Winter Migrations

Pictured: Curlew. Photo Colum Clarke.

Pictured: Curlew. Photo Colum Clarke.

While the summer may have come and gone and with it many of our beloved feathered friends back to the sands of Sub-Saharan Africa, the winter time brings its own migrants from the cold reaches of the Arctic Circle and the furthest reaches of northern Europe.

Winter migrants seek to escape from the harsh extremities of a northern winter, searching for food, and for some a possible breeding ground to help rear the next generation.

Pictured: Waxwings. Photo Shay Connolly.

Pictured: Waxwings. Photo Shay Connolly.

Among the flocks of migrants coming to Ireland, one of the most beautiful and easily identifiable of birds has to be the Waxwing, with its mocca brown plumage, tufted head and multi-coloured wings. It leaves an indelible impression of elegance, as flocks roost in urban areas feeding on rowan berries to stock up after a harsh flight from places such as Siberia and Northern Scandinavia.

They can be spotted during the months of November and December along the south Dublin coast in small numbers. When there are crop shortages of berries in the Arctic Circle the Waxwing will fly south in larger numbers to the British Isles for alternative sources of food.

Development Officer and Spokesperson for Birdwatch Ireland, Niall Hatch, has spoken to NewsFour about the diversity and the facts behind the species that migrate during the winter months to Ireland.

“Waxwings have been known to turn up in Dublin’s housing estates and land on bird feeders and on tables in search of food. They don’t have much fear of humans as they spend most of their time around the Arctic Circle where few humans come into contact with them.”

Members of the thrush family arrive in large numbers every winter, including the beautiful Redwing with its red wings and creamy-coloured stripes underneath and the larger grey and brown Fieldfare.

Pictured: Redwing. Photo Dick Coombes.

Pictured: Redwing. Photo Dick Coombes.

“Redwings migrate from Iceland and Scandinavia. You can listen out for them migrating. I used to love to listen at night for their call which sounded like a thin metallic whistle. They make this noise to keep the flock together. They like to feed on crab apples that are often crushed on the ground. Migratory birds like the Fieldfare and Redwing are exhausted after their journey as they have expended a lot of energy during their journey to Ireland. Populations of Song Thrush and Mistle Thrush will come down also from places like northern Scotland.”

Over the past 30 years the Blackcap, a wonderful songbird, has taken to wintering in Ireland, having come from eastern Germany and Poland. The Blackcap was once a summer visitor that would later venture to southern France and Spain. Its population has grown as it has successfully bred in Ireland and expanded in its territory.

“They are migrating now in the right distance but strangely enough they have gone in the wrong direction,” explained Hatch. “It has become a matter of genetics with Ireland and Britain now receiving Blackcap populations in winter as their migratory route has changed in confusion. Starlings too come to Ireland in large numbers in search of food and milder temperatures. These birds will come all the way from the Baltic Sea, Latvia, Estonia, Poland and Russia.”

Ducks such as Widgeon, Teal, Pintail, Shoveler and Eider migrate south to Ireland’s shores to winter, along with such eponymous visitors as Brent Geese and Canada Geese, who can often be heard calling to each other on late autumnal nights on their arrival to the east coast of Dublin.

Pictured: Brent Geese. Photo copyright Rossographer

Pictured: Brent Geese. Photo copyright Rossographer

These birds can be spotted through winter months along the coast of Sandymount Strand, the Irishtown Nature reserve, the North and South Bull and Dollymount Strand where they graze on large plains of grassland.

The Short Eared Owl often hunts during the day and has been spotted along the South Bull during winter months, as numbers come in from central Europe.

“These birds are often seen during the day and they have been seen just sitting there in the middle of a field and even on the grass of a nearby runway,” said Hatch. “The area around Dublin’s Bull is where they have been spotted hunting. Along Dublin bay and the salt marsh islands they have been spotted along with Merlins too.”

Hatch also noted that while the winter months see the arrival of large flocks of curlew from Eastern Europe that frequent and shelter along the coastline and estuaries of Ireland, the natural indigenous, population of curlews have declined so much that they are now a red-listed endangered species, who have lost much territory over the years.

“Its sad to say that one of my favourite birds from childhood may no longer be a natural breeding species here. They have been decimated in numbers, but people have not realised that these birds found along Sandymount Strand come from eastern Europe and are not even native to this island.”

The booming call of the curlew, the beauty of the Waxwing, the mobs of Brent Geese and Canadian Geese will continue to grace our shores and parklands as welcomed feathered friends and visitors through a season of change.

By Robert Fullarton