All posts by Samuel Connolly

A Fantastic Voyage into Spring

The air is now filled with wonderful aromas and perfumes from the blossoming trees, bushes and flowers. All along the hedgerows is the heady scent of freshly flowering alexanders, flowering currant and the subtle fragrance of apple blossom wafting from the orchards.

Now there is an excitement of life. The big bumblebees harvest the nectar of the apple blossoms, and the predators hide among the petals to snatch the unwary insects that come to feed.

White-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus lucorum) feeding on apple blossom.
Look closely - this little fly has been captured by a large and superbly camouflaged Flower Crab Spider (Misumena vatia).

Added to the aromas is the subtle and delightful fragrance of gorse (Ulex europaeus), a spiny bush that grows in dense thickets across the hillsides of Wicklow and provides a vital habitat for vast numbers of species. It is also known as Furze or Whin, from which the small bird known as the Whinchat derives its name. The flowers are very popular with small insects, especially pea weevils, the flowers being remarkably like those of peas.

Gorse flowers, complete with tiny weevil.

At this time of year the hedgerows are edged by dense thickets of Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum), a hogweed like umbellifer with lovely yellowish-cream flowerheads that provide vital nectar for honeybees, drone flies, ladybirds, and many others. But in April you will see a very peculiar, large black fly hovering above them and the hedgerows, with long legs trailing beneath it. This species is the St. Mark’s Fly (Bibio marci), which is so-called because it usually appears in the sky near St. Mark’s Day, the 25th April. Although excellent fliers, much like hoverflies, they are incredibly ungainly when they land, which is usually only to feed and to mate. Mating pairs are normally found all over the Alexanders, which are like the insect equivalent of dance clubs.

 

St. Mark's Flies hovering above a hedgerow, legs trailing beneath them conspicuously.
St. Mark's Flies mating while perched on Alexanders. The larvae live long lives in the soil and leaf litter and will appear as adults next spring.

However, it is the butterflies that steal most attention in the hedgerows. April and May are the time of the short-lived Orange-tips. The female is extremely beautiful, but upstaged by the male, with his glowing orange wing-tips. Like so many insects, most of their lives are spent as larvae, but most spectacularly for the brief period they are adults. They are among the most difficult butterflies to photograph, of those found in Wicklow.

Female Orange-tip (Anthocaris cardamines) at rest on apple. It is rare to see a female perched with her wings open for any length of time, but if you are patient you increase your chances.
A spectacular male Orange-tip feeding on vetch in a hedgerow.

Although the Orange-tips certainly draw most attention, by sheer force of their colour and presence in numbers at this time of year, they by no means hold a monopoly over colour. Not so common in spring, but equally colourful are the Peacock butterflies, which are especially fond of dandelion flowers. They are a long-lived hibernating species, so many of those that apear in springtime have slightly ragged wings. However, their eye-spot wing-markings sometimes draw attacks from highly territorial breeding birds.

A European Peacock butterfly (Inachis io). Note the torn left hind wingspot...almost certainly made by an attacking bird, possibly a territorial attack or the hallmark of a hunting Swallow.
The hedgerows of a spring lane in the warm April of east Wicklow.

The Undergrowth Comes Alive

The sunlight, and longer days are warming the valleys of Wicklow. The smaller wildlife, on which all others depend, are starting to steal the show. While strolling in a garden or along a village lane you might see a scarlet-coloured fluttering object drop from the sky and out of sight. It might appear a little later, but if not, look on the low-growing foliage for the beautiful and aptly-named Ruby Tiger moth (Phragmatobia fuliginosa), which emerges from its pupal coccoons in April and May, to take to the sky. This species employs bright colouring to warn of distasteful toxins in its body.

Ruby Tiger Moth lying low in a meadow. Beneath the forewings is a searing red underwing only usually discernible when the moth is in flight.

At the other end of the colour spectrum is the Holly Blue butterfly (Celastrina argiolus), a stunning little spring butterfly that loves to bask on wide hedgerow leaves. This butterfly likes woodland glades and narrow laneways, aswell as gardens.

Holly Blue butterfly - you can tell this one is female by the narrow black margins on the outer edges of the forewings: males have much thicker markings, effectively black patches.

If you are very lucky you might even be fortunate enough to see a mating pair. Mating is a quiet and symmetrical affair. The lovers rest, joined by their abdomens, but facing in completely opposite directions. They only move to angle their wings in the sun.

