By Albert Nolan
The New Year has emerged fresh from the depths of countless plum pudding and the occasional bottle of wine. After a few weeks of over indulgence I was in need of some exercise and exploring nature is a great way to put into practice the perennial resolution to get fitter. Our city teems with wildlife and already birds and flowers are braving the freezing temperatures and signs of the awaiting spring are to be found in gardens, parks and along quite streets.
Our view of the city can be quite restricted from street level but if seen from a height a rich patchwork of green spaces emerges from between the streets and buildings. Today I was heading out to explore some of these mini oasis and to see what wildlife I can find.
I began my walk between the neat rows of houses of Rossa Avenue. Many families have lived here for generations and natures equivalent are also well represented. A Magpie is perched on a Chimney pot and his harsh calls are at odds with the wide repertoire of a singing Starling. Rooks and Jackdaws are waiting patiently for some morsel of food while Black headed gulls are flying overhead. Wagtails are common city birds and one of the few that can feed in the heart of our city.
Green heart of the city
The day is cold and showery and I don’t delay till I reach the Peoples Park. As I walk in the gate the first bird I hear is a Robin singing. They are just starting to defend the boundaries of their territory with song. Singing contains a lot of information about the health of the bird, how big his territory is and his attentions. The tall trees and open areas of grass are ideal for feeding and nesting birds.
The park is busy and over the coming weeks countless battles will be fought between birds for this prime city habitat. Rooks nest in the trees each spring and I see seven flying while their calls echo throughout the park. I head deeper into the park and see feral pigeons x 2, Jackdaw x 2 and Rook x 1 feeding on scraps left along the paths. A regular supply of food is one of the many benefits of urban living. Overhead a black headed gull is calling and I hear a Starling singing. Two male blackbirds are foraging for worms in the short grass. These are one of my favourite city birds and the males are beautiful with a glossy black plumage and when mature a bright orange beak.
A pair of Chaffinches are resting in the branches of a tree. They were busy feeding and are taking a break while their food digests. I follow the path around the boundary of the park. Ivy has scrambles up the old stone wall and invaded an adjacent garden. This sheltered habitat suits shy Dunnocks and I hear one calling from deep within its cover. A pied wagtail seems a little out of sorts here as I am more used to seeing them on busier and harder surfaces.
I amble along and a find a Rook feeding in the grass. They probe for leatherjackets, the larva of the daddy long legs. These large grub spend several years underground feeding on the roots of grasses and plants. The adults emerge en mass on cool moist nights to complete their life cycle. Birds like Great tits are partial to eating them and I see one in the trees but he will have to wait for another few months to enjoy a high protein snack.
The tall trees of St Michael’s church stretch their long branches over the wall of the park. Nature’s choir is performing today and I hear a robin singing and a Rook calling. Three Starlings are perched in a tree but they do not join in this natural performance. The grounds are quite open here and where you meet the sun it feels quite warm. Strangely the birds are sticking to the shaded areas and I spot four more Rooks and three feral pigeons.
Underneath the towering Beech trees I find my first Snow drops of the year. Their flowers are just opening and this is a wonderful sign of the New Year. A Blackbird is rustling around in the leaf litter and I hear another one giving an agitated alarm call. I see a small bird and a quick look with the binoculars reveals it as a Dunnocks. A delicate call makes me look up into a tree and I see a dainty Bluetits feeding along the branches.
Through the large windows of the café I see several people chatting but they only hold my attention for a few seconds. Far more interesting is a large group of 17 feral pigeons that are resting on the sunny face of the building. They are trying to get as much heat as possible from the weak sun. The gutters also supply a clean source of water as this water is constantly refreshed by our rainy climate. I spy one male blackbird on the roof. This is a prime perch as he has a bird’s eye view of the park and can spot a rival male as he tried to take over his territory.
Exotic plants are also on display today and winter viburnum has delicate white flowers and Chinese cherry has small hanging fruits. As I leave the park I see Blue tits in a tree.
Connecting with Nature.
