This weekend brings another Heritage Week to a close, but summer isn’t over yet. For one thing, I am still seeing one or two Swifts around. These birds are summer visitors, like much larger versions of Swallows and House Martins, but they arrive later, near the end of May, and they generally leave for their wintering grounds in the early weeks of August. They are quite easy to identify, forming crescent shapes when seen in silhouette:
Compare this Swift (Apus apus) above with the shape of a Swallow (Hirundo rustica) below, which has much shorter wings, and a much longer forked tail although here it is photographed at a slight angle as it climbs:
And there are quite a few beautiful moths around to be seen, and for many of them this time of year is their time of year. Keep an eye out for the stunning Garden Tiger (Arctia caja), a large moth that sometimes comes to window light:
There are also quite a few handsome butterflies to be seen in meadows and grasslands, such as this female Common Blue (Polyommatus icarus), which I photographed this morning:
Where there are butterflies there are also predatory insects to hunt them in the air – this is one of the best times of year to get close to dragonflies. The small Common Darter (Sympetrum striolatum) usually perches on fence posts, or walls and darts up to snatch at smaller insects: I saw this one perched on top of a Butterfly Bush:
However, in the last week I have seen the far larger, and incredibly robust Autumn Hawker (Aeshna mixta) dragonflies about. These powerful dragonflies hunt on the wing, and seem to spend an inordinate amount of time on the wing, although they do find perches to rest on for long periods too:
I was very fortunate to see and photograph (a bad photograph) a beautiful species of beetle I have never seen before, and that is the False Ladybird (Endomychus coccineus), which flew across a meadow and landed on a bench I was standing beside:
It is larger than the average ladybird and much longer, but is actually related and moves very much like a typical ladybird. Far less obvious and much harder to find, although very common, are bush crickets. This female Speckled Bush Cricket (Leptophyes punctatissima) was literally on a leaf I was looking directly at, but I only noticed it because it flicked its long, whip-like antennae, and it’s possible you might even struggle to see it in this photo, as it matches so perfectly the colour of the dock leaf it is standing on. They are quite large insects:
However, many insects are much easier to see, such as this Drone Fly (Eristalis species):
So long as there are flowers there will be insects to feed on them.
Just for a change I want to tell a story, basically showcasing one afternoon of a photo safari I made from Bray, over the Cliff Walk on the cliffs of Bray Head to Greystones, and then on to Kilcoole on a spectacularly beautiful and sunny day just over a week ago. So please enjoy this story, shown as it happened. So, to start, here’s Bray as seen from the start of the Cliff Walk:
Firstly, this year there are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of Painted Lady butterflies along the coast, and this one posed beautifully for a photo at the start of the Cliff Walk:
These butterflies have flown from southern Europe and were almost certainly greatly assisted by easterly winds during the continental heatwave in June and July.
Here, a short distance from where the butterfly was photographed, facing south and looking up the cross on Bray Head from the Cliff Walk:
It was on the wall which you can see to the left that I found a very handsome species of Wolf Spider, which I have yet to identify. It as quite small, but boldly patterned.
A lot of the Cliff Walk, especially on the Bray side of Bray Head, is navigable by wheelchair, but, sadly, wheelchairs can only go so far. I hope this will change in the future. Here is another photo, looking back towards Bray. Along the cliffs there are thousands of Kittiwakes, small gulls which want as little as possible to do with human beings. They don’t enter cities and will never try to take food from you. They are the true “sea gulls” and happily spend their lives at sea. Here are adults at their nesting sites along Bray Head:
Here is what they look like closer, and the handsomely patterned ones are the juveniles. Young kittiwakes have black legs and feet:
Another species I saw was the largest known gull, the gigantic eagle-sized Great Black-backed Gull:
These monsters are so large they can kill and eat rabbits, swallowing them whole. One thing about the cliffs is that they are great places to see birds, but mostly seabirds, of course. Among the most interesting are the famous Cormorants, which do not have water-proof feathers like other seabirds, and spread their wings to dry them as they stand on sunny rocks:
Very similar species are the Shags, which are a dark bottle-green colour and have long, serpentine necks. They look almost like they belong to the age of dinosaurs:
I was very lucky to see all of these birds in such good light, but I was particularly very lucky to see a very beautiful seabird, the Black Guillemot:
Unfortunately it was a long distance from me, but you can make out the bright red feet in the photo.
But black guillemots were not the only creatures at the foot of the cliffs. I watched as a paddle-boarder was pursued by a mischievous seal he had got to close to. The seal, a Grey Seal, seemed almost to be laughing at the man as he paddled away, nervously looking over his shoulder:
The seal then went to sleep!
Summer is the breeding season for Grey Seals and they often come ashore on narrow beaches or flat rocks along the cliffs and away from people. The seal cows have their calves here.
About midway along the Cliff Walk you can see the old railway tunnel, closer to the sea, the track now long since worn away and swallowed up by it. In the mid-19th century the famous engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel built a roller-coaster like railway line along the cliffs, a feat considered virtually impossible at the time:
The stone fence posts along the Cliff Walk at this point are great habitat for Leaf-cutter Bees, which make nests in the holes the wires are fed through, and they fill these nests with leaves, usually from wild rose species, which somehow stay fresh long enough for their larvae to hatch out and reach a pupal stage. Here you can see a Leaf-cutter Bee stuffing big leaves into one of the wire holes in a post:
From this point onwards the Cliff Walk begins to become more leafy and here I saw quite a few butterfly and moth species, such as this Red Admiral:
On the ivy I found a few Holly Blue butterflies too, and one posed for a photo:
There are lots of plant species to support these lovely insects, and especially impressive was the Red Valerian, which, ironically, can be red, white or pink. It seems to be mostly pink along the Cliff Walk. Thanks to this flower I managed to photograph the only Hummingbird Hawkmoth I’ve seen this year:
Unfortunately they were not the most in-focus shots, and the big moth promptly flew away, as there was no shortage of paparazzo-free Red Valerian to choose from. However, the shot I got shows how it carries its long, beak-like tongue curled up like a butterfly does:
A hot day on the cliffs in summer really does bring out the wildlife. But the flowers are vital for the insects, such as the beautiful Rosebay, one of the willowherbs:
You can also find wild Sweet Pea:
The vegetation begins to become almost jungle-like and the rocky cliffs then give way to huge sand ones, and this seems to suit dense undergrowth:
This is a good area to find grasshoppers in, especially the Yellow Meadow Grasshopper:
There are two in the photo, and one is a male, hiding behind the female. Look for his antennae.
Eventually Greystones comes into view, and what a view it was for me, contaminated by sky-stealing cranes and half-built apartment complexes where there had once been a beautiful, rustic harbour – long ago, it now seems, but not that long ago. The pink flowers of the rosebay dominated the scene:
Eventually the Cliff Walk comes down to lower ground and meanders through some beautiful fields, which were fields of wheat when I passed through them, and they look beautiful next to the sea:
The sad thing about the Cliff Walk in Greystones is that it currently draws to an end in what is, to all intents and purposes, an unprepossessing housing estate, still under construction but already partially populated. However, I suppose it has its own kind of beauty, but it’s not really my kind of beauty. Judge for yourself:
However, I couldn’t end a safari like this, so after a lot of cold drink and some food it was time to continue the journey a few miles further along the coast, while taking a look back over my shoulder, for a photo, of the Cliff Walk from the bathing spot that is the South Beach:
As you can see, there were lots of people out in the sunshine and a few in the water. Irish seawater doesn’t get properly warm until the end of August, usually. The path from the South Beach runs parallel to the railway track and has its own unique beauty, but especially so on a hot summer’s day:
It was very dusty, but, as usual, it was an excellent place to get close to nature. Here is a juvenile Starling on the same fence you can see above:
Behind the little bird is Sugarloaf Mountain, which resembles a volcano but is nothing of the sort… however it does look great. In fact, here is some more of the landscape as seen from the coast between Greystones and Kilcoole:
This area of Wicklow is one of the very best to get near Grey Seals and get good photos, as the water is deep close to shore, and I saw a mournful-looking seal only a few yards away:
Seals do find people fascinating.
