South Dublin Branch - Outing Report

Bluethroat - Ballycotton, Cork (photo: Paul & Andrea Kelly)

Dawn Chorus Day - 14th May 2023.

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Niall Hatch addresses South Dublin members taking part in our 2023 dawn chorus event in the early morning light at Killiney Hill. Picture by Bill Rea.

South Dublin Members, Killiney Hill, 14th May 2023 (picture: Bill Rea)

Listening to the spring dawn chorus is surely one of the most primal experiences for any nature-lover, that somehow touches the soul with it being an inspiration to composers of music and poets through the ages.

After last year's success, we decided that Killiney Hill Park should once again be the chosen venue for the annual excursion devoted to the dawn chorus. The event is proving increasingly popular as demonstrated by a record-breaking turnout of 52 South Dublin members, who gathered in total darkness at 04:00, all hoping for a great early morning's birdsong.

The first songster, a male Blackbird in full song at Killiney Hill Park. Picture by Bill Rea.

Blackbird, Killiney Hill Park, 14th May 2023 (picture: Bill Rea)

The weather was mild, still, and dry, the perfect combination for walking, listening, and viewing. The event began with a warm greeting from the outing leader Niall Hatch, who gave a background on what the dawn chorus is, why it happens, the physiology of birdsong, birdsong identification apps and answered questions. He then paused to allow everyone to absorb the silence of the night as a baseline for what was to follow.

Niall explained why species sing following a set sequence, which relates to a correlation between the amount of available light and the size of the bird's eye. Birdsong is typically performed by males and is all about defending territory and attracting a mate, but their musical interlude can also be hazardous since it draws the attention of predators to the bird’s location and so the bird must be visually alert at all times. Therefore, those species which can see better in the dark, that is those with the largest pupils, can afford the risk of singing first in order to demonstrate their fitness to potential mates.

Another early riser is the Robin, this one is looking a bit worse for wear. Picture by Bill Rea.

Robin, Killiney Hill Park, 14th May 2023 (picture: Bill Rea)

The still coolness of dawn also facilitates birdsong sound waves to travel significantly further and sound louder than later in the day. As twilight began from about 04:20, the first songsters erupted out of the silence and as anticipated these were the larger-eyed ones with Blackbird kicking things off, followed shortly afterwards by Song Thrush and then the Robin.

As we walked along the path towards the top of Killiney Hill, the number of birds joining the chorus increased and vocal intensity grew louder. Niall frequently stopped along the route upon hearing a good example of species present and gave colourful helpful analogies of the songs that everyone could recognise and remember. For example, he contrasted the melodious Blackbird with its mellow fluty song that stops abruptly then restarts to that of the monotonous but none the less beautiful 'ring tone-like' repetitive phrases of quick succession given by the Song Thrush and the dramatically different 'machine gun-like' song bursts from the perky Wren. Someone remarked to me that Niall’s descriptions were like listening a sommelier describing favourite wines!

Three-cornered Garlic growing at Killiney Hill Park. A pretty but undesirable and invasive alien plant. Picture by Bill Rea.

Three-cornered Garlic, Killiney Hill Park, 14th May 2023 (picture: Bill Rea)

Three warbler species were heard; Blackcap with its loud melodious bubbling flute-like call, the easily recognisable onomatopoeic Chiffchaff and the distinctive gentle crescendos of Willow Warbler. All their songs rang through the trees evoking to us all the essence of the joy of spring. A little Treecreeper was then observed and chimed in the symphony with its modest contribution as did the highly pitched sounds from a diminutive Goldcrest high up in the tree canopy.

A Dunnock also sang from the gorse bushes, sounding like a Whitethroat to the untrained ear. Wood Pigeons were cooing with one demonstrating its in-flight courtship display. Several common Corvids were spotted and appeared curious about us and were no doubt looking for some feeding opportunity. After a gentle climb along the path with the air filled with the freshness of spring vegetation and the verges adorned by flowers such as Lesser Stitchwort and wild Garlic, we arrived at the summit of Killiney Hill at about 05:30 to take in the panoramic views and watch the fiery sun rise above the sea on the horizon together with clear views of Snowdonia 80 miles away across the Irish Sea in Wales.

Sunrise over the Irish Sea with the Muglins, Dalkey Island and Sorrento Point in the foreground. Picture by Bill Rea.

Sunrise from Killiney Hill Park, 14th May 2023 (picture: Bill Rea)

Close by the shore, two diving Gannets were seen and a Sparrowhawk flew by the hillside, but alas the Long-Eared Owl and the Peregrine encountered on last year’s expedition were not evident

Along the return journey to the car park an in-flight Bullfinch was readily identifiable by its white rump, as were several tit species. It was evident that Chaffinches although abundant in the park made no contribution to the dawn chorus as predicted earlier by Niall. However, they would certainly make their presence felt by their characteristic calls later in the day.

Some More Pictures

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It's not just songsters that are up early, a Magpie striding out. Picture by Bill Rea.

Some more pictures taken on the day by Bill Rea.
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Proof positive that the early bird catches the worm. Picture by Bill Rea.
South Dublin members on dawn chorus duty with the coastline stretching south in the background and Bray Head, Little and Great Sugar Loaf prominent in the distance. Picture by Bill Rea.
Dating from the 1740s, Killiney Hill's Obelisk. Picture by Bill Rea.

The outing concluded at about 06:20, by which time feeding activity had replaced the dawn chorus. The event was truly uplifting and well worth the early morning rise and I think one must reflect that all the commotion witnessed takes place daily in spring and early summer when we are usually fast asleep. A big thank you to Niall for sharing his unbridled enthusiasm and to all those friendly birders who attended.

Shane Kerr

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