Towards the end of the winter, supplies of natural food are starting to run out and species that would normally shy away from feeders and bird tables are forced to queue up to join the robins, sparrows and blue tits that are regular users .
I’m still waiting for the siskins. They’re usually here by now but there must be enough small seeds left in the birches and alders round about to keep them going. But for the past week or so a flock of long-tailed tits have been crawling over my feeders, looking like pale pink flying mice.
They’re one of my favourite birds but this is the only time of year when I get to see them regularly and at close quarters. They are quite dedicated carnivores and I only put vegetarian food in my feeders. They specialise in searching hedges and woods for small prey — tiny spiders, hibernating insects and their over-wintering eggs, larvae and pupae. They seem to specialise in searching for prey around the buds of trees and shrubs. One study concluded they prefer hawthorn in autumn, oak in mid-winter and birch, sycamore and ash after the beginning of March.
William Thompson, the father of Irish ornithology, is usually a very reliable source of information but he did tend to shoot the birds he was interested in. This, of course, was the way you did things in the 19th century. In the 1830s he writes: “The stomachs of four killed in January and March were, with the exception of two seeds in one of them, entirely filled with insects, among which the remains of minute coleoptera (beetles) were in every instance discernible.”
The flocks are all extended family groups but they lay large clutches of eggs and, as well as parents and young, there are usually a few non-breeding relatives who have helped out with rearing the brood the previous year. This means the family can often consist of 10 or a dozen birds. I think there are about eight in my group, but they’re such hyperactive little birds it’s hard to count them.
Sometimes a winter flock will contain other species —- blue tits, coal tits or goldcrests —- and these flocks can be much larger. They tend to stay on the move, a little army living off the land, devouring everything edible and travelling on to find more.
They are very vulnerable to cold weather, and nest predation in the spring, so numbers fluctuate. However, they certainly seem to be much commoner today that they were in Thompson’s day. He says they were virtually unknown in Munster 180 years ago.
GARDEN SNAIL (Helix aspersa)
There are many species of snail found in Ireland — on dry land, in fresh water and in the sea. The garden snail is the large one with a shell that’s normally bright brown flecked with yellow and a grey-brown body.
They are common in gardens but are also found in the open countryside in places that are neither too wet nor too dry. The species is almost certainly native to Ireland.
When active, which is normally at night, its head and tail stick out of the shell and it moves on its muscular foot over a slime trail. Top speed is about 50 metres an hour or 0.05 kph.
The two longer horns are light-sensing organs, similar to eyes, and the shorter ones handle smell and touch.
Garden snails eat almost any kind of vegetable matter and in very cold or very dry weather they can seal themselves into their shells and survive without food for several months.