Sunday 16 June 2019

Bird life on high in Christmas lights

Pied Wagtail: Up to 3,600 were once attracted to Dublin’s ‘nocturnal heat island’
Pied Wagtail: Up to 3,600 were once attracted to Dublin’s ‘nocturnal heat island’

Joe Kennedy

Many years ago, when I made a vegetable garden on a slope facing the Atlantic at Helvick Head in west Waterford I had pied wagtails for company.

There were several other bird species also, of course, as I ploughed my lonely furrow. A man who had lived there told me he had counted more than 20. I didn't doubt him. My Willie wagtails (motacilla alba) paid little attention to me. They are only interested in picking up insects, and if you are digging there may be something in the turn of a spade. Little trotties are always hopping and bobbing about...

A pair made a nest over a shed door where a piece of rubble had fallen out. I watched them coming and going as I fiddled with the engine of my ancient Citroen 2CV whose starting abilities were always troubled by the seasonal weather of sea mists, rain and squalls. I can't remember the youngsters; I was too interested in martins and swallows building and rearing and bats flitting about.

Now is an active time for wagtails as they must spend 90pc of it finding, chasing, catching small insects, almost invisible, every minute of the day in order to keep going. Back in the 1950s, when I first joined the Independent in Middle Abbey St in Dublin (and had a chat with Brendan Behan outside The Oval bar nearby) it was a novelty to witness the flocks of wagtails settling at nightfall on the London plane trees that lined O'Connell Street.

These magnificent trees were felled in 2005 by the council to be replaced by more contemporary planting in a makeover of the city's main thoroughfare. Many words got into print about this, mostly uncomplimentary. But once upon a time more than 3,500 wagtails occupied those trees as a nightly roost, systematically attracted by the heat generated by public and cinema sign lighting, a great display of nightly tree life and sparkle, and not just for Christmas.

It was a phenomenon well noted internationally in bird life and travel guides. Wagtails are comfortable in the company of mankind. The Dublin roost may have been unique by numbers but the birds like to make their sleeping quarters as close as possible to the hubs of humanity.

O'Connell Street was first documented in 1929 but the logo or stamp of the Dublin Field Naturalists' Club from the 1880s shows a wagtail, a familiar sight in the city then, it may be assumed. In IrishBirds 1985 vol 3, Cotton and Lovatt discuss several sources on the roost, noting that papers had been published of counts of up to 3,600 birds on the 'nocturnal heat island' with average temperatures of 2.1°C higher than surrounding areas.

The Birds of Ireland (Kennedy Ruttledge and Scroope 1954) first reported the roost being mentioned by a W J Williams in the Irish Naturalists' Journal, when, in the autumn of 1929 about 100 pied wagtails were found "roosting in a plane tree amid the noise of the traffic of this busy street and in the full glare of the electric light". Sounds familiar, except that now the birds' descendants have long dispersed to new locations, we presume. Will there be a return attraction? Now that the trams are trundling it would be a joy to behold. Perhaps for next Christmas then?

Sunday Independent

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