Thursday 14 December 2017

Follow-my-leader in the skies

Joe Kennedy

THERE are risks in wall-vaulting and style-stepping. Attention is necessary to obstacles of apparent easy passage. Caution is called for but it can be thrown to the winds at sudden sightings in the field – cock pheasants prancing in a paddock; a mallard trailing a wing feigning injury, or a cluster of tiny long-tailed tits (aegithalos candatus), like whirring sticks attached to ping-pong balls, making soft, bubbling contact noises as they pass.

These beautiful birds travel in groups, playing a sort of follow-my-leader – when one decides to move, all others follow. They are delicate as goldcrests and survive on a diet of tiny insects; bird table fare does not hold much interest for them.

Dreadful spring weather must be devastating, one assumes, yet they have hung in there, like tiny wrens, huddling for shelter and body heat in a roost with tails protruding from a feathered body clump like a spiked ball, in defiance of the elements.

They are tribal for survival and it is all in the family when various 'aunties' and 'uncles', like the shield duck family, help raise the tiny ones hatched out in an elaborate oval-shaped nest dome usually sited, for security, in a dense thorn bush.

Magpies, keep out!

Such clan caring means that whatever the weather each year, they re-appear to fill us with wonder at their endurance. Flocks of up to 50 take us in careful pursuit through brush and sapling to witness their tiny world from where they do not wander very far.

Their careful lifestyle ensures their numbers remain healthy with around 40,000 breeding pairs. Those feather-lined moss nests woven together with cobwebs and hair help.

There is another member of the sturdy tit family which frequents wet reedy habitats and a sighting of which is very rare indeed. The colourful bearded tit (panurus biarmicus) also has a long tail, is slightly bigger than its cousin with a stunning sandy-coloured body and distinctive 'beard' of two drooping jet markings from the eyes like some religious sage from the East. The head is blue-grey and the beak orange.

This bird is seldom seen although there has been a recorded breeding at Broad Lough, north of Wicklow town (David Cabot, Irish Birds).

There is an outstanding photograph of this beautiful bird in an excellent new book from the Collins Press of Cork called, simply, The Birds of Ireland (Jim Wilson and Mark Carmody, €14.99), a pictorially detailed pocket-sized guide of great use to all birders and a wonderful handbook for young enthusiasts going to the countryside and seashore to help identify what they observe.

Here between covers are 1,600 'shots' of birds from many angles with concise quick-reference texts about species with up to 15 images of each in various stages of plumage. There are useful identification tips and encouragement to make quick sketches of what may be briefly glimpsed and the information on equipment (binoculars and 'scopes) is very useful.

This compact book is a brilliant idea and its well-known authors-compilers, and the publishers, are to be commended on this unique addition to an ever-expanding wild bird library.

Sunday Independent

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