After a brief stop in the shops I reach Arthurs Quay Park. This is a small public place but when it comes to interacting with nature size is not that important. The bordering river Shannon is a major habitat for gulls and they will often roost in the safe grounds of the Shannon rowing club. The park is full of screaming gulls that are been fed by a young family. Our need to be connected with nature remains as strong as every even after a few generations of urban living. As I pass by I see that five Rooks have snuck into this free party and a few feral pigeons are scrambling for scraps. The commotion of feeding birds has attracted a small crowd who stand with cameras in hand recording the natural spectacle. Their deep tans and accents hint at a more Mediterranean climate but nature spans borders and binds generations with an ease that must be the envy of many politicians. It strikes me that one of the many images and memories they will carry back to their native countries will be of the natural world.
Nature spans the generations.
A few minutes later I am strolling along by the Lock bar. A Starling is singing and I have heard them throughout my walk today and this shows what a successful city bird they are. On the wall there are tiny cushions of moss and each has a small forest of seed capsules. The tiny spores are released during wet weather and are often carried to new places on the legs of birds. Trees created the first multi-cultural society with different species from around the world growing together throughout the city. Some of the finest trees in the city are found along by the river. The Lime tree is native and it casts its shade over the outdoor seating area providing welcome shade for summer evening drinkers. The Sycamore and the Horsechestnut were both imported around 800 years ago and are now so naturalized they are considered to be native. They have rough bark and this creates a home for countless insects that in turn are eaten by birds. These trees are at least 200 years old and several generations of Limerick citizens have past beneath their limbs. A lone feral pigeon is foraging along the path and his ancestors lived on cliffs along the coast.
Invaders and Defence.
I reach Balls Bridge and pause to read the new plaque to the memory of the Abbey fisherman. A pair of feral pigeons fly out from a ledge under the bridge and they will probably nest there during the spring. Curiosity drives me on as I have never walked along this stretch of the river before.
The wildlife island is an oasis for nature and is fairly secure been bordered by the Abbey river one side and the canal on another. Tall trees and plenty of cover make it ideal for birds. I peer through my binoculars and see a Moorhen drifting between the reeds. These are normally a shy species but have come out of their shell due to the constant flow of people that pass by each day. In a tree I see a Blue tit and a Woodpigeon. Black headed gulls are flying up the river towards the city. They use the river like a road and this gives them safe access between the countryside and their feeding grounds.
Along the riverbank by Sir Harrys Mall a Robin is feeding and I hear another one singing from the garden of a house. These are very territorial birds and defend their patch throughout the year. Japanese knotweed city has gained a foothold along the bank and this is part of a new wave of plant invaders that are colonising parts of the city. I reach the next bridge and a small green area has been left unmanaged. This has Bramble and buddleia growing on it and these are excellent plants for wildlife. Cow parsley leaves are poking up but they will not flower till May.
The bramble is brilliant for nesting birds as its thorny defence deters all predators. Its flowers attract bumblebees and butterflies and its fruit is eaten by birds, foxes and of course people. Buddleia is a recent arrival from China but supports over 20 species of moths and butterflies. A pair of Jackdaws are calling from the roof of a house and I also see a pair of Magpies in a magnificent Sycamore tree. These birds were first found in Wexford and tradition states that they were blown over by a storm from England. They are highly intelligent and adaptable and quickly spread throughout the county.
A troop of seven long tailed tits are marching through the branches of the Sycamore. They feed on insects and their larva and constantly sing as they go about their business. I cross the road and find a walking trail that takes you to St Johns Castle. I head off to explore and the gardens of houses brush against the side of the path. The river is more natural here with beds of reeds and willows. Flooding must have been a problem as large sand bags form a barrier to keep the waters at bay.
The path opens out into a large green space. Horses are grazing on the green and this is would be familiar sight down through the centuries. This type of low level grazing can be very beneficial for wildlife as it helps keep down rank vegetation and the hooves of the animals churn up the ground and expose plenty of worms and grubs for birds.
