Some notes on wildlife-watching kit

If you are visiting Wicklow with the intention of watching wildlife, and visiting habitats, then here is some advice that will help make things easier. In my opinion the most useful items you can bring with you are as follows:

1. Water-resistant messenger bag with shoulder strap; 2. water resistant pouch for camera; 3. Compact super-zoom camera; 4. mobile phone; 5. small penknife; 6. rugged journal; 7.crushable all-weather hat.

The advantage of a messenger bag is it leaves your hands free and can be dipped into quickly, without having to be first removed (as in the case of a back-pack). The messenger bag only needs to be light and preferably with some degree of water-resistance, allowing you to keep your more precious items dry, and carry a sandwich if you intend going out for a few hours. It also allows you to carry a light jacket and a hat in case of rain or a sudden drop in temperature.

For your camera you will ideally have a seperate pouch. Unless you are specifically on a photographic expedition in the pay of National Geographic, for roaming around the countryside a compact superzoom camera will be more than ideal. Any camera is good, but a small superzoom will let you take good long distance and close-up macros too, while not being heavy to carry, or, in the worst case scenario, expensive to replace in the case of an outdoors accident. Always keep the strap wrapped around your wrist! These cameras are superb pieces of equipment: they allow you to record nature without harming it, and to examine it in minute detail, and so are a terrific replacement for the old magnifying glass or botanical lens.

Mobile phones are virtually vital pieces of equipment to take out in the field: they allow you to stay safely in contact

with the outside world in the event of an accident, or getting lost. This doesn’t happen very often in Wicklow, but anyone can wander off the beaten track and sprain an ankle, or fall on a mountainside, or encounter someone in distress in the sea on a lonely stretch of coatline, so always carry your mobile phone and keep it charged. Many of the newer ones have GPS and compass applications so you can navigate with them, allow people to follow your route as you make it, or allow you to keep track of the night sky, even if it’s hidden behind a veil of cloud. Also, mobile phones almost always have built-in cameras, so yours can be a useful back-up to your main camera.

A small penknife is also an extremely useful tool to carry. In Ireland it is technically illegal to carry any sort of knife of any kind in any public place, but in practice there is a concept of “reasonable use” and the GardaĆ­ (our police force) use their discretion. For a great many people a knife of some sort will be a necessary tool of their trade. Similarly, it is normal to expect back-packers, tourists, birdwatchers, anglers and hunters to carry knives for outdoor purposes. There is no doubt a penknife is a vital tool to have in the countryside, but do not carry one when visiting bars or nightclubs.

A good tough notebook is one of the most useful item of all you should carry in the countryside. For the naturalist and archaeologist they are a must-have, and for the average tourist they are incredibly useful, to say the least. The best kinds are usually found for sale in art-supply shops, and can be a little expensive. However, they can survive submersion in water, and take a beating without losing pages. Those with unlined pages are best, such as the Windsor Newton journal pictured.

A crushable hat can be either rolled up, or have its crown flattened. In my opinion the second type is better (some hats allow you to do both), as a rigid brim will protect the face from sun and much more importantly, driving rain or hail stones, which often accompany thunderstorms in even the hottest weather of summer. Coats with hoods are not as good, as they don’t adequately protect the face, and limits your field of view, often causing the wearer to face into the hood if he/she attempts to look over his/her shoulder. The advantage of a brimmed hat is that the brim protects the face, head and neck, and will even protect your camera, allowing you to take photos in inclement weather. And there’s no need to wear it everywhere, as it can be easily kept in the messenger bag. A draw string to prevent it blowing away might be useful in cliff or hill areas. A water-resistant outdoor hat is ideal.

An all-weather hat doing its job: because of its peculiar geography a hot, sunny day in Wicklow could be interrupted by an unexpected and heavy shower of rain.

One of the commonest plants in Wicklow is Gorse (Ulex europaeus), also known as furze or whin. Gorse is a beautiful and large bush, growing in dense thickets, and producing gently fragrant yellow blossoms. But it is also extremely spiny and easily punctures clothing and skin. The average person will not find any need to wander through gorse thickets, but because of this reason these areas are incredible havens for wildlife, so the wildlife tourist will want to wear clothes that allow him or her to move as painlessly as possible off the beaten track in order to encounter the more remarkable wildlife. Archaeology tourists will also find many ancient walls, buildings and artefacts lie hidden beneath gorse…the bushes take advantage of manmade structures under the soil to anchor themselves. If you see an archaeological structure marked on a map it will almost invariably be surrounded by or covered in gorse, although there will also normally be an unofficial path through the bushes.

Gorse bushes are beautiful evergreens, but they form thickets that are very painful for people to pass through, even on paths or tracks, and for this reason are havns for wildlife. Gorse grows on hillsides, but gives way to heather on mountains.

If you are an archaeologist you might be tempted to take a waterproof plastic-shelled padded jacket: if you are a wildlife enthusiast don’t even think of it. These jackets will mostly keep the spines off, but are extremely noisy and will alert wild animal to your presence long before you get near them. Volunteers on wildlife studies are usually banned from wearing such coats, even in heavy rain, as they make far too much noise. But even so, gorse needles will eventually puncture such coats.

Coats and jackets with nylon plastic shells are extremely light, comfortable, rainproof and wind-resistant, and will protect you from gorse...but they make far too much noise!

Although not nearly as waterproof, and a bit heavier, a cotton military-type tunic will protect you from gorse needles and allow the careful naturalist to move silently along paths through gorse thickets. Most also have good secure button-fasten pockets and epaulettes that reinforce and take some of the strain off the shoulders, and allow a messenger bag strap to be held securely over the shoulder. They can be treated to make them more water-resistant, but even this will be worn off by exposure to gorse over a period of time. But these are the best choice for the naturalist.

A military-style tunic is the best protection from gorse that a naturalist can wear, as it allows you to remain silent.

 

 

Incredible scenes from an incredible wildlife adventure

In May, as the undergrowth thickens, the heat increases and brief rain showers moisten and feed the plant life, there is a crescendo of wildlife activity. Keep your eyes open when walking along lanes or through meadows in Wicklow, and you could be rewarded with amazing encounters, such as a family of Irish Stoats moving to a new lair. The mother leads, usually with the father nearby, and the babies moving along tracks at intervals, piping loudly in communication with their parent/s, sounding like exotic little birds.

A very rarely seen juvenile Irish Stoat, one of a family following their mother along a dried out drainage ditch by a hedgerow.

Irish Stoats are remarkable little animals. Genetics studies suggest that these rarely seen predators may be Ireland’s oldest indigenous mammals. The Irish Stoat subspecies (Mustela erminea hibernica) differs from its British and coninental relatives in that it does not turn into the snow white Ermine in winter, and an irregular line between the creamy-white underside and upper brown fur, which is a regular line in most stoats. The Irish Stoat is often known as a “weasel” in Ireland, but there are actually no weasels found on the island.

Irish Stoats have traditionally been regarded as almost supernatural creatures in Ireland. They are known to dance, and in full view of rabbits, seemingly mesmerising them, before suddenly attacking. Although a large Irish Stoat will reach only 40cm at maximum from nose-tip to tail-tip, they voraciously pursue and kill even the very largest rabbits, and have even been seen dragging them up vertical walls and tree trunks. In the countryside they have long been feared: it is said that if a young Stoat is harmed by a person, the whole family will track the offender down and kill them. Needless to say, these amazing little monsters have never been persecuted in Ireland. Bravery, daring, intelligence and ferocity are always respected!

Ireland’s largest carnivores are all members of the Stoat family, but very different to the wily little hunters. It is still a much-debated topic as to which is the larger animal, the Badger (Meles meles) or the Otter (Lutra lutra). Both are credited with phenomenal strength. You might not see them around, but they are always there in the Wicklow countryside. Look along the edges of walls and fences in meadows for the tell-tale territorial markings made by Badgers: latrines. They are not the most pleasant looking things, being small open holes dug in the earth and filled with Badger dung, but they certainly get the message across! And then you know to come back after dark, with a camera.

A Badger latrine: someone's been feeding on peanuts!

All this dung, especially cowdung, horse dung and sheep dung, will give you a good chance of seeing a wonderful little animal which has been portrayed in some adventure movies as an insane supernatural killing-machine. Anyone who has seen Brendan Fraser’s The Mummy will probably have unpleasant recollections of swarms of large black scarab beetles pursuing the adventurers, burrowing into skin, and eating people alive. In Wicklow we have a number of members of the Scarabidae, better known as “dung beetles”. The most commonly found is the large, muscular-looking and armour-plated Common Dor Beetle (Geotrupes stercorarius). You will imediately notice that it is an extremely slow-moving animal and clumsy insect, finding it very difficult to right itself if it gets turned over. The immense, blade-like digging claws of the front legs are powerful. Hold a beetle in your hands and you will feel them prize your fingers apart with the kind of strength that is barely imaginable in such a small creature. There are always parasitic mites clinging to Dor Beetles, so don’t be too alarmed if you see any.

A Common Dor Beetle with mite travelling companions.

 

However, even these big beetles have their mammalian predators, with bats in the sky, and badgers and Pygmy Shrews on the ground. Watch out for Pygmy Shrews (Sorex minutus) running along carefully maintained trackways beneath the undergrowth. They move fast, so watch closely!

Wildlife as the humidity increases…

As tropical weather systems move across the Atlantic from the Caribbean the Barn Swallows have an abundance of food and can take time to rest and socialise. This is probably the best time of year to view their colours, as they perch on the ground.

Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) on the ground

Between the showers, and even in them, you have a very good chance of spotting Ireland’s unique subspecies of Mountain Hare. The Irish or Blue Hare (Lepus timidus hibernicus) has a bluish sheen, which you can just about see in this photo, which was taken in difficult lighting just before a shower of rain.

An Irish Hare on the alert.

However, in the humidy of May keep your eyes on the hedgerows and you will see some very interesting creatures, such as the brilliant shiny green Birch Weevil, and the Strawberry Ground Beetle, which is a hunter that also enjoys eating strawberries. The Strawberry Ground Beetle is one of the most common beetles found inWicklow, and you will often find it under flowerpots. Although it does eat strawberries, it makes amends with gardeners by eating slugs too.

Birch Weevil (Polydrusus sericeus), on a Dock leaf, just to cause confusion.

 

Strawberry Ground Beetle (Harpalus rufipes), crossing a deep pile carpet of Sphagnum moss.

 

However, the most striking and bizarre thing that you are likely to see in the hedgerows at this time of year is a vast web, covering whole trees and bushes, and more. Many people are startled by the sight of this phenomenon, and often fear the invasion of some terrible tropical spider species like from the film Arachnophobia.

Tent-webs on a hedge

Those who dare to get closer are often startled by thousands of caterpillars writhing in the webs. The truth of the situation is far more interesting than you might think: the caterpillars spin these webs themselves, as protective tents to keep predators at bay while they feed unopposed. They are caterpillars of the beautiful, tiny, white-with-black- spots Small Ermine moth, which can be seen flying over the hedgerows throughout the summer months.

 

Caterpillars of the Small Ermine (Yponomeuta patella) feeding in their protective tent.

 

An Adventure in the Garden of Ireland