After the storms

The rainy period late this May caused temperatures in Wicklow to be lower than those of the balmy April, but this is often the case. And it bodes very well for June. It seems very apt when late at night a beautiful moth comes to the light of a window wearing what appears to be a fur-lined coat. From this time on through much of the summer there will usually be one of the Ermine moths found by a window. The beautiful one pictured is a White Ermine (Spilosoma lubricipeda).

A White Ermine moth. The feathered antennae distinguish this one as a male. The male moths can smell the pheremones of females wafting on the breeze from miles away.

This time of year, all across the countryside and gardens, a strange substance begins appearing on the leaves and stems of the undergrowth. To the casual observer it looks like saliva, and the phenomenon is known as Cuckoo-spit.

Cuckoo-spit on the stem of a chive flower.

However, it is actually a remarkable defence-mechanism used by a small insect, the so-called Cuckoo-spit Aphid. This is the larva of any one of a number of bugs known, unsurprisingly, as Spittle Bugs. The most common species is the Froghopper (Philaenus spumarius). If you carefully remove the foam you will usually find the funny, plastic-toy like bug larva near the highest point of the foam.

A tiny Cuckoo-spit Aphid. This one still has a bit of growing to do.

The foam consists of hundreds of watery bubbles of air blown out of the bug’s rear-end. It is a remarkably effective defence, and you will often find parasitic wasps that prey on the larva, drowned in the foam.

A small parasitic wasp drowned in Cuckoo-spit...an excellent method of defence.

In a few weeks the bug larvae will leave their foam fortresses and emerge as camouflaged straw-coloured adults with powerful spring-like hind legs that propel them into the air.

It is now that the more open country of the bogs and moors turns golden yellow as the Yellow Flag Irises (Iris pseudacorus) burst into bloom. If you find youself walking among these plants then you will also find that your feet are very wet, or that you are up to your neck in bogwater. Tread carefully!

Yellow Flag Irises on a saltmarsh. They usually grow in very wet and muddy areas of bogs.

Flying happily among this sea of flowers you will begin to see some very interesting insects. Especialy noticeable are the spectacular little damselflies. This is a good time to see the Azure Bluet (aka Azure Damselfly), the male of which is a deep and striking blue that boldly stands out against the background colours.

A male Azure Bluet (Coenagrion puella)

It is also a time to truly learn to appreciate nature in a very different way. Often you will find big bumblebees lying down on the ground, on roads or paths, and in serious danger of being stepped on or run over. This usually happens when the bees become weighed down from collecting too much pollen, or damp from rainy weather. When this happens you can easily help a bee, by simply lowering your hand or finger and letting it climb on. Admittedly there is a small risk of being stung, depending on how careful you are, and/or how the bee came to be lying on the ground in the first place. And if you have an allergy, then you shouldn’t try it, just in case.

Anyhow, the bee might raise up a little, but this is not usually a threat: the bumblebee will usually understand your aim and lift its body up off the ground so you can slide your finger underneath, and the bee can simply grab on. Then find a better place for the bee to rest (a tree trunk, wall, or shrub) and let it climb off. If you find this idea too intimidating  you can use a twig or anything else instead. I have lifted bumblebees off the ground with my hands many times and never been stung. Treat nature with respect an kindness and you will receive the same in return.

Lend a bumblebee a helping hand.

How to SEE in Wicklow

It may seem a very strange thing to say, but there is an art to seeing Wicklow, and if you are to truly enjoy this landscape you really need to learn how to see it. So I’m going to give an example, taken from one hour in one afternoon, which was today (but technically yesterday, as it’s now early morning of a new day). Anyhow, you drive off the National Primary Road that is the N11. You park your car by a lonely little gateway, and you take out your binoculars, or camera, and point it at the magnificent green landscape. In this case we’re on a road that goes east off the N11, and we are looking inland towards the beautiful hill of Dunran, and the foot of the Wicklow Mountains. Hidden by the undulating countryside of low hills overlooked by Dunran is the N11 itself. In fact it is the M11 at this point, a motorway of European standards, but there is no sign of it.

Dunran Hill across some lovely Wicklow countryside, but the M11 motorway is hidden behing the hill in the foreground!

In fact, you won’t notice them in the photograph, but there were deer grazing near the top of Dunran. It’s an interesting name: anything with “dun” in it signifies a fort. “Dun” is Gaelic for “fort”. This probably means an ancient fort in this case. So, now you can see roling countryside and greenery, but you probably don’t notice the detail. Okay, so now, if you’re me, you look down at your feet, and find yourself standing among (and on) some stunning little wild flowers:¬† golden yellow Meadow Vetchling, and the closely related, royal purple, Spring Vetch.

Meadow Vetchling - Lathyrus pratensis
Spring Vetch - Vicia lathyroides: and something has taken a chunk out of this flower.

And then you turn you lift your head, suddenly noticing the colours, and immediately the beauty of a wild rose, growing in the hedge in all its May splendour. This is the so-called Dog Rose, the original rose of the countryside that would give rise to the horticultural varieties that are now the standard.

Wild or Dog Rose - Rosa canina: why it's known by this common name is something of a mystery.

So now, like me, realising what you were missing by being unaware, ou cast your eyes across the landscape again, and suddenly notice birds bursting from the undergrowth and crossing the fields: why? Then one of the birds slowly crosses the sky, and you realise it’s not a pigeon, or nearly as small as it looks, and then it grows larger and larger as it flies towards you, and circles lower and lower, and you realise you are looking at a large and powerful bird-of-prey. It looks like an eagle, but it is actually a Buzzard. Unlike the American Buzzard, which is a species of vulture, the European Buzzard is more closely related to eagles, and the American Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus). It is a bird that soars and scavenges, but will hunt for small, inexperienced rabbits and ground-dwelling birds such as pheasants. They are so common in Wicklow now that it is hard to believe that they were not seen in the Republic of Ireland until the late 1990s, having been hunted to extinction. In 1992, my brother Trevor and I saw one, and we reported it to a local birder. This was long before I had any qualifications of any kind. Years later that same ornithologist apologised to me for not believing I’d seen a Buzzard, which surprised me because I could barely remember seeing one (a LOT of time had passed!) and that he had disbelieved us. But I later discovered I had sensibly recorded the sighting in a journal from 1992. But now they are once again so common in Wicklow that you would never guess they had ever been absent: a majestic bird to see, so pay attention!

A European Buzzard (Buteo buteo) swooping low over the fields of Wicklow, and slightly nervously over my camera.

So, keep your eyes out and your wits about you, and don’t let the green jungle of foliage smother your senses when you look out across the Wicklow landscape.

High drama in May

It has been a somewhat blustery and cool May, with a many showers, but according to a new version of an old saying: “Wet and windy May, fills the barns with corn and hay”. But the rain and the sunlight combine to support lush vegetation in Wicklow, and there are dramatic scenes everywhere. The Hawthorn, the sacred tree of the ancient druids, bursts into blossom and crowns the spring and announces the summer.

Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) in bloom.

Hiding on the blooms of dense plants like the Russian Comfrey (Symphytum x uplandicum) the small predators aim to catch big prey. The Flower Crab Spiders are especially brazen, and can even be seen attempting to snatch bumblebees.

Flower Crab Spider (Misumena vatia) waits in ambush to snatch a bumblebee collecting nectar from Russian Comfrey. It failed, and some bees even knocked others away from the flowers.

Even on the ground in towns and villages there is drama and action: watch for ants hurrying back to their nests with food and prey. Their incredible strength is fascinating in itself.

A Black Garden Ant (Lasius niger) carrying an unfortunately squashed Bark Louse (Psocidid) back to its nest along a footpath.

However, not all of the action near to the ground is of a predatory fashion. Some creatures have no problem finding food in abundance, and therefore have plenty of time for other activities. On the large fleshy leaves of the Broad-leaved Dock (Rumex obtusifolius) you will often see beautiful sweet-wrapper shiny green beetles calmly munching on the vast leaves. This is the Dock Leaf Beetle (Gastrophysa viridula), a very distinctive species of leaf beetle, due to the enormous abdomen of the pregnant female. She becomes swollen with hundreds of eggs, and is usually garded closely by a mate, or a suitor waiting for her to lay her eggs so he can take his turn fathering offspring.

He likes big butts! A male Dock Leaf Beetle perched on a heavily pregnant female.

All of this excitement between waist and ground level is wonderful to observe, but it can distract you from incredible seens high above. A chance glance at the Wicklow clouds could bring your eye into line with a flock of fleeing pigeons or doves, and just in time to see a Peregrine Falcon slowly wheeling above. If you can see it clearly then your back will almost certainly be to the sun, and the great predator’s prey will be even further from you than the falcon, because this bird likes to fly at it prey from the direction of the sun, where it can be seen least well, if at all.

Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) soaring above Wicklow.

Although a very similar species of falcon, the Hobby (Falco subbuteo), can occasionally be found in Wicklow, this Peregrine is a stouter bird with wings that appear wider from front to back when seen in flight. It has recently been dicovered that Peregrines living in cities and towns will hunt actively at night, usually striking their night-flying prey from beneath, in the ambush-style of their sea-dwelling equivalent, the Great White Shark. It is theorised that the lights from buildings illuminate the undersides of birds flying above them, allowing the Peregrine to see its prey in the dark, although it might also be argued that it is using the lights of the buildings in the same way it uses the sun during daylight hunting, to prevent its prey from seeing it.

A Peregrine Falcon seen from the side, preparing for a stoop, its attacking dive. On this occasion the pigeons spotted the hunter and managed to escape. The black "executioner's mask" markings of the head are easy to see from this angle.

An Adventure in the Garden of Ireland