4 December 2016

Waxwings are a rare cold treat

Published 05/12/2010 | 05:00

A THUD at the window wakes me, again. Earlier, lightning flashes and thunder in the distance had first done so. This time the alert was a gull, no doubt attracted to herb pots inside on a windowsill. Feed me, it demanded. These are herring gulls, strong and healthy. Their lesser-black-backed brethren gather in great numbers on the strand, close together like a standing army, waiting.

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Yesterday, I mysteriously lost a sock, left, with other items, out to dry on a plastic frame. I found it last night, on a small green area where an infected palm tree had been felled. The palm's problem was a colony of red weevils within. I trust the sparrows will devour these weevils if they can get at the nests in the stump. I doubt if the gulls will be bothered.

In Ireland there are much more serious concerns about getting food to birds, especially smaller songsters such as wrens, robins, dunnocks and finches. Bird survival has been a top item on RTE news, and rightly so. There also has been informative footage showing garden feeders, all adding to the knowledge of a concerned public about helping to keep these tiny creatures alive.

The robin is the singularly festive bird, a symbol on cards and advertising which began with the scarlet-tunics of Victorian postmen who were nicknamed "redbreasts". The first appearance of a robin on a card was in the 1860s; it showed the bird delivering a letter.

Along with the tiny wren, robins, which are resident, were also badly hit by last winter's weather, numbers falling by more than 20 per cent. Wrens can be devastated by the cold, only surviving if they find shelter in outhouses or attics where they huddle together. All small-bodied birds are vulnerable. They lose body heat and can't find enough food to keep going and die within a few days of very hard weather.

Keeping garden feeders topped up with good seed mixtures, pinhead oatmeal, mealworms and fat balls in metal mesh hangers (rather than nylon bags which can entangle birds) is vital, as is daily fresh drinking water. Slice some apples, soften raisins and sultanas for the bird table also. Improvise a table if necessary using any standing structure high enough to deter cats. Don't throw food scraps on the ground.

Where I am writing this, crag martins are zooming outside the window, hunting insects in a burst of sunshine. But you, looking out on a frozen Irish garden, may well grimace, but you may be fortunate to see a striking bird, the waxwing (bombycilla garrulous) now on a significant annual invasion of Ireland and Britain. Large flocks of these attractive long-crested and cocoa brown-bodied starling-sized birds have arrived from northern Europe seeking red berries, especially those of cottoneaster, pyracantha and rowans, found in suburban garden plantations and also on the peripheries of supermarket car parks.

They are voracious and can devour their own weight in fruit over a day. They have a silvery clear trilling call. Watch out for them. They are a rare treat in such hard times.

Joe Kennedy was writing from the Algarve, Portugal ,where the weather has been "very Irish" -- cool, but with heavy rain instead of snow, the poorest in some years

Sunday Independent

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