The Emerald Express

On Monday I was completing my last butterfly transect of the year, my once-a-week walk recording butterflies for the National Biodiversity Data Centre. I finished at the beach, where I found an unusual number of cars parked, yet not many people around. There was a very noticeable shimmering mirage caused by the unusual heat that day, and the warming of the sand, rock and air by the unfiltered sun. And then there was the loud wail of a train sounding its horn in the distance. Suddenly people began apearing from everywhere, and many had cameras. I realised the engine was an older one, but immaculately clean – it was Emerald Express. Somehow, by sheer coincidence, I had arrived on the beach by the railway on one of the two days per year when the Emerald Express travels south from Dublin, through Wicklow, en route to Waterford City.

   I had heard that the Emerald Express is pulled by an Emerald Green No. 71 engine, but, it seems, this had been replaced temporarily by a classic orange Irish Rail No. 73 engine. It still bore the sign ‘Emerald CIE Express’ on the front. What is the Emerald Express? Believe it or not, this train is the means by which the most luxurious heritage tour of Ireland is undertaken. For the princely sum of €5,999 (currently) per person you can see Ireland in five star luxury on this extremely posh presidential train, stopping off to stay in a castle for each night of your eight-day scenic journey of Ireland. And don’t worry about overcrowding – only a maximum of 50 guests are allowed travel on any tour! It’s out of my league, but if you love trains, castles, and being pampered then you might want to look it up. It only travels twice a year, once in May and once in September, so far. However, I suspect, if demand goes up, it will become a more common sight. But who has that kind of money! Clearly somebody does. As for me –  I’ll stick to the DART for now.

Embracing Autumn in Wicklow

This year autumn really feels like autumn. Since the Equinox the weather has seemed markedly cool, although there’s been good sunshine too. There’s a lot of rain about also, though. However, there are still some very interesting things to be seen. All across the landscape there are the big, beautiful, shimmering webs of the Garden Spider (Araneus diadematus) slung between bushes and trees, and occasionally buildings too:

  These webs are mostly made by the females, which reach full size at this time of the year. They are extremely pretty spiders, almost jewel-like, and very ungainly on the ground, so they almost never leave their webs. There are mainly two variations – a common, boldly-marked one with strong brown and white markings; and a pale, almost golden variety, which you can see here:

The presence of these large, stout spiders attracts insectivorous birds. Spiders are extremely nutritious, on average about 40 times more nutritious than a fly of similar size, and also relatively easy to catch in comparison to flying insects. As a result, this is one of the best times of year to see bird species such as the Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea), which are much less shy than they usually are during the majority of the year. Usually they hunt along riverbanks, and specialise in catching semi-aquatic insects, such as mayfly or stonefly:

   Many people assume, when they see one, that they are looking at the Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava) as this one has so much yellow on it, but the Yellow Wagtail is actually almost completely yellow, whereas the Grey Wagtail has quite a lot of grey on it, although it’s not so noticeable when one of these birds flies across the path in front of you. Although spiders are easy pickings, birds have lots of flying insects to hunt too. The past summer was a bumper year for Comma butterflies (Polygonia c-album), and you can see a second, even more brightly-coloured generation this autumn, if you keep your eyes peeled. Here is one I came across at the weekend:

However, this is the end of the time of the Commas, and very soon this second generation will also be gone into hibernation. They live to re-emerge in the springtime when they breed.

Besides butterflies there are also many moths to be seen, and one very interesting species which is attracted to the lights of windows, is the Feathered Thorn (Colotois pennaria). The ‘feathered’ title comes from the shape and size of the male’s antennae, which do look like miniature feathers. Here is a very handsome specimen which I photographed on a wall by a window the night before last. It’s a male, but unfortunately its antennae are folded beneath it:

   Autumn is only beginning, and there are many interesting things to be seen, and still more to come.

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: