Tag Archives: zoology

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!

Sighting the first Swallow of the year

On Monday 28 March my brother Trevor and I paid a visit to the East Coast Nature Reserve. No sooner had we arrived than he spotted an unfortunate moth attempting to tread water in a slow moving area of river by the entrance. I climbed over the fence, and found a stick to fish the moth out with. This was a serious feat of derring-do, because if I’d fallen in I would have been wet to the knees. It was a Hebrew Character moth – Orthosia gothica – and I left it on some warm stones to dry off.

Hebrew Character

We spoke to the warden and project manager, Jerry Wray. Jerry was very busy, but took time out to tell me of some Garganey ducks that had arrived, and to lament the absence of the Stonechats, which seem to have been forced into a migration, or killed, by the severe winter. Only time will tell.

Jerry Wray on his East Coast Nature Reserve

As we sat in the main hide looking out for the Garganeys, on the ponds and lake of the reserve, Jerry suddenly shouted “There’s a Swallow!” and a single bird zoomed past the windows and began dipping in the lake for water. “That’s the first one I’ve seen this year! Have you seen many?” I asked. “No, That’s my first one aswell.”
That made the event even more special.

First Swallow of the year

Unfortunately I wasn’t quick enough to get a shot with my camera, but my brother Trevor managed to snap the bird. Not perfect, but pretty good for an unexpected appearance that didn’t last very long. And then the Swallow was gone. Later Jerry saw an entire flock of Swallows, which then followed the shore and astounded onlookers birdwatching at the Kilcoole Reserve to the north.

As Jerry headed back to work, Trevor and I decided to examine the reedbeds and see if there were any new developments. On the boardwalk we found two very interesting insects. The first was a brightly-coloured species of Rove Beetle, known only by its scientific name of Paederus riparius. Bright colours warn of noxious chemical spray from the rear-end. This lovely beetle normally patrols sandy areas, hunting fro smaller insects. It is only about 1cm long, at most, and very narrow.

Rove Beetle (Paederus riparius)

But our most exciting discovery was yet to come: in the form of a big, finger-length and brightly-coloured furry caterpillar. The combination of fu and bright colours usually denotes hairs that are toxic, so you must always handle caterpillars with great care. Some people are more allergic than others. Trevor recognised the caterpillar for what it was before I did – that of the Drinker moth, Euthrix potatoria. The caterpillar feeds on reeds and many other kinds of grasses, and contributes to the common name of this species because it is said to very actively drink from dewdrops. As you can see from the photograph, it was a very handsme caterpillar. The fire-red plume is over the head. It is very hard to tell one end from the other, except when its moving.

 

Drinker Moth caterpillar

Soon this big caterpillar will pupate, and then emerge as a magnificently camouflaged dead leaf-mimicking moth in July.

It was a good day’s hunting!