Adventures in the birding paradise that is Co. Offaly, Ireland...

Monday, January 31, 2011


I have seen a name for us. It is "Cinclophiles". Personally, I don't like it very much - its too long and fancy. "I am a Cinclophile". It sounds like I should either be investigated by the authorities or in some kind of self-help group (which, I'm not going to argue, may be appropriate, but I digress). It doesn't help that what us Cinclophiles do, in winter, is done under the cover of darkness. In waders (prefarbly chest-high, although thigh-high will do). Using nets. I also prefer to work in pairs, but maybe that's just me. No! I prefer the idea that I go "Dippering". It sounds like fun (which it can be). It sounds mischevious (which it probably isn't). It sounds healthy and wholseome and outdoorsey. It sounds like a lot of things that a Cinclophile would probably never do.
(the Cinclophile's obsession)
So, What is it? Dippering can be done at any time of the year, and involves the very simple study of Dippers. In winter, we study the roosting birds - catching (with all the appropriate licenses and permissions) and ageing them to see how they are surviving. With the recent very cold weather, snow and full rivers, we might expect these little birds to struggle. However, they are strudy wee things, and they seem to be able to cope quite well with the winter weather. Dippers in Ireland are an endemic subspecies - marginally larger than their cousins in Britain, darker above and duller below, with a slightly smaller brown breast-band (although to tell the difference, you'd probably need to see them both together which, given the sedentary nature of these birds (part of the reason that they are prone to sub-specific variation) is rather unlikely).

Cinclus cinclus hibernicus
(a big Dipper)
One word of warning, however, for anyone out there thinking of taking up Dippering: it is addictive! In fairness, spending seven hours on a freezing night wading about in freezing rivers to catch these birds (or, in the case of my Dippering partner, largely not catching them) probably means that it has to be addictive for anyone to do it more than once. Perhaps a self-help group is need for us Cinclophiles after all.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Mid-January birding blues

Its been quite a subdued week's birding, perhaps reflecting a fairly subdued (or should that be cataclysmic?) week on Offaly's political front. A visit to the Shannon Callows at Shannon Harbour only added Black-headed Gull and Dunlin to the year list (although the flock of 40 Dunlin was a notable county record) - water levels are high but, apart from a pair of Mute Swan and a handful of Lapwing also hanging around, the place was disappointingly quiet. Birding highlight of the week was probably a fly-over Little Egret near Birr. Although this white heron has become an increasingly familiar site in the winter (no breeding records for the county yet...), the recent freezing conditions have made them quite scarce over the past two winters.
(two males - note black cap; females are typically dull by comparison...)

With so little else around, the birding focus was once again on the garden, where the finches continue to impress. The female Brambling is still around (we caught and ringed her last week), and Siskin numbers have built up to at least eight birds (five of which have now been ringed, suggesting that there are probably a few more around). It is interesting to speculate how many birds actually are coming into the garden. The peak count for Chaffinches this winter in the Garden Bird Survey cuurently stands at 62. However, we have ringed 68 already this month, and there are still many more unringed in the garden. Similarly, we've seen a maximum of four Blue Tits in the garden at any one time, yet ten have been adorned with the finest aluminium jewellery. On the flip side, 23 Blackbirds were feeding more or less together in the garden this week, yet only 13 have been caught. To quote a (now defunct?) political party: "a lot done, more to do".

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Finally, it pays off...

I've just realised that I managed to devote an entire post to Greenfinches. Recognising an acute need to get out more, this week I visited possibly the top birding site in the county (it certainly has the most bird hides - four and counting). The Lough Boora Parklands comprise a landscape of post-industrial peat extraction, rehabilitated for wildlife through the creation of wetlands and other habitats (in addition to other things: one of the top European sculpture parks, Sculpture in the Parklands, is also here (and one of the sculptures is a bird hide!)). Birding-wise, the area is probably best known in Ireland as the last remaining site for Grey Partridge, although it has attracted a few other juicy species over the years. This week, however, the focus is on wetland birds which I was surveying for the Irish Wetland Birds Survey (I-WeBS).

Bird Hide at Boora
(Wetland beyond frozen, so no birds, but a nice hide...)
Wetland birds here typically consist of large flocks (1,000+) of Lapwing and Golden Plover with good numbers (100+) of Mallard and Teal. There is usually a herd (note correct collective noun for swans) or two of Whooper Swans around, a flock of Curlew and smaller numbers of Wigeon, Tufted Duck, Little Grebe and Moorhen. Unfortunately the wetlands completely froze over during December, forcing most of the wetland birds to bugger off and find some unfrozen sites, probably on the River Shannon system. Nevertheless, a monthly count was required, so we bravely headed out not expecting too much. Fears were confirmed at the first couple of wetlands, which were almost completely frozen. However, we did find a few unfrozen pockets of water and were able to record a few wetland species, including Whooper and Mute Swans, Mallard, Teal, Wigeon, a flock of Curlew, and the odd Lapwing (4), Golden Plover (3), Snipe (1) and Little Grebe (1 - no idea why it has persisted on its own). Bird of the day was nearly the four Grey Partridge (but they are becoming easy enough to get here thanks to the successful conservation work), so it was almost a solitary Shoveler (not a regular species here), but one of the Whooper Swans managed to oust the lonely old Shoveler from top spot. Why? Because it was ringed. Even better, we managed to read the ring (a yellow Darvic ring) in the field and, the icing on the cake, the readies I forked out on a fancy zoom eyepiece for the telescope for exactly this (reading Darvic rings on Whooper Swan at Boora) two years ago (having spent a winter chasing one sodding Darvic-ringed Whooper around the peat fields without getting close enough to read the damned ring) finally paid off because without it we wouldn't have been able to read the ring at all. Probably. Money well spent then.

The Darvic-ringed Whooper Swan
(digi-scoped (badly) with old eyepiece and not at all clear)
The Darvic ring reads B9T (anyone get that from the photo above?). The details have gone to the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust who run the "Super Whooper" project (seriously) and a soon as I hear back from them about this one, I'll post its story here.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Freaky finch

By and large, most birds look the same. Well, different species obviously look different (or, at least, most different species look different - some only sound different, but I digress), but within the same species, most birds all look the same. Yes, in some cases, you can tell the boys from the girls due to plumage or size differences. And occasionally, you can get some idea of age.  Okay, so I admit that it is possible (with careful observation) to tell some individuals from another, but by and large, from a distance, in fading light and without your bins to hand, one adult male Greenfinch skulking in a bush looks pretty much like the next.

Female Greenfinch
(note careful positioning on same branch as the male!)
Male Greenfinch
(looking the same as nearly all other male Greenfinches)

Sometimes, however, you get one that you can see is different from a distance. Occasionally they might have a white feather, or a distinctive injury. Very occasionally you get a true colour variant, such as an albino (white), melanistic (dark) or (in the case below) leucistic (lightly-coloured) variant. These colour variants occur in most species, albinism being probably the best known (you can even get albino humans). Albinos have no melanin to colour skin, hence they are white. Leucism is rather different in that all skin pigments (not just melanin) are present, but at reduced levels. Again, leucism occurs in a variety of animals and are generally described as being the colour of milky tea (or "tay" as its called locally (you see - cultural enlightenment as well as peals of birding wisdom)).

Leucistic Greenfinch
(affectionately known by me as Lucy)
In truth, the photos don't actually do the bird justice. Looking at the photo in isolation, most folks have gone "a Greenfinch...? What's so special about that?". However, in the flesh it is strikingly pale (referred to by my long-suffering partner (Mrs OBB) as "the funny white bird", and it takes something for her to notice). Most colour variants tend to get picked on by their fellow species, and are often more easily picked off by predators. This one, however, appears to be fairly high up in the garden Greenfinch pecking order, and doesn't suffer anyone sharing "her" feeder. As a result, getting a shot of her next a normal-looking Greenfinch hasn't been too easy, but when you see her with another one (albeit a male in the pciture below), the paleness of her feathers really does stand out. I wonder, with the recent snow this winter and the promise of more to come, whether such a pale bird would have a competitive advantage over her normal, darker brethren. Probably not - she's just a freak!
Bog Standard Greenfinch (top left) and Lucy
(and a Starling's tail top right!)

Thursday, January 6, 2011

...and I thought I'd start this off slowly!

I had rather hoped to start this blog off with some gentle garden birds, then go on to introduce some more interesting bits and pieces as the weeks and months progressed, before blasting you with the full and ferocioius might of the wonders of birding in Offaly over the spring and summer. I should have known better. The gentle introduction will just have to wait. The reason? I'm simply having a fantastic week, both in the garden and out and about.

Firstly, the garden. I'm participating in the Garden Bird Survey so am recording as many of the birds using the garden as I can. The idea is to generate weekly maximum counts for each species. However, I find it best to keep an (almost) daily tally of what I see and pick out the high counts at the end of the week. The majority of birds in the garden are made up of Greenfinches (40+) and Chaffinches (60+), but there is usually a good supporting cast of Goldfinches, Blackbirds, Starlings, Rooks, Jackdaws and Magpies, with the occasional Wren, Dunnock, Robin, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Coal Tit or House Sparrow to add some variety. However, last weekend I managed three Reed Buntings and a Siskin, while already this week I've had a couple of Lesser Redpoll, two Siskins and, best of all today, a female Brambling.

"Nice arse"
(as a friend of mine might say)
Female Brambling
(with male Chaffinch tying to get in on the act)

Bramblings are the Scandinavian equivalent of our Chaffinches (whom they are very closely related to). However, due to the very severe winter weather in their breeding grounds, Bramblings tend to sod off to warmer climes in the winter. Although scarce in Ireland generally, they do occur here annually, with the numbers arriving dependent upon the weather conditions. When Bramblings visit our shores, they like to hang out with their cousins, so if you see a large flock of Chaffinches in the winter, its always a good idea to keep an eye out in case a Brambling has joined them. Probably the easiest way to identify Bramblings is their white rump, which is revealed when they fly. The stripey "badger" head markings of the female are also distinctive up close. A nice bird, but still not the most unusual garden visitor...