Tuesday 20 March 2018

Birds flock after false redstart

THE suddenness of summer was like Orwell's "miracle" when Persephone rose from the dead after weeks of growing disbelief in that it would actually happen.

Bees emerged to forage for food as did bats from their hidden places and a great hatching of insects also brought swifts (apus apus) screaming overhead.

In west Dublin, where I was in the shadow of old church buildings, swifts, what else? -- were soaring -- though I once saw ravens here. But such endurance to hang on -- or, indeed, had they delayed their arrival?

At May's end, and as June breaks each year, I know they are in charge of the Kerry air above the high old streets of Listowel, delighting the patrons of Writers' Week who may raise their eyes from a pint or printed page.

Their antics were once more visible over Dublin's Georgian squares and above Dun Laoghaire's older leafy roads of three and four-storey Victorian houses. Their numbers may be fewer in the city but the ferry port beckons the returning travellers to hoover up hundreds of thousands of insects in an endless feeding frenzy which continues to August.

Older streetscapes offer homes to these devil-birds of dawn and dusk, despite nesting problems with modern buildings and old sites wired to keep out feral pigeons. (BirdWatch Ireland and the RSPB recommend nest boxes -- and playing swift-call CDs! -- to encourage them) .

However, the swift fly-past was trumped by a black redstart (phoenicurus ochruros) at a garden bird table. This is a scarce occasional visitor and rare resident of inner city old factory buildings on the east coast from April onwards.

But, we learn, there are fewer than 1,000 birds between here and Britain.

Here is the melodrama. A busy cock blackbird chops at apple pieces on the ground before jumping into a plastic container which serves as his bathtub.

Above him, having confidently found a way around netting wire (to repel pigeon and magpie pirates) a brown bird with white wing flashings is busy foraging.

Is this his mate? But, what of those white epaulettes? A rare pied blackbird? Inquiries and reference books suggest a redstart. But, but. . . the redstart, dark brown like the hen blackbird, is smaller. In fact one handbook suggests it is robin-sized. And this bird is . . . blackbird size.

A pied blackbird is unusual and had not been noted previously at this location, although the cock bird turns up regularly seeking fruit discards. He is an old warrior-survivor of a cat-mauling about three years ago -- one wing hangs a bit. A prowling moggy had stroked him, leaving him fluttering on a pathway but, distracted by window-banging, had bolted and so a bright bird was saved to raise further broods.

Ah well. The false redstart won't make the Wings magazine BirdTrack listings along with those exotics one reads about such as Siberian stonechats and Richard's pippets or red-eyed vireos (which might be encountered on the streets of Listowel quite early in the mornings).

But, readers tell, there are "flocks" of goldfinches -- they have eluded me so far -- in a great bird year to excitedly leap ahead from the sad spring gone by.

Sunday Independent

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