South Dublin Branch - Outing Report

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

Dawn Chorus Day - 12th May 2024.

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Niall greets South Dublin members taking part in our 2024 Dawn Chorus outing to Killiney Hill Park. Picture by Gustavo Zoladz.

South Dublin Members, Killiney Hill Park, 12th May 2024 (picture: Gustavo Zoladz)

It is the annual event when BirdWatch Ireland transforms into 'BirdListen Ireland', and the audience gets to experience a free open-air symphony concert provided by natures finest singers, namely the birds of the dawn chorus. The International Dawn Chorus Day occurs each year on the first Sunday of May. BirdWatch Ireland’s dawn chorus vigils organised by its local branches then follow nationwide over the following week. The International Dawn Chorus Day all night live radio simulcast between RTE and the BBC and sometimes beyond has become an institution being aired for almost 30 years and is listened to across the globe.

The venue for this year’s South Dublin branch dawn chorus event was once again Killiney Hill Park. A whopping 65 people including several sleepy-headed children gathered in the car park in darkness and silence at 4 am. Weather conditions were mild, still, and dry which was perfect for walking, listening, and viewing. Looking upwards there was no repeat of the spectacular aurora some were fortunate to have witnessed the night before mostly from locations with lower light pollution.

As in previous years the group was delighted to have Niall Hatch a key contributor to the International Dawn Chorus Day radio event to give a comprehensive commentary on the unfolding drama of the morning.

South Dublin members gather at Killiney Hill's summit. Picture by Gustavo Zoladz.

South Dublin Members, Killiney Hill Park, 12th May 2024 (picture: Gustavo Zoladz)

In total darkness, Niall began to explain that birdsong is typically performed by males to defend their territory and attract a mate. The still coolness of dawn facilitates birdsong to travel further and sound louder than later in the day. Furthermore, as birds do not usually feed in the poor light, they take the opportunity to sing more constantly then. However, it can be hazardous as the attention of predators can be drawn to the bird’s location and so the bird has to be especially vigilant in the low light consequently those species with the best vision, the ones the largest eyes, are the ones that can risk singing earliest. Then right on cue Niall was interrupted by a faraway solitary Blackbird which began to sing even before sunrise possibly influenced by the city glow. With the first glimmer of light Robins and other Blackbirds and Song Thrushes joined in.

As everyone began walking in the twilight along the path towards the obelisk on the summit of Killiney Hill the birdsong quickly intensified all around and which was the period everyone present had come to immerse themselves in. No matter how old you are or how many times you experienced it, it never loses its magic in connecting the individual to something transcendent. Niall made a good point in that although you can listen to dawn chorus recordings it can never be fully authentic as only in nature can you appreciate the different heights in the vegetation at which different bird species sing and from their multiple locations.

Once daylight filled the forest, Woodpigeons made their debut and tiny Wrens began blasting out their astonishing 90 decibel songs into the chorus. Less easy to hear were the high-pitched calls from Goldcrests and Treecreepers. Goldcrests are Ireland’s smallest bird weighing only about the same as a 20-cent coin and because they are typically spotted high up in the tree canopy, they can often be difficult to see as well. Likewise, Treecreepers take a little experience to find as their plumage makes them cryptic on the tree trunks mostly frequent. An interesting fact Niall remarked about them is that climb up tree trunks but never down!

South Dublin members along the path with a view overlooking the Irish Sea. Picture by Gustavo Zoladz.

South Dublin Members, Killiney Hill Park, 12th May 2024 (picture: Gustavo Zoladz)

When the group reached the obelisk the panoramic views and sunrise were obscured by haze, but the cool freshness of the sea air was invigorating. Up to then all the birds heard had been Irish residents, so it was welcomed when two summer visitors from Iberia and north Africa joined the ensemble which were the Blackcap and Chiffchaff warblers. The Blackcap has a beautiful confident liquid flute-like warble. The Chiffchaff has a simple loud repetitive call which sounds like its name not only in English but as Niall informed us also in Irish and German as 'Tiuf-teaf' and 'Zilpzalp' respectively. He went on to mention that the Chiffchaffs scientific Latin name Phylloscopus collybita has an amusing English translation which is the 'leaf-seeking, coin-counter' Niall went on to tell us that some bird song components can be so highly pitched that they are imperceptible to the human ear such as that of the Grasshopper Warbler which we hear incompletely as a cricket-like or fishing-reel sound. Alas, this widespread but uncommon warbler would be unexpected at Killiney Hill as it prefers heath and wetland habitats.

The songs of different bird species may seem impossible to tell apart by anyone new to trying but once you get your ear trained, focusing one species at a time, it will be surprising how quickly you will learn how each one is unique. Several people on the outing were seen using the excellent Merlin smartphone App which is now widely used as a go-to aid for birdsong identification. A pair of Bullfinches arrived later in the morning producing their highly distinctive quiet, melancholic 'pew' whistle call. Interestingly Bullfinches also do have a quiet scratching warbling song, but this is seldom heard unless in close proximity. There were many excellent questions asked on the morning including whether bird species had different singing accents to which Niall replied sometimes yes as in the case of the Chaffinch whose call can vary significantly between geographical regions. The other vocalists heard later in the morning were Dunnocks, Linnets, and a Collared Dove.

As the chorus began to subdue the group made its way back to the carpark with several Hooded Crows to be heard loudly cawing possibly expressing interest in our commotion. Despite the unearthly early time of the morning for everyone to meet, the dawn chorus event remains the best attended event on the South Dublin BirdWatch Ireland calendar. For those who vehemently dislike the idea of arising at that time of day the dusk chorus as an alternative to consider which is a subtler but nonetheless beautiful affair. The outing concluded at 6:15 and warm appreciation was extended to Niall for educating and entertaining us all on the morning and indeed for his wonderful contribution to the International Dawn Chorus Day radio event covered the previous week on the unmissable 'Mooney Goes Wild' RTE radio programme.

Shane Kerr

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