Early Autumn

Autumn began properly last Monday, 23 September, with the Autumn Equinox. This year there is a superabundance of berries of all kinds – most spectacularly those roaring red ones of the Rowan or Mountain Ash tree, and blackberries, the fruit of the Bramble, one of most common and important wild plants. And let’s not forget the seasonal orchard fruit on which civilisation still somewhat depends, such as cooking apples:

However, according to tradition you should not eat blackberries after the feast of Michelmas, which is today, because legend has it the Devil spits on the blackberries! Well, whatever about the Devil, rodents of all sizes have certainly been up in the hedges eating them recently, and many blackberries have gone mouldy on the bush, so there’s probably a  lot of sense to this tradition. However, this year many blackberries are yet to ripen:

   There are certainly lots of moulds and fungi about. Some are drab, and some spectacular. Here is the Common Inkcap, which often appears on damp lawns in September:

Some fungus looks remarkable, such as the Bird’s Nest Fungus  which is named because each flower head looks like a nest with eggs in it, albeit an extremely stylised nest. I think they look like cupcake cake papers:

Although the days are now shorter than the nights, and temperatures are getting progressively lower, it’s one of the very best times of year to see butterflies because in order to feed they often enter gardens where flowers are still blooming, and where there are warm shelters and sun traps. This year has been a bumper one for the Comma butterfly in particular. Commas can easily be identified by their ragged wings. This one was perched on a white sheet, which really highlights the strange ragged appearance of the wings:

The Comma below is sitting on a Butterfly Bush. Some of these bushes are still flowering… but not for very much longer.

The most common butterfly at this time of year is the Speckled Wood, and it will usually be the last seen in Autumn. They are not known to hibernate but it wouldn’t surprise me if they are eventually discovered to do this:

At this time of year, due to the lower temperatures, the butterflies move more slowly and take the time to perch and open their wings in order to warm up. Butterflies can only fly when the temperature reaches 15°C, so basking becomes very important. Many species are known to hibernate. In Ireland Small Tortoiseshells can be seen entering houses, sheds and other buildings to hibernate in autumn and they can often be spotted flying on mild sunny days even in November:

Another species which hibernates, and only recently proven to do so, is the Red Admiral, which is a very bold and striking butterfly, and it will land on people too if they provide a place to rest in the sunshine:

And there is another species which shares these tendencies, although it seems this one also migrates – the Peacock butterfly:

Some butterflies actively migrate, such as the Painted Lady. It will fly south with the swallows and house martins. Thousands of them  filled the skies of Wicklow this year:

 

Some moth species also  migrate – mostly famously the Silver-Y. While it has been a great year for the Painted Lady it has been a disappointing one for the Silver-Y, but there are some about, flying in both day and night, and sometimes resting by windows at night:

There are still one or two Barn Swallows about, but mostly individual stragglers, older birds more experienced in the vagaries of intercontinental travel. Here’s one I saw flying south a couple of days ago:

Whilst most creatures breed in springtime, spiders mostly prefer autumn. And some spider relationships are quite complex – the male  Segmented Orb-weaver has to impress the female with a gift and she will only select him as her mate if the gift-wrapped gift is satisfactory. This one seems to have been successful and to have moved in with a female:

Slugs and snails also breed at this time of year, but they also mate in spring and all the way through when weather permits – here are two impressive Yellow Slugs, mating:

Slugs are hermaphrodites – each one is both male and female. However, in order to ensure genetic health they must mate – they must share their genes with others. The male in each slug mates with the female in the other. However, not all molluscs are hermaphrodites – cuttlefish, squid and octopuses have male and females – gender is a biological fact and a necessity.

Sadly, some of springs babies have not survived the year. Here is something which was recently drawn to my attention by the warden on the East Coast Nature Reserve  – a young Otter, presumably hit by a car on the Sea Road:

For those creatures that stay and winter in Wicklow there is ample opportunity to plan for next year – here are three Jackdaws inspecting chimney pots for suitable nesting sites – these could be siblings hanging about last year’s nest, but are probably last year’s breeding pair and one of their children. Many birds, including Jackdaws, serve apprenticeships with their parents, choosing nest sites, building nests and helping to get food for the young:

Another Heritage Week… but summer isn’t over yet

This weekend brings another Heritage Week to a close, but summer isn’t over yet. For one thing, I am still seeing one or two Swifts around. These birds are summer visitors, like much larger versions of Swallows and House Martins, but they arrive later, near the end of May, and they generally leave for their wintering grounds in the early weeks of August. They are quite easy to identify, forming crescent shapes when seen in silhouette:

