November has drawn to a close and taken with it an extraordinary weather pattern that has allowed summer flowers to continue blloming, and inspired many trees and shrubs to begin producing big leaf buds and some to even begin producing early flowerbuds. But there were two sights that I have been more astonished at then all others:
Firstly, a field with red meadow poppies still blooming in it, and not just any field, but one on a quite windswept hill overlooking the village of Newcastle, just a mile from the Wicklow coastline.
But even more amazing than this have been sightings of butterflies throughout Wicklow. Just last week I came across a Red Admiral perched on a sunny tree trunk down on the East Coast Nature Reserve, and moments later a Small Tortoiseshell flew down a path and over my head. Last year we had heavy snow and freezing temperatures everyday from the 25 November and well into December. This is clearly a very different kind of year, and many plants are behaving in a strange manner that could point to a very mild winter and no snow.
However, personally I don’t want to make any predictions at this point, as anything can happen in January.
This year there was an absolute plague of House Spiders (Tegenaria species) all across Ireland and the island of Great Britain. There are always noticeable numbers of these spiders in the late summer and early autumn, but this year there were virtually swarms of them. It is possibly a cyclical occurrence but not enough is known about these spiders to say for sure. Most of the spiders were the long-legged males, which leave their own webs to seek out females in autumn. Unlike many other species of spiders female Tegenarias do not seem to eat the males, and this is why there will often be males of various sizes, as they survive each year they can grow bigger. And these spiders are believed to live to at least seven years in the wild, and twenty or so in captivity. The successful male will usually live with the female in her web for a few months and then leave just before the young hatch out.
This year I saw and photographed something quite amazing: a large female Tegenaria eating dogfood out of a dog’s bowl! The bowl had been left outside for the cats and hedgehogs to finish off, but attracted instead this remarkable creature. A crop of the image is below to show the detail – the spider is definitely eating the chicken and turkey-flavoured dogfood.
The plague of spiders has since abated, but it is worth remembering that despite their large size that Tegenarias are not aggressive. Although they easily have fangs large enough to puncture human skin this rarely happens…except in North America where the invasive European species Tegenaria agrestis is known to enter houses in the deep cold winters and bite people. In Europe it lives out of doors and does not like to come into houses, probably because it doesn’t like humans.
The population explosion of these spiders could be due to the heavy cold winter of last year wiping out predators such as small bird species. The largest spider of this species that I have recorded had an abdomen of on 23mm llong (less than an inch) and a leg span of 16cm. Their legs make them look huge, but there are larger spiders in Ireland, albeit outdoors.
This year there is a superabundance of migratory Hummingbird Hawkmoths (Macroglossum stellatarum) in Wicklow. Usually they migrate from southern Europe, but some come all the way from Africa. These beautiful moths seem to fill an identical niche in the European ecosystem to that occupied by hummingbirds in the Americas, although related species of moths that behave similarly are also found over there. Instead of a beak the moth has a macroglossum, or “giant tongue”, which looks and works just like a hummingbird’s beak. And, amazingly, the moth also has tufts that act like, and very closely resemble tail feathers! Look for them on buddleia bushes, honeysuckle, red valerian and along coasts on trefoils. An exotic and magnificent little creature not to be missed.