Dave’s Wildlife Journal- Waterbirds

Welcome to our new wildlife series Dave’s Wildlife Journal! David (Rowan) is the Head Gardener of St. Fiachras Garden here at the Irish National Stud,  giving him a wealth of information about all the wildlife within. For his first blog he tells us tales of the waterbirds of St. Fiachra’s garden!

Part 1: Waterbirds

Swans, the largest bird in St. Fiachra’s Garden

Charlie is a (female swan) pen and she is in her 20’s, Bob is a (male swan) cob. They are both mute swans (breed of swan). Charlie has had two previous male partners in her lifetime in St. Fiachra’s Gardens, and Bob is her latest love. Bob is a rescue swan, he arrived thanks to the
help of the brilliant Lisa from Swan Rescue in 2022. He was rescued by Lisa after he crashed into a shed in Dublin, when he arrived he had some back injuries and with time the exercise that Bob gets from swimming around the lakes has benefitted him greatly.

In Charlie’s time in the garden, she hasn’t had as many signets (baby swans) as a normal wild swan, due to unforeseen circumstances. In the last two years she has only hatched one signet, unfortunately this signet did not survive past six weeks of age due to predators in the area; which is part of the circle of life in the garden. Both swans to decide on a place to set up their nest in the garden, which both will build from the immediate vegetation around that specific area (eg. rushes). This nest building process takes a couple of weeks, their nesting season can start from approximately the end of March, around this time their temperament changes and they are notably more defensive. It takes Charlie about 24 hours to lay one egg, and she could lay between 6-8 eggs when she is nesting. They are an off white colour and approximately the size of a small Easter Egg. It can take about 2 weeks for the laying process of the eggs depending on the final egg count. She then sits on the eggs for about 6 weeks to complete the incubation stage, after this time, hatching begins and signets arrive. Both swans are great parents and for a time when the signets are very young they will be carried around
on Charlie’s back.

Ducks, the jokers of St. Fiachra’s Garden
When working in St. Fiachra’s I notice that the ducks are always messing and play fighting with each other and on occasion the swans, their chorus of quacks sounds they are laughing. The breed of ducks in the garden are mallards, the drakes (male duck) are recognizable by their iridescent colours on their head; and the hens (female duck) are mostly brown with some white on the feathers. Currently there are approximately over 40 ducks in the garden, and much like with the swans around the middle-end of March they disappear to find their quiet nesting spots.

Once they nest, the incubation process takes about 28 days and the hatching of ducklings begins. One hen can have up to 15 ducklings, the survival rate is very low due to their natural predators (herons and crows). After the breeding season, the drakes moult, and they are
observed to be the same colour as the hens. An interesting observation I have made, the ducks tend to buddy up in groups of 3-4 ducks.

The Waterhens/ Moorhens, the garden’s most territorial bird
From my understanding the males and females are referred to as waterhens or moorhens, they are extremely territorial, and protective of their young which I have experienced first hand in the garden. The only variation between the males and females is their size as the males are slightly larger. They both share blue/black plumage with a dash of white on the tips of their feathers, with a red and yellow beak. Their nests are made up of dead vegetation on top of the water (eg. rushes, leaves, grass) but I have also observed them building atop a tree covered in ivy on an island in the lake. They can lay up to six eggs, and both parents will sit
and incubate the eggs for up to twenty one days, this process may occur up to three times per year. In my opinion, they are the best parents in St. Fiachra’s garden. They will forage on both land and water, mostly worms, insects etc. I have witnessed them stalk a predator in their territory, so they watch to see where they are and what they are doing until the predator leaves. Despite their willingness to defend themselves, they are quite shy and are hard to catch a glimpse of them in the garden.

The Grebe, the elusive aquatic bird in the garden
One of the smallest birds that frequents the garden. They spend all of their time in the lakes, and they move around mostly under water, they are rarely spotted swimming above the water. Due to their shy nature, I have not observed any difference between the male and female grebes colouration and size, however their plumage is a black/brown colour with red on the crest of their necks. They are very small, and would fit in the palm of your hand, they mostly eat water insects and tiny fish (eg. minnows). On occasion I have seen pairs running together on top of the water which I have found out is part of the mating ritual. They build
their nests atop of the water using dead vegetation positioned on top of the floating plant material (mare’s tails-an aquatic plant/weed which has been around since the Ice age). They can lay up to six eggs, and similar to the waterhens both parents sit on the nest and incubate for up to three weeks. Both parents are involved in raising and teaching the chicks to forage, which is rare in the bird population in St. Fiachra’s.

Photos of waterhens and grebe’s provided by Canva photos due to lack of organic photos from the garden, apart from the one waterhen chick.




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