We caught up with Niall Hatch from BirdWatch Ireland to find out how we can make our gardens more attractive to birds, what species we can expect to see, what we can feed them and if the birds have changed their habits during the pandemic.
What birds can we expect to see when birdwatching in their back garden at this time of year?
In most gardens around the country, the key species tend to be broadly similar. Most people will see Robins in their gardens at some stage, for example. This is a very common and widespread bird in Ireland, and it also tends to be fairly tame around people, so it is one of the birds most likely to be noticed. It is also one of the few birds that most people can identify with ease, so it is more likely to be seen and remarked-upon for that reason.
Blackbirds, too, are very common and are often one of the first birds to start singing in the morning. At the moment, people will probably see more of the males, which are jet black with orange-yellow beaks and legs, than the browner females.
This is because while the males are currently spending a lot of time hopping around on lawns, looking for worms, the females are hidden away on their nests, incubating their eggs. During this time, the males bring food to them: if you see one carrying food away in his beak, that's what he is doing.
This is also the time of year when the members of the tit family are the most active. We have four species in Ireland, namely the Blue Tit, the Great Tit, the Coal Tit, and the Long-tailed Tit. All are very common and widespread species all over Ireland and, apart from the Long-tailed Tit, all take readily to nestboxes. It's great fun to watch them hunting for spiders and caterpillars around the garden.
The tiny Wren is one of our smallest birds, yet also one of our loudest. They are remarkably common - there are actually more Wrens in Ireland than humans! - but due to their small size, secretive nature and wonderfully camouflaged plumage, they often go unnoticed. There is a good chance you have them in your garden, however, especially if you have some bushes or hedges that both provide them with shelter and attract the small insects that they need to eat. The best way to find them is to listen for their very loud, fast song: the volume is much higher than that of other garden birds, and the bird usually sings from a hidden perch that is fairly low down, often not far above the ground.
Where you find Wrens, you also usually find Dunnocks. These small, drab brown-and-grey birds are virtually unknown to most people, yet they are one of Ireland's top-10 most common garden birds. Like the Wren, they are secretive and skulking, rarely venturing out into the open from the bushes, and they are most commonly spotted creeping along the ground like mice.
This is also the perfect time of year to watch for migrant birds that have flown here from Africa to breed. The most famous of these is probably the Swallow, which likes to nest inside sheds, garages, porches and barns. The Swallow's red face and long, pointed tail-streamers distinguish it from the closely related House Martin, which has a white face and a white patch on its lower back, and which always builds its mud nest on the outside of a building, usually under the eaves, as opposed to inside one, like the Swallow.
If people happen to see, or indeed hear, migrant birds over the next few weeks, BirdWatch Ireland would like to know about it. Specifically, if people see any Swallows, Sand Martins, Cuckoos or Swifts this spring, we would be extremely grateful if they could take just a few seconds to log them for us at www.springalive.net.
If anyone happens to be looking for more activities to occupy restless children or to learn more about nature, please check out the 'Fun and Learning' section of the BirdWatch Ireland website.
Are some birds more popular in different parts of the country?
Some, such as the Robin and the Blue Tit, are certainly more popular with people than others, with Crows and Magpies in particular often getting a bad press. They have their role to play in nature too, of course.
Certain species are certainly more common and more likely to be encountered in different parts of Ireland. While the birds mentioned above are more or less universally common nationwide, people who live near rivers and lakes, for example, also have a chance of seeing some other species.
One such bird is the Grey Wagtail, which, despite its name, has a bright yellow breast and belly. They are rarely found too far away from water, but will visit nearby gardens.
Likewise, if you happen to live in an area where tillage farming still occurs, you might be fortunate enough to see Yellowhammers and Tree Sparrows in your garden. The Yellowhammer, in particular, is a stunning little bird, roughly the size and shape of a Sparrow and, on the males at least, with a vivid yellow plumage, offset with a lovely russet patch on the back.
Like many of Ireland's farmland bird species, Yellowhammers have suffered massive population declines. A generation or two ago they would have been a common and familiar sight in most parts of Ireland, but today their are much more restricted. The rapid intensification of agriculture in recent decades, and especially the large shift towards silage and dairy farming, has made life much harder for these birds.
If you live very close to the sea, you may see quite a few different sea- and shore-birds. These can be quite vocal at the moment, so we are encouraging people to keep an ear out for them while they are out exercising within 2km of their homes.
The Sandwich Tern, with its harsh, raucous call, is quite prominent at the moment, and our seas are teaming with other seabirds too, including Guillemots, Razorbills, Gannets, Cormorants, Shags, Fulmars, Kittiwakes and, by May, Puffins.
Is there a particular time of day that works best for bird watching?
The early morning is generally the most productive time for birdwatching, as this is the time when our songbirds are the most active. This is especially true at this time of year when the dawn chorus is underway.
This begins at the very first light, so most people sleep right through it. It really only happens from April until June and tends to peak in early May. I have had the enormous pleasure and privilege for many years now of working with Derek Mooney and his Mooney Goes Wild team on RTÉ Radio One's fantastic live 7-hour International Dawn Chorus programme.
Unfortunately, this has had to be cancelled this year, due to the COVID-19 outbreak, but I know that Derek is planning to feature at least some early morning birdsong on Sunday 3rd May.
If you are looking for seabirds, the time of day doesn't matter quite so much, as these birds tend to remain very active all day long. It's best, therefore, to time your watching so that you aren't looking into the sun, or when there isn't too much glare on the water. A good pair of binoculars make a huge difference.
Are there any other good spots for bird watching outside of the home?
There are hundreds of fantastic birdwatching spots all over Ireland, so no matter where you live there is bound to be one not too far away. Any good woodland, especially one with lots of deciduous trees, is well worth a visit, as are many parks.
If you happen to live near a beach, mudflat or estuary, you should be in for a treat, especially during the winter, when thousands of waders flock to Ireland to feed. Large freshwater lakes can also be wonderful for birds, as can rural hedgerows, provided that they have been left as natural as possible.
During the summer, a visit to a seabird colony will provide one of the best birdwatching experiences of all. One of the most accessible and spectacular is at the Cliffs of Moher, but there are many others: in Co. Wicklow, the cliff walk between Bray and Greystones is fantastic, for example.
BirdWatch Ireland has a nationwide network of 20 nature reserves that we would particularly recommend people to go to. Full details are available here.
We also have a really nice set of "where to watch birds" guides on our website, which give details about many of Ireland's very best birdwatching sites. You can find this here.
Is there any way to make our gardens more tempting to birds?
Definitely. No matter where we live, we can all take steps to improve our gardens for birds. Bird feeders and bird tables are fantastic, especially during winter, when birds use them the most. In addition to food, water is also very important. Garden ponds are wonderful, but even a simple birdbath or a basic plastic dish are great too.
Nest boxes are great too, but it's already a little late in the season to start putting them up: we generally recommend having them in place by the end of February. There are many different designs available, but they are quite easy to build at home too, if you have the wood and the tools.
You can find lots of information about nest boxes on our website here. Note: this page makes reference to the BirdWatch Ireland online shop, which since the most recent COVID-19 restrictions were announced, has had temporarily to close.
Choosing the right plants for your garden is one of the most important things of all that you can do. Try to include as many native plant species as possible, as these attract the insects that many birds need to feed on and to give to their growing chicks. Plants that provide a lot of berries, such as Rowan and Holly, are also great choices. You also want to make sure that you provide lots of shelter for the birds: evergreen shrubs and rich hedges can be superb for this.
Is there anything we shouldn't do? Anything that would harm the birds?
First of all, our key advice would be not to cut your hedges during the summer. Hedge-cutting between 1st March and 31st August is actually illegal, and the law is there in order to protect nesting birds. It's not simply that a nest might be damaged by the shears or strimmer, it's that nests, though still intact, could also be more exposed to the elements and to predators, that the parents nested there in the first place in anticipation of all the insect larvae they would feed to their chicks, which now are gone, and that there will be far fewer berries and other fruits in the autumn as a result.
Also, learn to love a slightly untidy garden. Birds like rougher areas, where the grass has been allowed to grow up a bit and the hedges look a little overgrown. Reassess your definition of a weed, too: most "weeds" are actually native Irish plants that support a whole community of insects and other invertebrates, which in turn become food for your birds. If you can tolerate them, allowing some nettles to grow is especially helpful to wildlife, though I fully realise that this is not the best idea if you have young children.
If birds are nesting in your garden or in your nest box, please resist the temptation to peek into the nest to see how they are doing. Likewise, don't take photos of eggs or chicks. These activities are actually illegal, and for good reason: if parent birds feel seriously threatened, there is a strong risk that they will abandon their nests, and also that the youngsters will leap out of the nest to escape, long before they are ready to.
The birds don't know that you are merely curious and have nothing but the best of intentions: they see you as a predator who wants to kill them and their chicks, and they are terrified. If they are unable to escape, birds usually show abject terror by remaining perfectly still, rather than trembling, snarling or lashing out like a mammal would; we humans often misinterpret their motionless behaviour as an indication that they feel fine. In reality, they feel about as calm as you would if a Lion suddenly burst into your bedroom.
Should we feed birds and, if so, what should we feed them and how?
Yes, absolutely: it gives them a great boost, and it also makes it much easier for us to watch them at close quarters. We have lots of information on our website about this that you are very welcome to use, if you wish: you'll find it here.
Have there been changes in bird behaviour since the coronavirus outbreak?
No, not at all. The birds are behaving exactly as they normally would; it's just that, due to the lack of traffic noise and because more people are spending time in their gardens or looking out of their windows, people are becoming more aware of them.
Birdsong is being drowned out much less, for example, and many people have never really stopped to watch the behaviour of the birds in their garden. Once you start, however, there is usually no going back: it becomes highly addictive!
One big potential advantage to our birds at the moment is that, due to the massive reduction in traffic, it stands to reason that fewer will end up as roadkill. Young birds, especially in the first days and weeks after leaving the nest, tend to be poor both at flying and at recognising risks: thousands of them are killed by cars each year, in many cases without the drivers even noticing.