A mating pair of Holly Blues. Behind them is a dangerous-looking, but harmless and extremely handsome Syrphus hoverfly.

However, the sunlit leaves are not necessarily safe places. Predatory invertebrates brazenly wait, motionless in the undergrowth, for unwitting visitors to arrive to provide them with lunch. Crab spiders wait on the leaves, and will soon be hiding among the blossoms.

Flower Crab Spider (Misumena vatia), waiting for prey. Crab Spiders get their names from their habit of grasping prey with their two long pairs of forelegs, while balancing on their two shorter pairs of hind legs, as this one was doing.

However, many small creatures are fortunate enough not to hide on leaves. Your best chance of seeing the Early Thorn moth (Selenia dentaria) is now in April, usually perched on timber door or window frames, and garden sheds. The first generation male, pictured, is perfectly coloured to match dark timber, and dry leaves in the hedgerows.

A male Early Thorn moth perched on a door frame.

The Kilcoole Breaches in late March, and Beachcombing

My brother convinced me a visit to the Kilcoole Breaches would be a good idea, as it was late March and there could be new arrivals from overseas. The weather was extremely good, so on Wednesday (30th) we made our way along the walkway running between the railway and shingle beach. The Kilcoole Breaches get their name simply because they are technically in the Kilcoole area (see the interactive map) and are a breach in the shoreline where an estuary reaches the sea. It was low tide when we got there, and no sooner had we reached the railway bridge than a vast flock of Brent Geese (Branta bernicla) flew down from the Kilcoole marshes and landed in the shallow low-tide waters of the muddy lagoon. They began cavorting, bathing and drinking the water. A hot day in late March can be a bit much for them, so they need to cool off.

 

Brent Geese in the lagoon

They were not alone. Some beautiful Wigeon ducks (Anas penelope) came to see what all the fuss was about. The males already have their full breeding colours. This is one of the very best places in Wicklow to see these ducks, but it’s a good idea to bring binoculars.

Wigeon - two females and a brightly-coloured male in breeding plumage

The railway bridge is of good solid concrete and steel construction, not like the rickety and dangerous timber and steel one that was replaced by it in the 1990s. The metal rail is perfect for getting a steady shot in the sea breeze, as you can see Trev doing in this photo.

 

Trev photographing the geese

The geese seemed to attract more and more birds to the area, almost as though they are afraid to miss out. It wasn’t long before the flock was joined by the largest resident bird-species, a Mute Swan which came in for a what turned out to be a very long landing.

Mute Swan - Cygnus olor

If you had any doubt about the difference in size between a swan and a goose, just look at this photo taken by Trev.

Mute Swan looking for attention?

It’s true that Brent Geese are not the largest goose species, but even so, look at the size of this Mute Swan in comparison. It takes a lot of muscles for a bird that big to fly!

On the way back along the beach we saw some Swallows. It’s an unusual time of year, with both the winter and summer visitors in Wicklow briefly at the same time. But the seas change seasonally too, and we decided to do some beachcombing. Sometimes very interesting things can be found in the seaweed, especially after a high spring tide. There were plenty of Red Whelk shells (Neptunea antiqua). These large sea snails are very common but not easy to see alive, unless you’re deep-sea scuba diving, as they like deep water.

Shell of the Red Whelk - note the hole, probably made by a scavenging seagull.

 

Whelk shells are extremely strong due to the amount of calcium in them, and they have to be to withstand th pressure of deep water. Some shells are so dense they almost seem like stones. Alongside the whelk shells there were plenty of the more exotic Common Oyster shells (Osria edulis), which conjure up images of pearls and adventure. However, they are certainly the least impressive seashells, resembling lumps of cement or stucco plaster by the time they reach shore.

Common or Flat Oyster Shell

And then there are the downright strange things that are very common everywhere in the seaweed, but don’t seem like any creature ever seen in a wildlife documentary. Here is one example, but it suddenly makes sense when you realise it is a piece of a creature – the dried out arm of a Common Starfish (Asterias rubens), a species that can grow to the size of a seat cushion.

However, probably the most beautiful items you can find at this time of the year are the Mermaid’s Purses. These are the empty egg-cases of rays, skates, dogfish and other small shark species, and get their name from their shape. The one pictured belongs to a dogfish, and the little wiry tendrils at each corner usually cling to seaweed.

Mermaid's Purse of a dogfish.

Look out for all of these interesting little natural artifacts on the coast this spring.