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Messages from Samuel Connolly

Spring in Early Winter!

This year we had very mild conditions up until early November, when it turned colder than usual and pretty much stayed that way until the Winter Solstice, which is the beginning of the astronomical winter. We then had a week of unseasonably warm weather which came to a sudden end with a cold front arriving after dark on Christmas Day. But that one warm week has had an amazing effect, as it has caused the sudden, and unexpectedly early growth of daffodils in many places –

And it’s worth remembering these are not ‘early daffodils’ but a variety which appears at regular, normal times of year. In the photo you can clearly see a flowerbud. However, since the warm week we have had some very cold weather, with sunny days of only 1 degree Celsius, and plenty of snow on the hills and mountains. These cold conditions have caused lots of lovely bird species to enter gardens, desperate for food, such as this beautifully coloured Blue Tit  –

There are also plenty of Starlings –

   However, the most numerous ones are House Sparrows, and they are roosting in low bushes and in the mornings you can see them bathing in puddles, regardless of the temperatures. It’s a great time of year to see birds –

Late Autumn is still not Winter

It’s easy to forget, when the days get colder and shorter as they are doing now, that it’s still not winter. Autumn is very much a season of its own, as season of change. I forget this myself, sometimes, but was reminded on a cold day, when the sun suddenly got very strong, that not all of summer’s creatures have gone to sleep. I was amazed to see a very hungry Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) butterfly late last week:

   This lovely Red Admiral must have briefly awoken from hibernation to feed on this Winter-flowering Viburnum. Thanks to the exotic plants we now have growing in our gardens, many of which blossom in our Autumn and Winter, there is still nectar available to butterflies when days are warm enough for them to fly. Incidentally, this particular day was only 7 degrees Celsius in the shade. But a clear sky allowed a bright sun to warm the butterfly to the necessary 15 degrees Celsius it needed in order to fly. However, some relatives of butterflies are much hardier, by which I mean certain species of moth:

   The moth above is a small and handsome species known as the Rusty-dot Pearl (Udaea ferrugalis). It is attracted to light, and here can be seen resting on a wall beneath an outdoor light. It is normally seen in Summer and Autumn, but is so hardy it can be found at anytime of the year, so do keep a lookout for it.

However, whatever about butterflies and moths, this time of year is a terrific time to see birds, and more and more are coming into gardens looking for food. Here is a young male Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs), which was foraging in my garden only last week:

   Chaffinches like to eat seed from small plants. They don’t usually come to feeders. The female looks identical to the male, but in sepia tone. Far more numerous than the Chaffinches here in Wicklow are the House Sparrows (Passer domesticus) which like to roost in trees, shrubs and bushes, often in large numbers. Here is a male watching the sun set behind the hills from a perch amid the ferocious thorns of a bramble, at 3.45 pm in the afternoon:

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: