Saturday 16 December 2017

Spring peeks out to say hello

A PINE marten or cat crann (tree cat) has been seen in a little wood I know in east Leinster. Perhaps there is a pair of these beautiful, elusive creatures -- and that would be good news. Grey squirrels which had had the run of the place are suddenly no more. They have either become prey -- the marten will eat virtually anything, living or carrion -- or have fled to a less threatening environment.

Green finches are plentiful here and, behold, linnets were a great surprise last week. Swallows are reported, including a pair flitting about along a north Dublin beach.

I have not seen all of these animals and birds but I have been told about them. However, I have seen large queen bumble bees busily nest-seeking when there is sunshine, and little black-faced lambs playing in fields, and daffodils blooming in thousands while snow may fall again!

But there are no butterflies. Temperatures are still too low for them to fly and feed. It is generally accepted that spring is from two to four weeks late, and this has plus and minus aspects for flora and fauna. Many resident songbirds took a hammering during the severe cold, especially the tiny goldcrest, long-tailed tit, wren and even the resilient robin redbreast. Cold nights just kill the smaller birds, though some clever wrens can find cosy holes to crowd in together for body heat protection -- up to 100 were once found in a house roof space.

Hedgehogs are wisely still buried under the compost or brush pile, though hunger and sunny spells may lure them into the open. If you are fortunate enough to have these little fellows as residents or visitors, put out some cat food for them -- not bread and milk.

Earlier migrant birds made the wrong decision this year and some species such as wheatear, chiffchaff and martin were caught by the cold. Their thinned ranks will be replenished, however.

Surprising opinion has emerged about the cuckoo (cuculus canorus), now a seriously scarce annual visitor, whose imminent demise has been predicted by the nature writer Michael McCarthy. His important book, "Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo" (John Murray) has much to say about bird survival and not just the cuckoo, Wordsworth's "blithe newcomer." The American folksinger Peggy Seeger used sing an Appalachian mountain song (transplanted from England) which went: "Oh the cuckoo is a pretty bird/She sings as she flies/She bringeth good tidings/and telleth no lies." The good tidings meant summer days were on the way.

Last week, the British Trust for Ornithology, while lamenting the fate of the smaller birds as weather victims, suggested one potential climate winner could be the cuckoo, the first of which being expected before the month is out.

In recent years, hairy caterpillars, the birds' favourite food (and poisonous to other birds) had come and gone before the cuckoos' arrival. This year a plentiful, and delayed, supply is expected and with fine weather in May and June this brood parasite could have a successful year depositing its eggs in the nests of unsuspecting foster parents. "And the more she sings 'cuckoo' the summer draws near." We live in hope.

Sunday Independent

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