Christmas birds in the Tipperary Hills

Christmas is a time of great feasting and when we have eaten our fill of turkey and downed a few glasses of wine there is no better way to restore a semblance of balance to our bodies than to take a walk in Tipperary hills. While Summer migrants like Swallows and Cuckoos are very well known our Winter bird visitors might not be familiar to many people. Ireland’s climate is not that harsh compared to other European countries and every year thousands of birds flock to our shores to take advantage of this. One of my favourite species is the Fieldfare. It is easily recognizable by its Chestnut back and white under wings that are clearly visible in flight.

Christmas is a time of great feasting and when we have eaten our fill of turkey and downed a few glasses of wine there is no better way to restore a semblance of balance to our bodies than to take a walk in Tipperary hills. While Summer migrants like Swallows and Cuckoos are very well known our Winter bird visitors might not be familiar to many people. Ireland’s climate is not that harsh compared to other European countries and every year thousands of birds flock to our shores to take advantage of this. One of my favourite species is the Fieldfare. It is easily recognizable by its Chestnut back and white under wings that are clearly visible in flight.

Its name in Irish means “Wonderer of the Countryside” and this is a very accurate description of the lifestyle of the bird. They generally arrive in Ireland between Mid October and slowly work their way inland. They form large noisy flocks and as they fly they utter a distinctive “ chack, chach, chack call. Diet consists of earthworms and soil invertebrates but they will also eat Hawthorn berries. They are a shy and wary bird and generally keep well away from human habitation but if there is a prolonged cold spell hungry will drive them into our gardens. During the long cold snap I saw two Fieldfares on my lawn looking for food and this is the only record I have of them in the immediate vicinity of my house. If you every watch a flock of Fieldfares feeding or perching in a tree you might notice that they all face the same way. There is no record of them breeding in this country and because of this we never get to hear their song. By April they will have departed for their breeding grounds in Scandinavia.

The Redwing is another Winter visitor and generally arrives slightly earlier that the Fieldfare. It can be confused with our native Song thrush but these never congregate together and the plumage is very different. The Redwing has a prominent white stripe above its eye and an orange flash on its flanks that can be seen when the bird is flying.

It also feeds on earthworms and invertebrates and when available fallen apples and fruits from the hedgerows. It is far braver than the Fieldfare and can found in gardens and city parks. It has the beautiful old Irish name of Sneachta Dearg. Many of these old names were based on keen observations of the birds and when translating them you often have to do a bit of lateral thinking. Red snow might make no sense until you realize that when Redwings arrive the hedges are full of Red berries and frost/ snow is often on the ground. People associated the Redwing with this weather and it got its very descriptive name.

Its song is never heard in this country but in Sweden it was once called the “Swedish nightingale”. Apparently this title is much over rated title and the song does not reach the lofty standards that its name suggests.

Another good location to see Redwings and Fieldfares is in the field by the Abbey school. Large flocks congregate their each year all though as I write this they have yet to arrive. There numbers appear to be down but this is no surprise after two very harsh winters. We can help our winter migrants by planting berried trees and shrubs in our gardens and community green spaces. Hawthorn, Blackthorn, Mountain ash and Holly are ideal. Also our native hedgerows produce masses of berries for our birds but if these are cut down to the ground this vital soured of food is lost. How we manage hedges has a massive affect on our native birds. Happy Christmas and enjoy discovering nature.