However, the creature I most wanted to see was an insect, but one which can only usually be seen in late summer along the Wicklow coast, and only in some places. I managed to get a decent shot, after a very long chase – this is the Clouded Yellow butterfly:
I think you’ll agree it’s very beautiful, and almost surreal in its colouring. It likes very rough sandy and gravelly terrain, as you can see here:
At this point, if you pay attention to the landward side, on your right as you face south (the above photo is facing north, by the way) you will see the ruined outbuildings of what was once a massive country estate, Ballygannon House, belonging originally to the powerful Byrne clan. One of the Byrne daughters married a certain sea captain named Scott who ran his ship aground near the shore during the war between James II of England and the invading Dutch Prince William of Orange, who later became King William of England. Captain Scott was kept as a guest in the great house and then married one of the daughters and eventually inherited the entire estate, which comprised Kilcoole village. Ballygannon complex was essentially a village in its own right, and is today known locally as ‘the Lost Village’ to the inhabitants of Kilcoole and its environs.
If that’s an outhouse, just imagine what the actual house was like – it must have been immense. It was inhabited into the 1930 and, sadly, was leveled in the 1950s .
Not long after this Kilcoole neared, and behind it Wicklow Head was visible. There were quite a few bathers at Kilcoole beach too:
Kilcoole seemed a good place to end the safari. It had been one of the best day’s strolling with my camera that I’ve ever had. However, as enjoyable as the photography was, I also made a video, which you can see here:
Although the Summer Solstice is the longest day of the year, summer doesn’t really mature until the end of July when it becomes High Summer, and this is the best time to see moths and butterflies. This year the warm and sometimes moist conditions have greatly helped the blooming of flowers and growth of foliage, in turn supporting insects, especially moths and butterflies. One of the most beautiful moths is the toxic Cinnabar Moth (Tyria jacobaeae) which is usually seen flying in daytime, but this year a significant number came to the lighted windows at night. You might still see some. They are red and black and about the size of a butterfly:
These moths love meadows. They can fly in daytime because they are distasteful to birds, and they advertise their toxins with bright bold colour patterns.
However, most moths much prefer night time, such as this Small Magpie (Ananiahortulata), which likes to come to lighted windows, but can be disturbed from long grass in meadows and along hedgerows:
This species is called ‘small’ magpie because there is another, larger Magpie Moth (Abraxas grossulariata), which looks very like a butterfly and feeds on honeysuckle and other night-blooming flowers. Many flowers close up for the night, but not this lot. I encountered one a few days ago and it landed on my hat just long enough for me to get a bad selfie with the moth before it flew off into the night sky:
Why do I wear a brimmed hat at night? Spider-webs. Spiders spin their webs mostly by night and there is nothing worse than walking through a fresh one and getting the web in your eyes. Back to the moths – keep an eye out for the lovely Grass Emerald (Pseudoterpna pruinata), which is on the wing right now and comes to window light. Here’s one I found a few days ago:
For all of the brightly-coloured species many are more drab, and better camouflaged, but are beautifully-patterned, such as the Mottled Beauty (Alcisrepandata), which comes in a number of variations, such as these two which arrived side-by-side by the porch light to perch below the Grass Emerald, which stayed put for a few days. These Mottled Beauties were very handsome, despite lacking the colour of some moths species.
If you have fruit trees, even small ones in pots, you have a very good chance of finding Herald Moths (Scoliopteryx libatrix ) at these time of the year. I found three feeding on Logan berries this week, and two were sitting on the same berry, eating from opposite sides of the fruit:
These moths are so-called because they will hibernate and overwinter, reawakening in late winter to herald a new spring. They are very beautiful and unusual moths, quite chunky and appearing to have a luminous orange “H” mark on their backs.
Not all moths are quite so easy to find. Some require you to look for them, in the undergrowth, and one of the most handsome of these species is the Bordered Beauty (Epione repandaria ). I was very fortunate to get some good shots of one of these moths this week, and carefully used flash so as to illuminate it without causing it to panic and flee: