Irish garden bird survey


BirdWatch Ireland runs an annual survey of garden birds to monitor the number and variety of birds visiting our gardens. The current survey runs from the start of December 2017 to the end of February 2018. The countryside has undergone great change in the last few decades and native habitats are diminishing. Gardens now perform an important role in maintaining stocks of different species of birds. The first part of the survey involves a description of the garden: its size and location, and whether feeding stations are provided.

The main survey is quite simple, the largest number of a particular species observed in each one week period is recorded. A list of the most likely bird species is provided with some blank spaces for other species observed. The survey only records the number of birds seen together at any one time to avoid duplication. The results of the surveys are compiled and can be viewed online. A table of the Top 20 birds in Irish gardens is produced from the figures. The robin has topped the table for the last several years, followed closely by the blackbird, appearing in almost 100% of gardens.

Completing the survey is a highlight of the winter months. With the vegetation down it is easier to spot the different visitors to the bird table, however counting them is quite a challenge. Sparrows appear in the largest numbers in our garden followed by tits (great tits, blue tits, coal tits and long tailed tits) and finches (chaffinches, goldfinches, greenfinches and bullfinches). The tits are among my favourite birds, they are always impeccably turned out, looking smart and well dressed no matter what the season. They are intelligent too, they will cautiously examine any new feeding feature and quickly figure out how it works. They will often swoop into the bucket of grain to grab some seeds before they are served up.

We have two robins at present, they do not seem to be a mating pair as they are often involved in aggressive behaviour. Blackbirds are daily visitors, they like to feast on chopped apples which are bruised or no longer perfect and are not good for human consumption. When the weather gets very cold and frosty they get some chopped up grapes as well. One song thrush visits most days, he picks around under the shrubs. We have two wrens, one very light in colour, they live around the compost bins and do not bother with the bird table. We have seen the lovely gold crests, sometimes one or two together, but they are rare visitors.

Our collar doves come in to peck at the food dropped on the ground and to sit contemplating the world on the wall or on the branches of our trees. We have one visiting jackdaw who feeds on the food dropped from the bird table. He is welcome on his own, but when a group arrives it always means trouble: they squabble and fight, knock over the feeders and frighten away all the smaller birds. We have very few starlings so far this year. We usually have two or three regular visitors to the feeders, and from time to time a large group who start at one end of the grass and carefully cover the entire space searching for worms and grubs, and then fly off.

For the last number of years our garden is on the radar of a sparrowhawk. He swoops in every few weeks and sometimes he makes a catch. I feel no guilt about frightening him away, I know he needs to eat and feed a family, but our birds are sitting targets and easy prey.


Borrowed landscape


The concept of borrowed landscape conjures up the idea of large estates and country demesnes, rolling hills or high peaks, distant water or dense woodland. This was the original meaning, but on a smaller scale our gardens can benefit from local views and neighbouring planting schemes.



Shortly after we moved to our new garden in 2006 and for a number of years afterwards, the field behind our house was used for several months each spring and early summer to keep young foals and their mothers. This was not surprising as Kildare is horse country, the home of stud farms, including the Irish National Stud at Tully, and race tracks at the Curragh, Naas and Punchestown. But this was like our own personal paddock. This field is hedged with black and whitethorn trees and is a blaze of frothy white and cream in the spring and early summer.



Our street is planted with silver birch trees and they give a lovely backdrop to the gardens and mark the changing of the seasons. They all lean in the same direction due to the prevailing wind from the west. They show delicate leaf buds in spring followed by small rustling leaves in summer, delicate yellow autumn colour and stark shapes in winter with the silver bark glowing. They look particularly good in snow.


Our neighbours grow shrubs and trees that give us great pleasure. Our neighbour across the road has a magnificent Magnolia Soulangeana taller than his house, with lovely pink tulip shaped blossom, we enjoy its flowering as much as if it grew in our garden. Our next door neighbours have had a succession of lovely shrubs which border our garden. They had a gorgeous tall Mountain Ash at the bottom of the garden, it was a different variety to ours and had redder berries, we got the full benefit of its spring and autumn displays. Sadly it is now gone but we still get seedlings sprouting up where its berries have germinated. On our joining boundary they had a Cordyline palm and a most beautiful Viburnum with blossom of large snowy white balls. Both succumbed during the severe weather in 2010.


Nearby and giving its name to our area is a ruined windmill. Only the base now remains but it still has its date plaque over the doorway: John Grattan / An: Dom: 1738.

Woodland tangle

Nearly twelve years of enthusiastic planting has turned a tabula rasa (the blank space of our back garden) into a woodland thicket. It’s time to reclaim the space, or to lose it in a tangle of vegetation. Lack of light at ground level and woodland conditions are changing the character of the area. I have fallen into the most common of gardener’s errors: planting too many specimens and underestimating the growth habit of trees and shrubs. I love most of the planting in this section, but it needs to be thinned out and not allowed to grow so tall or it will become unmanageable. Many smaller more delicate plants have been lost due to the absence of light.

This autumn I was resolved to start on the pruning regime. The weather made it difficult to make much progress, but I have begun the task. The raised border at the eastern side has two large trees that will tolerate hard pruning, Sambucus Nigra “Black Lace” and Viburnum Bodnantense “Dawn”, a large Hydrangea, two unnamed climbing roses, a pale pink and a rose pink, Pernettya with pink berries, a large white Phlox, Mahonia, and a spreading Hellebore. Underneath there are Cyclamen, Astrantia, self seeding Aquilegias, and a host of spring bulbs. I do not want to take the trees out, I have pruned them back severely and I hope to keep them in check. The two roses have climbed vigorously, sending long thorny arches into the neighbouring garden, I prune these every year, but I think they need a heavier hand.

At the back wall, running the length of the garden to the south there is a large holly supporting the rampant rose Rambling Rector, and offering protection to the delicate Acer “Orange Dream”. Roses Zéphirine Drouhin and an unnamed white dog rose, and Clematis Montana Rubens scramble along a sturdy timber structure, a strong thorny Pyracantha “Red Column” holds its own, and a Viburnum Tinus “Gwenllian” crouches underneath. Behind the bench the white dog rose continues and tangles into the Clematis Viticella Purpurea “Plena Elegans”. Beyond the bench is the slow growing Magnolia “Leonard Messel”,  a large Hawthorn, brought from Cork as a cutting, with Honeysuckle “Lonicera Belgica” growing through it, Bergenia tucked in under it, and two Potentillas flanking it, one yellow and one pink. Purple flowering heathers, daffodils, crocus, snowdrops, and other spring bulbs are planted underneath.

First step was to raise the space under the plants by pruning lower branches, this allows light in and a Ruscus under the holly has produced red berries for the first time in years. I still need to reduce the height of the holly. The Rambling Rector rose has climbed to the top of the holly, into the heights of the Sorbus (Mountain Ash) and into a large Damson tree growing outside our garden wall. With its abundance of white blossom it looks amazing for two to three weeks in June, but this vigorous rose will have to be kept to a more manageable height, up to now I have been nervous of killing it, but I think that’s unlikely.


Gardening under water

My garden is a soggy sight, it has rained since July with only an occasional dry day. Even when we get a dry day it is so wet under foot that walking around compacts the soil and turns the grass to mud. All the water butts are overflowing and moss is growing everywhere. In April the Met office told us that there was a 40% water deficit in the soil, this has been redressed now – and some!

Many jobs that should have been completed in the autumn are still waiting to be done. I tackled some pruning when we had a few frosty days, but cold frosty weather is not the best time to prune. I need to reduce the size of the Laburnum as it is beginning to outgrow its space, but I need solid ground to support the ladder.


Surprisingly, some things are looking reasonably well, but the overall effect is bleak: rotting foliage on plants and shrubs and wet leaves sticking to the paths.


The winter flowering shrubs, such as Viburnums, are not as good as usual but still provide a welcome splash of colour. The pink rose in the front bed still has blossom in spite of adverse conditions. The Hydrangea heads look interesting, but they are very wet so they may not last until spring.  The Witch Hazel is starting into blossom and the Magnolia is developing its catkins.


The vegetable beds are the saddest, they are mostly tucked up for the winter with a layer of home-made compost covered by soft cardboard that will rot down, and a layer of soil over the top. The garlic bulbs are beginning to show. I am experimenting with overwintering pea plants to see if we can get an early crop. I planted saved seed of Early Onward in the autumn and covered the emerging plants with a plastic dome. I do not expect much growth over the winter, but I hope they will have a head start in the spring.


Autumn colours


In spite of a couple of severe Atlantic storms many of our trees and shrubs are still showing glorious autumn colour. Near our home the roads are lined with beech and chestnut trees, the richness of the colour is fading a bit but they still look great. The motorways too have been planted with a mix of deciduous trees and shrubs that are showing vivid colours as far as the eye can see. Our road is lined with silver birch trees which display a delicate range of colours at this time of year.

The colours in our own garden are on a more modest scale, but we have chosen a range of plants to give us good colour at this time. In the front border a combination of Berberis, Euonymus alatus, Rosa rugosa, Rhus typhina ‘Tiger eyes’ (dwarf stag’s horn) and Virginia creeper give an intense display of reds and oranges early in the autumn. These have now mostly handed over to a large Forsythia which is beginning to show its finery. Many gardeners do not value the Forsythia as its enthusiastic growth often means it outgrows its space, and as it’s trouble free there’s no challenge in producing a healthy specimen. I welcome its lively habit, and its profusion of small yellow flowers early in the year are a real delight, its autumn colour is a bonus. It does need to be kept pruned as it can spread and get very tall and dense.

In the back garden the Sorbus (mountain ash) tree and Acer (Japanese maple) ‘Orange dream’ give a dazzling display along with the low spread of the Spiraea japonica. Some of the fruit bushes also produce a nice colour, the blueberries are particularly fine, but the currants also show nice shades of yellow and pale orange.



Alpines are so beautiful with their jewel-like blossom and hardy dispositions. Unfortunately they are never very happy in my garden. On different occasions I have planted Saxifrage, Achillea, Primula, Arabis, Dianthus, Armeria, Gentiana, Lychnis, Sedum and Pratia angulata. They always start out well, but the heaviness and wetness of my clay soil does not allow them to flourish. I had the idea of growing them between the stepping stones that lead to the bird feeder, however in a short time they became straggly and overgrown with coarse grass and weeds. I opened up a new front border in the spring of 2016 under the flowering cherry tree and this seemed an ideal spot, however only the saxifrage and primroses are doing well. I have transferred the dianthus to pots and they are growing a lot better.


The stories of their growth in the wild in the high Alps, and their collection for use in our gardens, is also fascinating. I have a particular fondness for William Robinson’s book on alpines, first published in 1870. William Robinson (1838-1935), born in County Down, Northern Ireland, was one of the most influential horticulturalists of the late 19th century. He transformed English and Irish gardens and changed the way that gardeners used their space. He was the son of a farm labourer and started his career as a garden boy in County Laois in the Irish midlands. He combined a practical knowledge with an eye for beauty in the landscape, the term ‘Robinsonian gardens’ is used to describe his particular vision of an ideal garden. He promoted the creation of shared public spaces and he encouraged the cultivation of fruit and vegetables in urban gardens to promote public health.


Robinson was a plant collector, and this charming sketch drawn after his first day’s collecting in the Alps, gives an idea of the hardships endured in the field. Alpine flowers in English gardens is one of William Robinson’s earliest books. He helped to extend the period of interest in English and Irish gardens by encouraging gardeners to plants hardy plants that would flower at different times of the year.

Next year I will try to make a dedicated area that will provide the conditions necessary to keep Alpines happy and flowering.


Hurricane Ophelia

We had been warned for the last few days that Hurricane Ophelia was on a direct course for Ireland and Scotland, and would reach our south western shores on Monday morning. We are not used to such extreme weather conditions and our homes and gardens are not prepared to withstand the onslaught. The south and west of Ireland get the main brunt of Atlantic storms, but here in the midlands most storms have lost their power by the time they reach us. We often get the tail end of hurricanes, but by the time they track this far east they have been reduced to storms. This is the most severe hurricane to reach us since Hurricane Debbie in September 1961 in which 11 people were killed in storm-related incidents. For people of my generation Hurricane Charlie in August 1986 was the big one, as it caused major flooding throughout the country and widespread loss of electricity.

It is difficult to batten down the hatches in the garden. At this time of year the trees and shrubs still have lots of leaves and are more vulnerable to the wind. We gave the birds extra rations early in the morning, so that they would be ready for their ordeal. I have so many pots that I could only choose my most precious to deserve a place in the sheds, or in the house. I have picked many of the apples, but some are not ready yet, and as many ripe and nearly ripe tomatoes as possible. We have dismantled the sundial and brought the dial part indoors. It took ages to remember how to fold up the revolving clothes line. We have taken in all the hanging baskets and plastic domes covering some tender vegetables, I think they will have a better chance of survival without their covering.

Most plants will have to take their chances and we will do the clear up when it has passed. The tall ones are the most vulnerable and they cannot be taken indoors. By three o’clock in the afternoon the main surge was due in the next two to three hours. Already the Silver Birch trees on our road were bent over in the wind and our currant bushes were nearly horizontal. Suddenly the power went, and with it the wifi, we scouted out the one radio we have that runs on batteries to keep up-to-date with news. I had cooked a one pot pasta this morning in case of outage. As long as we felt safe it’s very nice to eat by firelight and candlelight.