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Messages from Samuel Connolly

The Autumn Equinox

Tonight, and only a short time ago,  at 9.02 am local time here in Wicklow (8.02 pm GMT) was the exact halfway point between the Summer Solstice and the Winter Solstice. To put it bluntly, this is the definite end of summer and start of autumn, and from now until the Vernal Equinox next March each day will be shorter than the night. And the birds know that, so they’re fattening up, increasing their energy reserves by eating the various berries on the myriad trees and bushes which are brimming with them right now. Here’s a photo I got of a male House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) feeding on blackberries:

   And now butterflies are disappearing fast, although there are Large Whites, Green-veined Whites, Red Admirals, Peacocks and Small Tortoiseshells still to be seen in small numbers. The latter two will hibernate and need to find suitable accomodation relatively soon if they are to make it to spring. However, the most numerous butterfly at this time of the year, and the one that blends in best with the autumn colours, is the Speckled Wood, which is usually the last species seen along hedgerows in the autumn. Their numbers are falling too, though. This September has been cooler than those we’ve had in recent years and that’s probably a factor.

But, if any creature plucks the heart strings more than others as it disappears from the landscape it’s the Swallow, You can still see some in our skies, but they’re flying south-east at speed, and usually not playfully hunting for insects as they were a few weeks ago. Now they have no time to waste and need to get to southern Europe and across the Sahara Desert to southern Africa with some degree of urgency, as the insect population on which they depend crashes in the colder, less sunny climate of autumn. There’s still a lot to enjoy out there though, and I’ll be doing my best to showcase it. Here is my slightly out-of-focus photo of a Swallow flyng quickly south,  and quite high up, this morning. I guess this is farewell and bon voyage, until next March or April:

 

Blooming Marvellous this September

It’s hard not to feel sad in September as another summer draws to a close. Children are looking forward to Halloween and Christmas coming after it, but adults often see time slipping away. It never seems long since last September, yet here we are again. But I found something really incredible which will absolutely lift your spirits if you feel the sort of poignancy I do, and that something is a beautiful new book by the botanist Zoe Devlin entitled Blooming Marvellous: A Wildflower Hunter’s Year. It will change your perspective on September, and the year itself.

I can honestly say there is only one book I have ever come across which is like it in any way, and that is the legendary naturalist Gerald Durrell’s The Amateur Naturalist which can best be described as a manual and interactive adventure story rolled into one. These are the sort of books you don’t want an electronic version of, because they are beautiful things in themselves, a combination of art and reading which is truly exhilarating. Blooming Marvellous recounts episodes in the author’s life while inviting you to have your own adventure with the aid of the book.

It’s divided into chapters which deal with each month. Zoe suggests you read the chapter of the month you’re in right now, and immediately you are seeing what she sees and not only that, but you are able to find things she tells you about which you never even realised were there in front of your eyes, by a hedgerow or in your garden. I took mine out into the garden and suddenly I was in the book, and just look at this and you’ll see what I mean:

   As you can see by the page shown from Blooming Marvellous it’s not just about wildflowers, but also about the wildlife which supports them, and depends on them. This is not a botanical manual, but a true-life adventure story comprising anecdotes and a field guide combined. And it’s rugged too, with a rock hard cover and a beautifully stitched binding of heavy, tough, glossy pages, but it is the weight of wisdom. This is a rugged book you can carry in your rucksack, and the writing is fantastic and elegant and absolutely draws you in to the adventures:

“Wordsworth had a way with words that many have envied. In 1798, on the banks of the River Wye, that self-proclaimed ‘worshipper of nature’ wrote ‘Nature never did betray the heart that loved her’. Long before I ever knew those words, my less eloquent maxim was ‘Nature never, ever lets you down’.”

And those are just the opening lines! The rest of the book reads as easily, and there are sad bits, and thought-provoking tales too,  which sweeten the knowledge you are unwittingly taking in with them. Remarkably, all of the adventures Zoe describes in this book occurred in Ireland. Even more alluringly Zoe has included recipes for cooking some of the fruits and wildflowers you encounter, which adds a whole new dimension to this book and interracting with her adventures. For example, there is a really nice recipe for blackberry tart, which is great considering how many blackberries there are on the hedgerows this year:

Before Zoe had published her first book she appeared in a photo on this blog when I met her and her ever reliable sidekick and husband, Pete, out on one of their adventures (as far as I’m aware this is her third book for the Collins Press – or are there more?). So you might think I’m biased, especially if you read pages 186-187. This very original masterpiece is, I promise you, different from anything you have seen before, with photos and text by the author, and I think Gerald Durrell would definitely love it.

If I am ever unfortunate enough to find myself lined up in front of a firing squad I’m going to make sure this book is in my breast pocket, because, although it’s not gigantic, I feel pretty certain, in addition to its many other virtues, it can stop bullets.

If you’re too lazy to go to the bookshop, or don’t live in Ireland, or fear catching one of those horrible September flus or colds, you can buy Blooming Marvellous from Amazon right now and have it delivered to your door.

September Cooling

Last year it felt like summer right up until the Autumn Equinox and even beyond, but this year autumn seemed to follow the old Celtic tradition and start in early August. The bouts of rain have brought a coolness in with them and only for the bright sunlight of the late morning and afternoon, between showers, creatures would be few and far between. However, keep an eye out for the big strong Autumn Hawker dragonfly (Aeshna mixta) which can be seen patrolling gardens an hedgerows all across Wicklow right now. Occasionally they land and you can see their beauty:

These powerful dragonflies are migrants and snatch big insects such as butterflies and moths out of the air. They hunt by sight, like most birds. The really funny thing about them is that this species was a rare visitor to Ireland until the turn of the 21st century when they first began to arrive in large numbers. But some insects are adept at hiding from such predators, such as the Silver-Y moth (Autographa gamma). Can you see this one hiding among the dried flowers of a phacelia plant? Look for the Y markings.

   Many other flying insects are ending their life-cycles, and their last act is to mate and lay eggs from which caterpillars hatch. If you look on lettuces, cabbages, watercress or nasturtiums you have a good chance of seeing quite big Large White butterfly caterpillars (Pieris brassicae), like this one stretched out on a nasturtium leaf.

And lastly, and sadly, there are still some small numbers of swallows around. Our swallow is found not only  in Europe and Africa but also across much of Asia and in the Americas where it migrates from North to South America every year. It is properly known as the Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) and it feeds entirely on insects, so far as is known. Here are a large number of them I photographed at the end of August, as they gathered on electricity cables to rest before beginning their long flights south across Europe and over the Mediterranean Sea and the vast Sahara Desert to tropical and southern Africa where they will spend our winter. For them it will be another summer.