Many of us have probably spent more time in our houses and gardens since March 2020 than ever before. It’s been a year apart, a time for weeding and planting, painting and tidying.
For many it has also been a time for taking more notice of the natural world around us. Many report that they’ve never seen so many birds and heard so much birdsong. “Are birds singing louder this year?” has been a frequent question. For some this is a first, taking time to watch a sparrow taking a bath in an upturned bin lid – watching a thrush feeding its chicks under a hedge; or developing a really close personal relationship with a robin “ who would almost eat out of your hand”. For others, it’s just more time to spend doing what they enjoy most – watching and appreciating the natural world around them.
Then there’s that day when you spot something – a bird, a butterfly, a bee or an insect you can’t put a name on. Out comes the camera phone – zoom in – a couple of clicks and you’ve got the evidence. With a bit of luck there’s someone in your neighbourhood who’s good at that sort of thing and can tell you that it’s a Goldfinch, a Small Tortoiseshell butterfly, a White tailed Bumblebee or whatever. Sometimes that’s enough to get you hooked. It might be a Dawn Chorus walk or the gift of a book on Irish Wildlife that does the trick. You can now sort out a Great Tit from a Blue Tit or a Peacock butterfly from a Red Admiral. With the help of a book on Irish Garden Birds you can just enjoy learning to recognise more species.
You may find yourself keeping a little list, a record of the visitors to your garden. You might decide to take it one step further. Each December, Birdwatch Ireland launches its Garden Bird Survey – and each year more and more people of all ages keep a checklist of the different species of birds they see weekly over the winter to the end of February.
Sitting by the kitchen window, with a bird table and a couple of feeders outside, you’ll probably tick off the usual suspects by elevenses on Monday morning. Yes – Robin first up, followed by a few House Sparrows scattered suddenly by the first troop of noisy Starlings of the day. Then after a lull, a Blackbird warily approaches that over ripe apple you left out - a pair of nervous Collared Doves hoover up some seeds from the bird table. Then the Jackdaws move in for a bit of old fashioned mayhem. And on it goes – tick – tick – tick.
Then on a particularly cold January morning your eye is attracted to what looks at first glance like a Greenfinch – except it’s too small - and the top of its head is black – and it hangs upside down like an acrobat. After a bit of furious page turning – Bingo – there it is. You’ve just seen your very first Siskin possibly a winter visitor from Northern Europe. One for the record!
Birdwatch Ireland had over 1600 recorders taking part last year with at least 3 of those coming from Geashill Village including the children of Geashill National School who feed and record their winter birds. These records help Birdwatch Ireland to build a detailed picture of how different species of birds are faring in Ireland year on year.
The National Biodiversity Data Centre in Waterford also does excellent work including the processing of records and data on every aspect of Ireland’s plant and wildlife. They have a handy app for your mobile so that you can record individual sightings. If you see a Buzzard on Curragh Hill or the first Snowdrop in the Glebe Walk you can upload the record there and then. Following the promptings and encouragement of our Heritage Officer, Co. Offaly is now one of the top recording counties in the country.
As you become more familiar with one species, you may find yourself noticing and learning to identify other creatures such as bees or butterflies. We only have 35 resident and regular butterfly species recorded in Ireland, so it doesn’t take that long to get to know them apart from the 5 White species which can require a bit of practise. If you become keen on butterflies you could set up a Walk in your area linking about 10 hotspots where you might expect to see them. There is a 5 Visit Butterfly Monitoring Scheme where you walk that route 5 times between April and September and record the butterflies you see.
Then of course you’ll start noting bumblebees feeding in the same areas as the butterflies and before you know it you’re recording them also. The Biodiversity Data Centre offers courses in person and online each year for those who wish to learn how to identify and record.
In May 2019 Geashill Tidy Towns organised a 24 hr Bioblitz over 2 days where experts, specialists and keen amateurs alike recorded every flower, plant, insect ,bird, mammal etc they could find in a 2km square around Geashill. We the finest specialists infields such as Botany, Entemology, and Ornitology in our midst for two magical days. With the Old School as Base Camp and a hive of activity – by the end of the second day we had recorded and uploaded a grand total of species to the Data Centre in Waterford. Apart from it being great fun, these records are a rich resource for gaining some understanding on how our wildlife is faring and can act as a baseline for further research into the future.
By now some of you might feel a bit confined by just recording in your local patch and might wish to broaden your horizons. If you want to make your mark at international level, you could sign up for something like monitoring migrant Whooper Swans in your area along with other teams of volunteers all over Europe. This usually involves dawn visits to bogs and hillsides in the depths of Winter, frozen to the bone, counting our visitors from Iceland honking away happily as they set out for a days grazing around Raheen. It was good to discover however that Offaly recorded the highest number of Whoopers on the island of Ireland in that 2020 survey.
So, that’s what it can lead to if you start making note of what plant or wildlife you see in your garden. You can get completely hooked on it. For the Record – I wouldn’t change a thing.
Pat Foley, March 2021