Sunday 25 August 2019

Country Matters: Tragic end to the lost 'trogs' puzzle

TRAGEDY: Mystery surrounds deaths of three Wern chicks
TRAGEDY: Mystery surrounds deaths of three Wern chicks

Joe Kennedy

exciting news about an Arctic tern breeding success on Dalkey Island and a possibility of a fluttering of Painted Lady butterflies was tempered by a tragic tale of dead wrens (Troglodytes troglodytes) in Cork.

In the city, where a reader, J J, lives in a high place where gardens can reach above the rooftops, a wren family had been observed. The species builds a dome nest and lives careful, furtive lives. The birds here were tending youngsters until, one day, they disappeared. Three chicks, not yet ready to fledge, appeared to have been abandoned. This was puzzling as when the female bird begins a second brood, the male usually leads the first lot to another nest. Nothing like this was observed. (The wren life pattern sees the male bird build several nests with one chosen by the female who lines it with feathers and lays five to six eggs.)

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The reader found the youngsters in a sorry state: one was on the ground, the remaining pair soon expiring. Within a short time he was burying the bodies in his garden. The parents were gone. What had happened? Were they victims of a double predation by a pouncing cat or sparrowhawk? Did the female move to another nest for a second brood and was the male killed? This was a mystery with a tragic ending.

Tiny, generous songster wrens can be badly affected by harsh winters, and numbers huddle together in sheltered roof spaces for warmth. Mortality can be high but the species can make remarkable recoveries. There are about two million here, constantly seeking food, poking into crevices searching for insects.

The poet Michael Hartnett, as a boy, looked into a wren's nest, its chirping young sensing his warmth, when suddenly "they rose and re-alighted around my neck - made in the wet meadow a feather necklet".

He felt a "sharp wonder they could not feel/ Their talons left on me scars not yet healed".

■ A NEWS story told of the successful first time fledging of Arctic terns (Sterna paradisaea) on Dalkey Island off Dublin when six birds took to the wing where youngsters had never survived more than a week or so because of rat predation.

This was due to a "tenacious" protection plan by BirdWatch Ireland wardens and volunteers. On nearby Lamb Island there are six fledglings with a further nine on the way. Warden Tara Adcock said: "This project truly shows that if you give nature a chance it can bounce back."

The Arctic tern is the world's greatest long-distance traveller. It breeds in the northern hemisphere and flies to Antarctica, travelling more than three million kilometres during a 25-year life. I have watched them at Dun Laoghaire, all wings and whippy tail streamers - swallows of the sea - with bouncy, butterfly flight, delicate hovering and dropping for small fish.

The continuously migratory Painted Ladies have been reported in high numbers in England. I have not had a sighting here so far.

They, too, are long distance fliers making a 7,500m round trip from Africa to the Arctic Circle.

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