Tag Archives: birds

The White Arse and other grassland birds

One of the most interesting things about birds’ names is that many of them are so strange you might find yourself wondering where they came from. However, in many cases they were changed slightly from their original, simple meaning because they were considered uncouth or not politically correct, particularly during the Victorian era of the 19th century. Such is the case with this handsome grassland bird, which likes to let approaching walkers get only so close before it suddenly flies off to land on a more distant fence post, usually just out of camera range.

Birdwatchers will immediately recognise this as the Wheatear (Oenanthe oenantha). I often wondered about the name ‘wheatear’ or ‘wheat ear’ and where it came from, and I did think it was a very romantic name. Presumably these birds frequented wheat fields… it makes sense. However, the truth is very different – the Wheatear has a huge patch of solid white at the top of its tail, and since the Middle Ages has been known as White Arse, as it’s particularly noticeable when this handsome, but otherwise drab bird, flies past. Many other birds have equally prosaic names, such as this infuriatingly difficult-to-photograph species:

When you get close it hides behind leaves, and only when it’s at a safe distance does it fully reveal itself, singing its grating, chortling call from a barbwire fence while simultaneously holding insect prey in its beak:

This infuriating little bird is the Whitethroat (Sylvia communis), which is a species of warbler, closely-related to the equally prosaically-named Blackcap. Many of the grassland birds could better be described as ‘fence birds’ as they like to perch on fences watching as you scare up insects which they then snatch. For some it’s a whole way of life, such as this common and beautiful species below, the Stonechat (Saxicola torquata):

The male of the species is very boldly marked, and in many ways is very similar to the European Robin, which it was once believed to be closely-related to. Females can even be confused with young robins, and juveniles too:

Not all birds are insectivores, some prefer seeds, some mostly seeds but will also supplement their diets with some insects too. This is typical of sparrows, but also the Redpoll (Carduelis flammea) which moves in small flocks. The individual below is a male, but there were females on the wire directly below him as he kept watch while they fed from grass heads:

I photographed all of these birds, and many more, in the space of two hours on the path leading from the main site of the East Coast Nature Reserve along the railway tracks to Blackditch Woods, which due to the prolonged drought and very recent heavy, thundery rains is now a veritable jungle, and well worth seeing… but watch out for the horseflies. Below is yours truly on the path, with the fences which the birds like to perch on. The birds – about a dozen of them altogether – are behind the camera and preceding me as I walk along.

 

 

Biodiversity Week!

You probably don’t realise it with all of the big news stories, referendum issues, etc. but this is Ireland’s National Biodiversity Week, and here is a little celebration of the biodiversity you will see in Wicklow right now, in no particular order:

   This is my first proper photo of a Red Kite (Milvus milvus), a large and very beautiful bird-of-prey which mostly feeds on carrion, and can often be seen soaring above the roads of Wicklow on the watch out for roadkill. It is a huge bird, and has only been back in Ireland for about a decade having been reintroduced, with the first released in Wicklow. They have since thrived.

Wicklow loves its cherry trees, and in spring they are everywhere blooming. Here’s a handsome double-flower cherry. Most are now gone out of bloom but you might still find some stragglers.

After the mass blooming of dandelion flowers seed-eating birds come into their element, with beauties such as the Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis) and Bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula) coming into gardens to feed on them. The bird in the photo is a male Bullfinch.

Butterfly numbers have been steadily climbing in May, and these dainty creatures can be found almost everywhere. The one in the photo is easily identified as it is the only Irish species with eye-spots, the Peacock butterfly (Inachis io).

Apple trees doe very well in Ireland, and Wicklow has no shortage of them. Here is one with immense blooms. Once fertilised by a pollen-covered bee or hover fly, each flower will gradually develop into an apple, but it will take a few months. And here’s a close-up of the beautiful blossoms.

Here (below) is one of the best of all the pollinators and in 2018 it seems to be enjoying a population explosion in Wicklow – the Chocolate Mining Bee (Andrena scotica), which doesn’t mine chocolate, but is chocolate-coloured. It is often confused with the Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) but has no pollen sacs on its hind legs, and no sting. The one in the photo is collecting pollen from a potentilla flower.

May is the time of the Maybugs – large, clumsy beetles best known as Cockchafer (Melolontha melolontha), which emerge from pupa having spent a year or two under ground as large white grubs feeling on the roots of dandelions. They appear in May and June and fly about at night, and are attracted to lights. You will see them now almost every night until the end of June.

And, of course, there are also moths to be seen:

   Many moths, like the one above, are attracted to window lights at night. This handsome species is the Small Phoenix (Ecliptopera silaceata), which is quite common in Wicklow, and which appears as two different generation of moths. This one belongs to the first, and in late summer a second generation of moths will appear.

On leaves all around gardens in Wicklow little green eggs appear. Some belong to moths, some to butterflies, some to true bugs and some to beetles. These eggs (above) belong to the Green Shieldbug (Palomena prasina).

Finally, to end my little showcase, here is a very beautiful game bird, the Wood Pigeon (Columba palumbus). These birds used to very much belong to the countryside, but in recent years they have begun coming to live in gardens, and can even be found in the centre of Dublin city, especially in universities with trees and green areas, such as Trinity College. However, in Wicklow they are in much larger numbers.

 

 

Easter and the Fertility Goddess

A lot of people wonder what the word ‘Easter’ means, and if you don’t already know the answer then you’re in for a surprise. Easter is actually Eostre, an ancient German fertility goddess associated with the springtime. Eostre is almost certainly a version of the ancient Babylonian goddess, Ishtar, and therefore the same as the Phoenician goddess Astarte, who was also known (in different time periods and places) as Ashtarot. According to one very reliable ancient source (preserved by the early Christian bishop, Eusebius of Caesaria):

“… Astarte set the head of a bull upon her own head as the mark of royalty, and in travelling about the world she found a star that had fallen from the sky, which she took up and consecrated in the holy island Tyre [modern day Lebanon]. And the Phoenicians say that Astarte is Aphrodite.”

My reconstruction of the so-called Burney Relief, an item of pottery, dating from 19th or 18th century BC, which is believed to show the Babylonian goddess, Ishtar. She also seems to have been associated with birds, and here is depicted as a bird-woman. Film fans will probably recognise the inspiration for the mechanical owl in Ray Harryhausen’s blockbuster 1980s movie Clash of the Titans.

This is very interesting because Aphrodite was known to the Romans as Venus and identified with the planet of the same name, which is Earth’s nearest neighbour, and which is also the brightest star in the night sky.

So, I hope you all had a happy Ishtar!

Anyhow, it is the perfect time to acknowledge both fertility and birds, and here is a little video about birds which you will see pairing off and building nests right now all around Wicklow, and further afield.