Autumn Geese and a natural mystery

Autumn came in very slowly this year, but it turned quite cold quite quickly. However, now at last we are getting rain in proper autumn levels. We had proportionally very little rain all last winter, spring and summer. Finally the geese have started to arrive too. Here are two of the most common species, the Brent Goose (Branta bernicla):

and a flock of Greylag (Anser anser), with two Rooks (Corvus frugilegus) providing a sense of scale:

All of these birds are pictured at the famous Kilcoole Breaches and nature reserve.

There have been two noticeable trends this autumn – firstly there have been far less spiders than you would expect on average, particularly House Spiders. But all species seem to be lower in number than usual. The only spider species at normal levels, or apparently normal levels, has been the Garden Spider (Araneus diadematus), which is also the most obvious autumn spider:

    Conversely, there has been a population explosion of Brown Rats (Rattus norvegicus) which has been attributed to the long hot summer and the summer heatwave of May, June and July which almost led to a severe drought. The increased population of Brown Rats very likely has reduced the number of spiders, as rats and mice will happily eat large spiders. More rats equals less spiders.

However, from my own observations I disagree that the summer heatwave is responsible for the population explosion of rats – back in March, during the heavy snows, there was a massive surge in rat numbers. They were especially attracted to bird feeders. The winter had been very cold even before the snows arrived late, and it seems that this factor drew rats from the countryside towards human settlements in order to find food and warmth. But whatever the exact cause, there were a lot of them around, although numbers at last seem to be returning to normal:

Autumn Sadness

I don’t like to write downbeat articles but Autumn is always somewhat tinged with sadness. Maybe poignancy is a more accurate term. Summer has ended, yet another summer, and lying ahead of us are days getting progressively shorter and colder, and the usual barrage of head colds and flu viruses. This year in Wicklow it’s a little bit sadder than usual because we have lost Robert Jennings, a champion of local heritage.

Canon Jennings at a showcasing event in Newcastle Community Centre in March 2011.

Canon Robert Jennings, to be exact, was a Church of Ireland clergyman with a profound interest in history, archaeology and the world in which we live. He died almost one month ago but his funeral only took place two weeks ago. He was a very nice man. The reason I’m slow writing about it is I wanted to dig out some photos I had of him, albeit from an event in 2011.

Canon Jennings discussing archaeology remains with my brother in 2011.

Often, over the years, when I would be out walking in the middle of nowhere, looking for wildlife, I would encounter Canon Jennings. He would amble out along a path as if by magic, and he would frequently point out some remarkable artefact which had escaped my notice, or have some profound point of interest to relate. He was always doing something, searching for something from far back in our past – sometimes the remains of a church, sometimes evidence of a Bronze Age site. He also surprised quite a few people a few years ago, including me, by revealing he was a veteran of the Korean War. Remarkably, he died at the ripe old age of 93 most people under the illusion he was far younger than he really was. By all accounts he was still out walking and exploring, although not quite so much as he used to do. He was author of quite a few books and they are worth getting if you can find them:

Two of Robert Jennings extremely interesting guide books.

He also really knew how to showcase archaeology and heritage to maximum effect, as you can see in the following photos:

Canon Jennings will definitely be missed, being not only a respected scholar and clergyman, but I will miss him as a character, as a person who was very much himself part of the landscape.

Gently Fading Summer

This year we had an extraordinary summer. Until August we had little or no rain, and some very consistently warm temperatures. August brought some badly-needed rain and this gradually put an end to a dangerous situation, gorse fires having become a serious threat to the landscape. It was a great year for butterflies, and here are some examples:

Peacock (Inachis io)

Small Tortoiseshells (Aglais urticae) gathered on a Butterfly Bush (Buddleia davidii)

Silver-washed Fritillary (Argynnis paphia)

Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina)

Meadow Brown captured by Flower Crab Spider (Misumena vatia)

But butterflies were not the only brightly-coloured winged insects flying about in the day. Here is a beautiful Six-spot Burnet moth (Zygaena filipendulae), a species which has toxins in its body which birds find distasteful.

Six-spot Burnet moth feeding on Ragwort.

Of course, most moths are nocturnal, such as these beauties which were attracted to the light of a window:

Lesser Broad-bordered Yellow Underwing moth (Noctua janthe)

Brimstone Moth (Opisthograptis luteolata)

Moths, in particular depend on wildflowers, and in August, and even now in September some wildflowers are blooming brightly, such as the hedge-climbing Honeysuckle (

Honeysuckle or Woodbine (Lonicera periclymenum)

On 7th August I saw my last Swift. Swifts arrive in May, usually about a month after the Swallows, House Martins and Sand Martins. Last in and first out, they seem to follow their migration patterns almost like clockwork, and leave very early in August. Most are recorded as leaving the British Isles (a geographical term which includes Ireland, as the second-largest island in the archipelago). Now, however, the Swallows are preparing to leave, and the young are perching on wires, resting, before migrating to southern Africa.

Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) gathering on wires before migration. The adults are cajoling the youngsters into taking flight. 

An Adventure in the Garden of Ireland