Unseasonal weather leaves wildlife all mixed-up

Mon, Jan 16, 2012, 00:00

ALTHOUGH IT may still be officially winter, above-average air and soil temperatures have brought bird species ravaged by two consecutive cold winters bouncing back, while confused plants think it is spring.

“We’ve had phone calls from people saying they have fewer birds than normal, like robins, blue tits and starlings coming into their gardens,” says Niall Hatch of BirdWatch Ireland. “People are worried that something has happened to them.”

With the mercury though remaining above freezing for most of this winter, natural foraging has been made easy, making bird tables, well, for the birds.

With stocks of Ireland’s smallest and second smallest birds, the goldcrest and the wren hit by two harsh winters in a row, this year’s milder winter should herald a population boost, according to Hatch.

Ireland’s smallest birds, some weighing just five grams, who survived the cold winter of 2009 to lay eggs in the breeding season, faced a second punishing winter in 2010. “There were lots of babies around in the autumn but then a cold winter hit again and it killed most of them off; the sad reality is that most of them don’t survive,” says Hatch.

“This winter, however, has been so mild that a higher proportion than usual of these babies survived and we are seeing these species bouncing back, which is good news.”

It has been a bumper winter for plants, too, with many thinking it is already spring. The director of the National Botanic Gardens, Matthew Jebb, says records taken in the gardens show that plants are now putting out their leaves two weeks earlier than they did 40 years ago.

Visitors to the gardens this week will be rewarded with the sight of the native cowslip in full bloom, a plant that normally flowers at the earliest in March. Cow parsley is flowering too, a native plant that usually doesn’t colour Irish roadsides until March or April.

Jebb says strawberries in the garden are in full flower also. “As far as they are concerned, it’s spring. To have them flower two months ahead shows what an odd year we’ve been having.”

While it is still too early for our annual visitation by swallows, climate change has also brought their arrival date forward. With their peak arrival months being April and May, with a scattering of pioneers sometimes touching down in March, springalive.net, a Europe and Africa-wide monitoring programme, has found that “on average, swallows are arriving two weeks earlier than they did 20 years ago”, according to Hatch.

Met Éireann forecaster John Eagleton says ground temperatures have not been as cold as the past two winters.

“The mean [air] temperature in January would normally be five degrees for Dublin and Cork and now it’s seven for Dublin and 7½ for Cork, that’s 2½ degrees above normal. It will be an early season for daffodils if it goes on like this, that’s for sure.”