Sunday 17 December 2017

Rare visitor flies into suburbia

TWO attractive bird species, one unexpected, swept and fluttered into peripheral vision, then established their presence.

One, it seems, is flavour of the month. Long-tailed tits (Aegithalos caudatus) are here, there and everywhere, to be seen in gardens and parkland with good cover. Just how these beautiful but tiny creatures survived the deluges of last year when there was an almost total wipe-out of songbirds is one of nature's miracles.

The unexpected were waxwings (Bombycilla garrulus), rare winter visitors from Scandinavia and Russia in hard weather, distinctive and unusual birds, starling-sized, small groups of which will clear red-berried bushes in jig time. There have been sightings for a month or so.

A few years back, a poet friend had a group of these visitors in his south Dublin garden. Last week, in nearby Monkstown, a keen birder spotted a bunch of them gorging on cottoneasters and pyracanthus.

They are non-stop feeders once they find a source and will swallow berries wholesale. In Scotland one observed bird ate 500 cottoneaster berries, three times its own weight, in six hours. But one bird in Wales broke the all-comers' record by devouring between 600 and 1,000 berries in a similar period. Naturally, these went through its system – every four minutes!

Waxwings can appear in varied sized groups in eastern Ireland sometimes in four- and five-year cycles, or 'invasion' years, triggered by poor rowan berry crops in Scandinavia. Thousands of birds head west and south seeking food. Obviously many hit the eastern seaboard of Britain before Dublin gets a spill-over, but some birds have gone as far as Galway and Listowel.

These beautiful birds are a warm cinnamon grey colour, with striking reinforcements such as a conical 'hoodie' crest, yellow-edged tail, and an upward-curving, Zorro-like black mask.

Most distinctive, however, are the red waxy blobs at the tips of several secondary flight feathers which give the bird its name.

You may not be as fortunate as the Monkstown birder in spotting a small invading air force (there were sightings in Clontarf also), but keep an eye out in supermarket car parks where berry-bearing landscaping can attract these exotic visitors.

Long-tailed tits, which are resident, are tiny, beautiful birds – like whirring sticks attached to ping-pong balls – passing through communal places making soft, bubbling contact noises. They operate in groups and play follow-the-leader – when one takes off, the others follow. It's a family thing. They are tiny and delicate like goldcrests and survive on a diet of minute insects, garden bird table fare not being much of an attraction for them.

Bad weather can be devastating. Like wrens, they huddle together for warmth in a roost with protruding tails from a clump of feathers like a spiked ball.

They are tribal for survival with various 'aunts' and 'uncles' helping to raise youngsters hatched out in an elaborate oval-shaped dome usually sited in a dense thorn bush. Such togetherness means that year after year, in spite of the weather, they reappear in spring to give all of us a heartfelt lift .

Sunday Independent

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