The Mouse Spider, for those who are worried

A few people have been asking me about the Mouse Spider, following a scary story in the media this week about a British man who was bitten by one which had somehow climbed into his bathrobe. The man had an allergic reaction causing his back to swell up, and it was because of his own knowledge of spiders he was able to identify the spider as a Mouse Spider (Scotophaeus blackwalli). The media went into overdrive, some reporting that the Mouse Spider is a close relative of the deadly Australian Sydney Funnel-web spider. This is a mistake – there are a number of species of spider in Australia known as Mouse Spiders, and they are related to the Sydney Funnel-web, but they are no relation to the much smaller European Mouse Spider. Here is a photo I managed to take of the European Mouse Spider in May 2015 – I haven’t seen one since then:

The common name for this species comes from the fact it has mouse-coloured hair on its abdomen – it is nowhere near as large as a mouse, and, in fact, appears quite a bit smaller than the so-called Giant House Spider (Eratigena atrica) which terrifies so many people in the autumn, when big long-legged males enter houses cruising for females. Here is one of these harmless terrors I photographed a few weeks ago:

The Mouse Spider is a stocky, slow-moving spider which is native to Northern Europe, including the British Isles, and widespread but very rarely encountered by ordinary householders. It tends to like bark and stones to live under, and will wander around at night, hunting small invertebrates by sneaking up on them. The female has a reputation for biting if handled, but it is a shy species and definitely doesn’t go looking for trouble. The body of the female would be about as large as the body of a female Giant House Spider, but the legs are far shorter and it is, in many ways, more handsome. The bites are usually harmless although definitely noteworthy, but an allergic reaction is always possible with any creature capable of biting or stinging.

The best way of keeping spiders out of your house is to not leave doors open at night, in the morning or approaching darkness, and to check outside before opening windows. Also, do clean your home regularly to prevent them making themselves comfortable.

Autumn Surprises

At the end of every summer I usually have a few regrets, mostly places I didn’t go, creatures I didn’t see, and photos I just missed. One of my regrets this year was I didn’t see so much as a single Hummingbird Hawkmoth (Macroglossum stellatarum) all spring and summer. And then it happened – the Autumn Equinox was gone and it was getting cooler, and one bright sunny morning (late morning) a Hummingbird Hawkmoth flew past me and landed on a Butterfly Bush to bask in the weakening sunlight, allowing me to sneak up and get a macro of what looks, to the casual observer, like a large and very unspectacular moth. Of course, we all know differently:

   But that wasn’t all – this spring and summer, for reasons which never revealed themselves, I didn’t see one Beaked Hoverfly (Rhyngia species). And then one appeared as if by magic only moments after the Hummingbird Hawkmoth had flown away, feeding on a cultivated convolvulus flower:

This year there are plenty of hoverflies to be seen, even now. There has been a mass blooming of dandelions this autumn, currently underway, and many handsome species can be seen feeding on them. And their favourites, the convolvulus flowers, are still blooming in many places. Here is the very common hoverfly species Syrphus ribesi feeding on Hedge Bindweed (Calystegia sepium). However, it seems some of the predators which stalk these flowers are still about – I didn’t notice it when I took this photo, but look at the white object beneath the flower. Do you know what that is?

This bright white beast, which looks like a fallen petal, is a female Flower Crab Spider (Misumena vatia) and the hoverfly is very lucky it had left the flower as it almost certainly would not have seen the spider until after it had been caught by it. Autumn, more than any other time of year, is dominated by spiders. Flies beware!

The Emerald Express

On Monday I was completing my last butterfly transect of the year, my once-a-week walk recording butterflies for the National Biodiversity Data Centre. I finished at the beach, where I found an unusual number of cars parked, yet not many people around. There was a very noticeable shimmering mirage caused by the unusual heat that day, and the warming of the sand, rock and air by the unfiltered sun. And then there was the loud wail of a train sounding its horn in the distance. Suddenly people began apearing from everywhere, and many had cameras. I realised the engine was an older one, but immaculately clean – it was Emerald Express. Somehow, by sheer coincidence, I had arrived on the beach by the railway on one of the two days per year when the Emerald Express travels south from Dublin, through Wicklow, en route to Waterford City.

   I had heard that the Emerald Express is pulled by an Emerald Green No. 71 engine, but, it seems, this had been replaced temporarily by a classic orange Irish Rail No. 73 engine. It still bore the sign ‘Emerald CIE Express’ on the front. What is the Emerald Express? Believe it or not, this train is the means by which the most luxurious heritage tour of Ireland is undertaken. For the princely sum of €5,999 (currently) per person you can see Ireland in five star luxury on this extremely posh presidential train, stopping off to stay in a castle for each night of your eight-day scenic journey of Ireland. And don’t worry about overcrowding – only a maximum of 50 guests are allowed travel on any tour! It’s out of my league, but if you love trains, castles, and being pampered then you might want to look it up. It only travels twice a year, once in May and once in September, so far. However, I suspect, if demand goes up, it will become a more common sight. But who has that kind of money! Clearly somebody does. As for me –  I’ll stick to the DART for now.

An Adventure in the Garden of Ireland