Black headed gulls x 24, Rook x 4, Starlings x 2 and Jackdaw x 1 are feeding in the field with the horses and animals and birds have an association that goes back thousands of years. A small flock of birds are feeding on weed seeds and I identify them as Linnets. These are common birds along rough margins and they have a variety of musical calls. The path ends abruptly with a tall fence and hopefully this is only a temporary closure and it will reopen soon for visitors. The willow trees along the bank are excellent for insects and a Blue tit is feeding on its swaying branches.
As I walk back I hear a Grey hooded crow calling and a Meadow pipit takes flight. As I pass the low wall by the river I see that someone has been feeding the birds. The skeleton of a fish is beached on the wall. I have only gone a few feet when a local turns up with a bag of food. She empties this onto the flat top of the wall and screaming birds descend from all quarters. They are mostly black headed gulls and I am very surprised to see a Grey heron join in. They normally don’t hunt for scraps but perhaps the chance of an easy fish is too much of a lure.
All Blacks Square off in the Park.
My next stop is Clare Street Park. The houses by the entrance are as tall as the trees and their artificial ledges are just as attractive for birds. Five starlings are sitting on the window sill of a house. Just before the entrance to the park a tiny Goldcrests pops out between the railings. He sees me and quickly retreats into deeper cover.
Blackbirds are common in this park and I find five males. They square off on the wide green spaces and try and chase each other to establish the best breeding territory. Four Robins are singing and the park can probably support a half dozen of these birds. Three Starlings are feeding in the grass while a pair of Chaffinches feed underneath the Beech trees.
I find only one female Blackbird and four long tailed tits passing through the trees. A nice surprise awaits in a quiet corner as Winter Heliotrope is in flower. This has beautiful scented flowers and you can often smell it before you see it.
I leave the park and my body starts to protest. I linger for a moment and consider pushing on or following the tall spire of St Johns home. Curiosity takes over and after a quick snack I am ready for the next stage of my walk. A short climb brings me on the St Patricks road.
The Garryown green is a fabulous amenity and I have often seen matches been played here. A robin is singing and large numbers of gulls roost here in the evening. They are well fed by the locals and every so often they take off in the direction of food.
The remains of a native hedgerow line the path. This was once connected to the countryside but was cut off with the building of the estates. Sycamore, Hawthorn, Elderberry, Bramble and ivy create a wonderful habitat for wildlife. A Starling is singing across the road and a Dandelion flower is just getting ready to open. The next part of the hedge is a little way up the road and consists of Snow berry, Silver birch with catkins and ivy with berries for birds.
I push on and meet a group of boys leading a horse. They eye me carefully and one calls “hey Paddy”. I am not sure if this is the standard greeting or he just confused me with someone else. The houses are thick on the ground along the road but many different birds have taken up residence. I count several Black headed gulls, two house sparrows and one Robin.
After a weary few minutes I reach my last stop of the day Mt St Lawrence Graveyard. I pause just inside the gate and have a welcome snack. A begging Rook arrives and looks at me with pleading eyes. As soon as I throw him a piece of food five more arrive and all too soon my sandwiches are gone. I leave the Rook to squabble over the remains and head off to explore.
I walk along the path bordering the hospital. A Blackbird gives a warning call and I hear a Chaffinch calling. Perched on a headstone I see a Meadow pipit. His bright orange legs are very visible and he flies away nosily as I approach. Ivy is growing along the wall and a female blackbird is feasting on its berries.
Five woodpigeons break cover and fly away. They also feed on ivy berries and are so plump they can only fly a short distance before settling down. Overhead several black headed gulls keep up a constant vigil in their search for food. I pass beneath the beech trees that soar like cathedrals high into the darkening sky. Eight Chaffinches had been feeding on the beech nuts but fly into the cover off a yew tree as I approach. A troop of six Magpie are flying around and they call excitedly to each other. Other members of the crow family are resident in the grave yard and I see a Grey hooded crow, Jackdaw x 2 and a Rook x 1.
I leave the graveyard as the sun starts to fade but true night never comes to the city anymore. Nature is all around us just waiting to be discovered in the shadows of houses, under tall trees, in the parks and hidden among the headstones. Why not make 2015 the year to head out and learn about our wildlife.