Compare this Swift (Apus apus) above with the shape of a Swallow (Hirundo rustica) below, which has much shorter wings, and a much longer forked tail although here it is photographed at a slight angle as it climbs:

And there are quite a few beautiful moths around to be seen, and for many of them this time of year is their time of year. Keep an eye out for the stunning Garden Tiger (Arctia caja), a large moth that sometimes comes to window light:

There are also quite a few handsome butterflies to be seen in meadows and grasslands, such as this female Common Blue (Polyommatus icarus), which I photographed this morning:

Where there are butterflies there are also predatory insects to hunt them in the air – this is one of the best times of year to get close to dragonflies. The small Common Darter (Sympetrum striolatum) usually perches on fence posts, or walls and darts up to snatch at smaller insects: I saw this one perched on top of a Butterfly Bush:

However, in the last week I have seen the far larger, and incredibly robust Autumn Hawker (Aeshna mixta) dragonflies about. These powerful dragonflies hunt on the wing, and seem to spend an inordinate amount of time on the wing, although they do find perches to rest on for long periods too:

I was very fortunate to see and photograph (a bad photograph) a beautiful species of beetle I have never seen before, and that is the False Ladybird (Endomychus coccineus), which flew across a meadow and landed on a bench I was standing beside:

It is larger than the average ladybird and much longer, but is actually related and moves very much like a typical ladybird. Far less obvious and much harder to find, although very common, are bush crickets. This female Speckled Bush Cricket (Leptophyes punctatissima) was literally on a leaf I was looking directly at, but I only noticed it because it flicked its long, whip-like antennae, and it’s possible you might even struggle to see it in this photo, as it matches so perfectly the colour of the dock leaf it is standing on. They are quite large insects:

However, many insects are much easier to see, such as this Drone Fly (Eristalis species):

So long as there are flowers there will be insects to feed on them.

A Wicklow Coastal Safari

Just for a change I want to tell a story, basically showcasing one afternoon of a photo safari I made from Bray, over the Cliff Walk on the cliffs of Bray Head to Greystones, and then on to Kilcoole on a spectacularly beautiful and sunny day just over a week ago. So please enjoy this story, shown as it happened. So, to start, here’s Bray as seen from the start of the Cliff Walk:

Firstly, this year there are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of Painted Lady butterflies along the coast, and this one posed beautifully for a photo at the start of the Cliff Walk:

These butterflies have flown from southern Europe and were almost certainly greatly assisted by easterly winds during the continental heatwave in June and July.

Here, a short distance from where the butterfly was photographed, facing south and looking up the cross on Bray Head from the Cliff Walk:

It was on the wall which you can see to the left that I found a very handsome species of Wolf Spider, which I have yet to identify. It as quite small, but boldly patterned.

A lot of the Cliff Walk, especially on the Bray side of Bray Head, is navigable by wheelchair, but, sadly,  wheelchairs can only go so far. I hope this will change in the future. Here is another photo, looking back towards Bray. Along the cliffs there are thousands of Kittiwakes, small gulls which want as little as possible to do with human beings. They don’t enter cities and will never try to take food from you. They are the true “sea gulls” and happily spend their lives at sea. Here are adults at their nesting sites along Bray Head:

Here is what they look like closer, and the handsomely patterned ones are the juveniles. Young kittiwakes have black legs and feet:

Another species I saw was the largest known gull, the gigantic eagle-sized Great Black-backed Gull:

These monsters are so large they can kill and eat rabbits, swallowing them whole. One thing about the cliffs is that they are great places to see birds, but mostly seabirds, of course. Among the most interesting are the famous Cormorants, which do not have water-proof feathers like other seabirds, and spread their wings to dry them as they stand on sunny rocks:

Very similar species are the Shags, which are a dark bottle-green colour and have long, serpentine necks. They look almost like they belong to the age of dinosaurs:

I was very lucky to see all of these birds in such good light, but I was particularly very lucky to see a very beautiful seabird, the Black Guillemot:

Unfortunately it was a long distance from me, but you can make out the bright red feet in the photo.

But black guillemots were not the only creatures at the foot of the cliffs. I watched as a paddle-boarder was pursued by a mischievous seal he had got to close to. The seal, a Grey Seal, seemed almost to be laughing at the man as he paddled away, nervously looking over his shoulder:

The seal then went to sleep!

Summer is the breeding season for Grey Seals and they often come ashore on narrow beaches or flat rocks along the cliffs and away from people. The seal cows have their calves here.

About midway along the Cliff Walk you can see the old railway tunnel, closer to the sea, the track now long since worn away and swallowed up by it. In the mid-19th century the famous engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel built a roller-coaster like railway line along the cliffs, a feat considered virtually impossible at the time:

The stone fence posts along the Cliff Walk at this point are great habitat for Leaf-cutter Bees, which make nests in the holes the wires are fed through, and they fill these nests with leaves, usually from wild rose species, which somehow stay fresh long enough for their larvae to hatch out and reach a pupal stage. Here you can see a Leaf-cutter Bee stuffing big leaves into one of the wire holes in a post:

From this point onwards the Cliff Walk begins to become more leafy and here I saw quite a few butterfly and moth species, such as this Red Admiral:

On the ivy I found a few Holly Blue butterflies too, and one posed for a photo:

There are lots of plant species to support these lovely insects, and especially impressive was the Red Valerian, which, ironically, can be red, white or pink. It seems to be mostly pink along the Cliff Walk. Thanks to this flower I managed to photograph the only Hummingbird Hawkmoth I’ve seen this year:

Unfortunately they were not the most in-focus shots, and the big moth promptly flew away, as there was no shortage of paparazzo-free Red Valerian to choose from. However, the shot I got shows how it carries its long, beak-like tongue curled up like a butterfly does:

A hot day on the cliffs in summer really does bring out the wildlife. But the flowers are vital for the insects, such as the beautiful Rosebay, one of the willowherbs:

You can also find wild Sweet Pea:

The vegetation begins to become almost jungle-like and the rocky cliffs then give way to huge sand ones, and this seems to suit dense undergrowth:

This is a good area to find grasshoppers in, especially the Yellow Meadow Grasshopper:

There are two in the photo, and one is a male, hiding behind the female. Look for his antennae.

Eventually Greystones comes into view, and what a view it was for me, contaminated by sky-stealing cranes and half-built apartment complexes where there had once been a beautiful, rustic harbour – long ago, it now seems, but not that long ago. The pink flowers of the rosebay dominated the scene:

Eventually the Cliff Walk comes down to lower ground and meanders through some beautiful fields, which were fields of wheat when I passed through them, and they look beautiful next to the sea:

The sad thing about the Cliff Walk in Greystones is that it currently draws to an end in what is, to all intents and purposes, an  unprepossessing housing estate, still under construction but already partially populated. However, I suppose it has its own kind of beauty, but it’s not really my kind of beauty. Judge for yourself:

However, I couldn’t end a safari like this, so after a lot of cold drink and some food it was time to continue the journey a few miles further along the coast, while taking a look back over my shoulder, for a photo, of the Cliff Walk from the bathing spot that is the South Beach:

As you can see, there were lots of people out in the sunshine and a few in the water. Irish seawater doesn’t get properly warm until the end of August, usually. The path from the South Beach runs parallel to the railway track and has its own unique beauty, but especially so on a hot summer’s day:

It was very dusty, but, as usual, it was an excellent place to get close to nature. Here is a juvenile Starling on the same fence you can see above:

Behind the little bird is Sugarloaf Mountain, which resembles a volcano but is nothing of the sort… however it does look great. In fact, here is some more of the landscape as seen from the coast between Greystones and Kilcoole:

This area of Wicklow is one of the very best to get near Grey Seals and get good photos, as the water is deep close to shore, and I saw a mournful-looking seal only a few yards away:

Seals do find people fascinating.

However, the creature I most wanted to see was an insect, but one which can only usually be seen in late summer along the Wicklow coast, and only in some places. I managed to get a decent shot, after a very long chase – this is the Clouded Yellow butterfly:

I think you’ll agree it’s very beautiful, and almost surreal in its colouring. It likes very rough sandy and gravelly terrain, as you can see here:

At this point, if you pay attention to the landward side, on your right as you face south (the above photo is facing north, by the way) you will see the ruined outbuildings of what was once a massive country estate, Ballygannon House, belonging originally to the powerful Byrne clan. One of the Byrne daughters married a certain sea captain named Scott who ran his ship aground near the shore during the war between James II of England and the invading Dutch Prince William of Orange, who later became King William of England. Captain Scott was kept as a guest in the great house and then married one of the daughters and eventually inherited the entire estate, which comprised Kilcoole village. Ballygannon complex was essentially a village in its own right, and is today known locally as ‘the Lost Village’ to the inhabitants of Kilcoole and its environs.

If that’s an outhouse, just imagine what the actual house was like – it must have been immense. It was inhabited into the 1930 and, sadly,  was leveled in the 1950s .

Not long after this Kilcoole neared, and behind it Wicklow Head was visible. There were quite a few bathers at Kilcoole beach too:

Kilcoole seemed a good place to end the safari. It had been one of the best day’s strolling with my camera that I’ve ever had. However, as enjoyable as the photography was, I also made a video, which you can see here:

 

An Adventure in the Garden of Ireland