All posts by Samuel Connolly

Birds in Autumn

It can be hard to love November. Whereas October is like a watered down, slightly colder version of summer, November is often wet, quite cold, and very dark as the sun travels across the sky at a very low angle causing very long shadows. And, of course, the days are now much shorter than the nights. We have very long nights. But because of this there are often great opportunities to see many species of birds close-up. Small birds in particular, come into villages and towns, and gardens in Wicklow looking for food and shelter. Some are harder to spot than others, but here is one you really ought to keep an eye out for – the Treecreeper (Certhia familiaris):

   It is an unusual-looking bird with a narrow curved bill with which it probes for insects and spiders in the bark. A Treecreeper will usually land at the base of a tree, or a wall, and walk up it to the top, before flying back down to another side, or area, to start the climbing process again. They are quiet birds, but quite calm, and can easily be mistaken for mice due to their colouring, long tails and habit of climbing.

The Goldcrest (Regulus regulus) is difficult to see for a very different reason – it is green like a leaf, is so hyperactive it seems like a leaf in the breeze rather than a bird as it hunts for insects under the leaves and twigs of bushes and trees, and it’s tiny. In fact, it’s the smallest bird in Europe. However, despite the difficulties I managed to get some photos. Here is one, which shows how camouflaged a Goldcrest is, despite the gold ‘crown’ on its head:

   Some birds are a lot easier to see because they prefer to look for food in the open, and they are coloured more boldly. One of them is the Pied Wagtail (Motacilla alba), which is black and white and likes to bob along in front of walkers, relying on them to scare insects up from the ground so the Wagtail can leap up and snatch them. They will also enter supermarkets, and even small shops, in cold weather to shelter from cold or wet weather. Here is one which hopped across a flower tub to take a better look at me as I sat at a table outdoors:

However, even common garden birds can be a little bit shy sometimes. Here is a Robin (Erithacus rubecula), observing me from behind a leaf on a tree, a little shy of my camera. I like this photo:

The Feast of Samhain and Wildflowers in Autumn

The Thursday before last (28 October) Zoe Devlin had her latest book launch and I was invited along to Hodges Figgis on Dawson Street in Dublin for the wonderful event. Colin Stafford-Johnson, the globe-trotting Irish BBC wildlife cameraman and film-maker opened the proceedings, and I was also fortunate enough too to meet Richard Nairn who has published many books about Irish wildlife. And here are all three of them:

From left to right: Richard Nairn, Colin Stafford-Johnson and Zoe Devlin.

Personally I have found Zoe’s book ( Blooming Marvellous – A Wildflower Hunter’s Year) is making me pay much more attention to flowers in autumn than I ever would have normally. And I’ve found some very beautiful flowers are still blooming, such as this tiny and magnificent Ivy-leaved Toadflax (Cymalaria muralis) which lives in rocky places, including on footpaths, where I found this one:

   Tuesday was Halloween, the eve of All Hallows, aka All Saints Day, and Halloween is also the ancient feast of Samhain. According to Irish myth and legend an evil spirit, a sort of serpentine creature, was unleashed on the feast, and the ancient Irish would light bonfires and make loud noises in an attempt to scare the creature away. It was eventually done away with by the heroic Finn MacCumhail (or McCool if you prefer). As with many ancient feasts and religious rituals, Samhain refused to disappear and to this day bonfires are lit and loud noises are created (using fireworks) to scare away the monster and all other evil beings from dark places who might walk the land in the dark half of the year. Because of Christianity Ireland has attempted to ignore Samhain, which has absolutely no effect on it, and as a result most of October is filled with the noise of fireworks and the building of illegal bonfires. If an attempt was made to engage with the feast, rather than trying to subdue it,  much less anti-social behaviour and illegal bonfire-related activity would occur, as there would be an outlet for the activities and a point of focus. It’s part of Irish culture, from very ancient, pre-Christian times, and it seems this ritual has no intention of coming to an end, being hardwired into the Irish psyche. Let us not forget that Samhain is the Gaelic name for the month of November. But it is a very frightening time of year for animals, both domestic and wild. And for many people too. However, it is over for another year.

 

In the Wake of Hurricane Ophelia

Wicklow had a very lucky escape when Ophelia struck Ireland yesterday. All across the county there were trees down, and almost everybody lost their electricity at some point. However, three people lost their lives directly due to the storm and my thoughts are definitely with their families, and considering how many people are trapped in rural areas of Ireland without electricity, water and possibly with no means of communication, then this death toll could very easily rise. So, if you are in one of those areas and happen to read this on your mobile phone, do check on people in your area. Elderly or disabled people in particular might not be able to draw attention to their predicament. And beware of broken trees and powerlines.

As Hurricane Ophelia began to move towards Ireland late last week and over the weekend the weather became both very overcast and unseasonably warm. On Friday night temperatures were 17 or 18 degrees Celsius (65 or 66 degrees Fahrenheit), depending on where you were. These night-time temperatures would be far more normal in a balmier Irish summer, but were very much out of place and unpleasant in mid-October. On Saturday night misty drizzle began and extended into Sunday, and as a result frogs could be found hopping along footpaths or outside the doors of houses, just like this camera-shy one I came across:

A beautifully camouflaged European Common Frog – Rana temporaria

Met Eireann, the meteorological service (weather forecasters) for Ireland had predicted that the structure of Hurricane Ophelia would change before it struck Ireland. It had been a Catergory 2 hurricane when it began moving north from the coast of West Africa, but nobody expected it to increase to a Category 3 hurricane (there are only five categories) or remain that for so long. It was only about 500 kilometres south of Ireland when it finally began to change shape and turn into a sub-tropical cyclone, but it had lost none of its energy as it struck the island. Just before this happened there was a sudden and mysterious abundance of moths coming to windows. Only a few hours before the winds arrived I saw this beautiful Angle-Shades (Phlogophora meticulosa) perched on the wall by the back door light:

 

I had expected there to be a sudden rush of large House Spiders towards the house just prior to the storm, and during, but this never occurred and it seems the spider season has already come to an end this year. Some people will undoubtedly be happy to hear that. It’s possible that the frogs and birds consumed many of these spiders . There were birds hiding from the storm in sheds and outhouses, and even disused chimneys. Most small birds will eat spiders, and frogs certainly take them if they come across any.

With all of our incredible technology it is very easy to forget how fragile we are. We take electricity for granted, and not having any for any length of time is a shock to the system, especially in darker times of the year. To makes matters worse, many parts of Ireland require electricity to pump tap water and sewage systems, yet don’t have generators available to back up these systems. When a storm like Ophelia occurs we get an unpleasant reminder that mankind does not rule the natural world, but is itself ruled by nature.

Fortunately today was dry and sunny almost everywhere, and it was so calm that it was hard to imagine how dangerous things were yesterday. In fact, I was astonished to see a Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) butterfly flying about in the warm sunlight this afternoon, even though it was only 14 degrees Celsius in the shade. I managed to get a decent photo as it sunbathed on ivy.

And there was a very beautiful sunset tonight, but it is now much colder than it was before the tropical air of the hurricane came our way, and tonight we are to have proper October temperatures, or maybe even temperatures more like December. Many trees still have their leaves. Many, of course, don’t. Without their shelter winter will probably come early this year.