January has dawned cold and grey but birds are already stirring in our towns providing plenty of interest for the urban naturalist.
Pairs of Jackdaws are perched on TV aerials and occasional fights break out over prime chimney pots.
Song birds are secretly investigating potential nest sites and Rooks are becoming more vocal but they won’t start nest building ‘til the end of March. Down by the waters edge some species are getting ready to build their nests and raise their families. The temperatures along by the bank can often be a few degrees warmer than the surrounding countryside and even during the most prolonged frosty weather there will be open stretches of river where birds can fish and bathe.
Recently I took a stroll along the River Ara in Tipperary town and the first bird I came across was the Dipper. This is a plump brown bird with a white breast and is around the size of a Blackbird. They hunt by diving into the water and walking on the river bed for a few feet searching for insects and their larva. They will then retire to a favourite stone to eat their meal. They do not nest under the bridge in town but use another bridge about a mile upstream. Until it was removed by the Tidy Towns, a strategically placed shopping trolley marked the division between the resident dippers’ territory. The males would perch on the trolley and a stand off would occur across the bars. Eggs are laid in the nest as early as February and they have a beautiful watery song and often bob up on down on rocks.
As I moved along I was thrilled to spot a Grey heron. They have long legs, a grey and white body, and a dagger-like beak and stand nearly a meter tall. They are often mistaken for Cranes but these birds are very rare visitors to Ireland. In flight their long legs dangle underneath the body and this makes Herons easy to identify when they are flying. They are very common along rivers in South Tipperary and are also found in wetlands.
Some Herons have become quite tame and you can get fabulous views of a master fisherman at work. He will stand perfectly still, head bent slightly forward and poised to strike at any passing prey. The river Ara that flows through Tipperary Town is famed as a trout river and occasionally you can spot eels so there is plenty of food for them. After they have caught their dinner they often retire to the Abbey school field and rest for a few hours. This is a safe place to sleep and digest their meal as very few people with dogs walk through the school grounds once the students have gone home. If disturbed, they give a harsh grumpy call and disappear with broad sweeps of their wings.
They are early nesters and can have chicks from February. Three to four eggs are laid and the young become independent after eight weeks. Only one brood is raised during the breeding season and they are two before they can mate. They usually build in tall ivy covered trees, conifer trees, or in dense reed beds.
Like rooks they are communal birds and up to 50 nests can be found in one heronries and some of these are over a hundred years old. The last survey carried out found 3,650 active heronries in Ireland.
Because their diet is high in protein Herons only need to eat around 20% of their body weight each day to stay healthy. On the other hand Blackbirds will have to consume up to 300 berries during the winter months. That’s equivalent to their own body weight every day. Herons are opportunists and will visit garden ponds for an easy meal. They have also taken up residence in Fota wildlife Park in Cork and when the seals are being fed they arrive and have become part of the attraction.
Herons will also include chicks in their diet and during the breeding season Swallows and Rooks will mob them continuously. The large and slow flying Heron is an easy target and wearily puts up with these attacks.
One of the key questions we are trying to answer is where heronries are located. There used to be one on the Donohill road in a tall ivy-covered beech tree but if you know where they nest you might give me a call or email.
Albert Nolan is an environmentalist and wildlife enthusiast based in Tipperary town. He also gives talks/walks to schools, community and tidy groups. If you have a question/comment for Albert please contact him at 089 4230502 or above email