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Messages from Samuel Connolly

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. 

The White Arse and other grassland birds

One of the most interesting things about birds’ names is that many of them are so strange you might find yourself wondering where they came from. However, in many cases they were changed slightly from their original, simple meaning because they were considered uncouth or not politically correct, particularly during the Victorian era of the 19th century. Such is the case with this handsome grassland bird, which likes to let approaching walkers get only so close before it suddenly flies off to land on a more distant fence post, usually just out of camera range.

Birdwatchers will immediately recognise this as the Wheatear (Oenanthe oenantha). I often wondered about the name ‘wheatear’ or ‘wheat ear’ and where it came from, and I did think it was a very romantic name. Presumably these birds frequented wheat fields… it makes sense. However, the truth is very different – the Wheatear has a huge patch of solid white at the top of its tail, and since the Middle Ages has been known as White Arse, as it’s particularly noticeable when this handsome, but otherwise drab bird, flies past. Many other birds have equally prosaic names, such as this infuriatingly difficult-to-photograph species:

When you get close it hides behind leaves, and only when it’s at a safe distance does it fully reveal itself, singing its grating, chortling call from a barbwire fence while simultaneously holding insect prey in its beak:

This infuriating little bird is the Whitethroat (Sylvia communis), which is a species of warbler, closely-related to the equally prosaically-named Blackcap. Many of the grassland birds could better be described as ‘fence birds’ as they like to perch on fences watching as you scare up insects which they then snatch. For some it’s a whole way of life, such as this common and beautiful species below, the Stonechat (Saxicola torquata):

The male of the species is very boldly marked, and in many ways is very similar to the European Robin, which it was once believed to be closely-related to. Females can even be confused with young robins, and juveniles too:

Not all birds are insectivores, some prefer seeds, some mostly seeds but will also supplement their diets with some insects too. This is typical of sparrows, but also the Redpoll (Carduelis flammea) which moves in small flocks. The individual below is a male, but there were females on the wire directly below him as he kept watch while they fed from grass heads:

I photographed all of these birds, and many more, in the space of two hours on the path leading from the main site of the East Coast Nature Reserve along the railway tracks to Blackditch Woods, which due to the prolonged drought and very recent heavy, thundery rains is now a veritable jungle, and well worth seeing… but watch out for the horseflies. Below is yours truly on the path, with the fences which the birds like to perch on. The birds – about a dozen of them altogether – are behind the camera and preceding me as I walk along.

 

 

Mothy Nights in July

The warm temperatures and drought (which have lasted two months in many parts of Wicklow and caused massive gorse fires) have also encouraged many species of butterflies, but even more species of moths, including some very big ones, such as the Northern Eggar (Lasiocampus quercus f. callunae ), a subspecies of the smaller Oak Eggar (L. quercus). This truly is a huge moth, and before now I last saw one all the way back in the early 1990s. This one is the female, which is the largest and more colourful of the sexes. Here is a video which shows the power and size of this moth, which is one of the largest in Europe:

Here is a still of the female, showing her details best:

The male of this species is smaller and darker than the female, but is otherwise almost identical. And here are other beautiful moths encountered in the last few days:

The Great Oak Beauty (Hypomecis robararia) is a large and somewhat variable species of moth. 

The following is the Common Emerald (Hemithea aestivaria), which is slightly smaller:

 

The Silver-Y (Auographa gamma), below, is a famous species which flies both day and night, migrating from southern Europe and even sub-Saharan Africa into Europe every year, and possibly even some individuals fly all the way back again. They come to flowers in large numbers and seem to fulfill the role of bees at night.The Mother of Pearl moth (Pleuroptera ruralis) gets its name from the nacre-like sheen on its wings. It is the size and shape of a small butterfly.The ultra-white, angel-like White-plumed Moth (Pterophorus pentadactyla) resembles a fairy when seen glowing in the darkness of a summer evening. Occasionally they come to light, but mostly fly about lawns. The Common Footman (Eilema lurideola) is a small moth, but not tiny, and it gets its name from its appearing to wear the neat liveried uniform of a coachman.The Clouded Border (Lomaspilis marginata) is a very handsome species of carpet moth, moths which have beautiful carpet-like patterns on their wings. Buff Arches (Habrosyne pyritoides) with slight damage to left wing probably caused by a predator.

This is one of the variations of the Mottled Beauty (Alcis repandata).