According to the ancient Celtic calendar autumn begins in early August with the feast of Lughnasa, the ancient god, and winter begins at Martinmass (November 11), with Spring starting on Brigid’s Day (February 1). However, the weather in Ireland generally corresponds to the astronomical calendar, with Autumn beginning with the Autumn Equinox, and Winter beginning with the Winter Solstice, and ending with the Vernal (Spring) Equinox.
The weather we have at the moment is certainly autumnal rather than wintery. In fact, we have had a classic Autumn this year, beginning mild and with temperatures almost up to those of summer, and then suddenly plummeting to frosts early on November 1. And then it became mild again, and very wet at the end of November, and now we have reached a dry spell with weather due to become frosty again. This weather is perfect for autumn moths, and this year I have seen some very interesting and beautiful ones. There have been quite a few but these ones are especially interesting. Firstly, in late November this male Feathered Thorn (Colotois pennaria) appeared after a female had briefly waited in the same place. This species flies from September until early December.
Next was the larger Mottled Umber (Erannis defoliaria), a moth which flies from October until January, and seems to like it colder than most moths. The male and female are easy to tell apart because the female has no wings and doesn’t even look very much like a moth. Hopefully I’ll get a photo of one soon to upload.
Finally, a drab but common moth which comes to windows frequently is the November Moth (Epirrita dilutata) which flies from September until early December, weather-permitting. Although this one looks large in the photo these moths are actually only as large as a thumbnail.
It has been a whole month-and-a-half since I wrote the last instalment of this blog. Why? Because Spring stopped. Yes, it seems incredible, but even though crocuses came up out of the ground it became too cold for them to unfurl, until last week when suddenly spring began properly. And here they are as you can still see them:
Although this winter just gone has been by no means our coldest, it was by far wettest. Normally, even in cold years there are some warm and sunny winter days, but not this year. It just didn’t happen. Almost everyday was consistently cloudy and almost every day up until a few weeks ago, there was rain. So temperatures never rose over 10 Celsius. The frogspawn which appeared early froze solid. The female Early Thorn moth very likely died without mating, having woken too early. Here is a male I photographed only yesterday, six weeks later in the spring:
For all that time the Lesser Celandine managed a small number of flowers, since the sun and warmer temperatures which arrived late last week, they a erupting with blooms:
Flowers are vital because so many small creatures depend on their pollen and nectar for food, and in turn so many larger creatures depend on those insects for food, and so on and so forth. It really has been a tough winter, but at last spring is doing what it should do. If you look carefully at trees and bushes around Wicklow which have managed to keep their foliage you will see Green Shieldbugs (Palomena prasina) sunbathing on them. In winter they turn brown to match brown foliage and dried leaves. Most of the year they are shiny green. Here’s one changing from brown to green, but some have already done so:
Because they are herbivorous sap-feeding insects shieldbugs can survive throughout the year on shrubs, but other insects need to eat small insects which only thrive when plants do, and pollen. Seven-spot Ladybirds in particular await spring blooms so they can feed on pollen, but at this time of the year they are mostly sunbathing, to warm themselves up after a period of partial hibernation:
At this time of year you will very likely see large queen bumblebees flying around, collecting pollen from flowers, but many people also tell me they see a lot of honeybees. However, in most cases what they are actually seeing are Drone Flies, large hoverflies which pupate over winter, having spent their young lives as aquatic maggots living in stagnant pools. However, we depend heavily on them to pollinate our flowering plants:
And, once you’ve got flies going about, it’s only a matter of time before you see spiders, which generally lie low in winter due to the lack of insect prey. Here is a handsome little one I spotted a couple of days ago, a young Nursery-web Spider (Pisaura mirabilis) which also likes to bask on sunny walls, only making a web during the breeding season. Now, hopefully, all will follow the normal course of the seasons, and get sunnier and warmer.
Last weekend one of my neighbours told me daffodils were coming up all over his garden and he showed be a photo of one actually blooming and asked me if I would like to see for myself and get some photos. Unfortunately, due to a whole week of rain it took me until this weekend to get around to it, but first I decided to check my own garden, where daffodils are usually much slower to rise – and here’s what I found:
I was amazed, and am more amazed because much more advanced ones are now visible all around my garden. However, my neighbour reliably informs me his daffodils rose three weeks ago. And yesterday he had one going out of bloom and one in full bloom.
And here’s the same one from another angle…
In fact, daffodils are being reported from all across the island of Ireland, already in bloom. And there are not only daffodils, but snowdrops are also starting to bloom, although the ones my neighbour has in his garden are admittedly of a cultivated variety, and possibly tend to be earlier:
But there is a bigger mystery to this than there seems to be. For the past two weeks we have had extremely mild temperatures for December, and warm wind systems have been rising over Ireland from the Caribbean due to the Jet Stream being far to the north of the island, which is unusual. An extreme El Nino effect has occurred and is believed to be largely responsible for having affecting the weather systems in the Northern Hemisphere, particularly those emanating from the Caribbean. However, my neighbour tells me his daffodils rose while we we experiencing typically cold weather at the end of November. So what interests me is this – can the plants be somehow anticipating warm weather?
Last year we had early snowdrops and daffodils too, but not this early, and meteorologists concluded it was due to the extremely warm summer of 2014. However, we had a cold and mostly wet summer for 2015, so that cannot be the solution to this mystery. However, we have had an exceptionally wet November and December, so that could be a factor. In 2013 I recorded temperatures as high as 16 degrees Celsius (about 61 degrees Fahrenheit) in the December, but the snowdrops and daffodils didn’t show up until late January, and gradually through February. So it seems temperature and sunlight are not triggering this phenomenon, but rain-levels stil possibly are doing so. But will it mean a mild winter and mild spring? We’ll find out soon enough.
And since temperatures are mild, and flowers are producing food in the form of pollen and nectar, then you would expect to see insects – and you do. This week I found a hoverfly feeding on a cistus flower, something I have never seen before in December:
And some creatures which are normally lying low and hiding in leaf litter, or beneath the soil feeding on roots of plants, can actually be seen walking about in broad daylight, such as this caterpillar, of the Large Yellow Underwing moth (Noctua pronuba):
And finally, here’s a sight I look out for every year, and don’t usually see until the end of February or early March – a cultivated pulmonaria in the garden here. Something is unusual is certainly happening: