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Messages from Samuel Connolly

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!

 

The Naturalists

Today I had the great honour of meeting Ireland’s most famous naturalist, Éamonn De Buitléar, and he kindly agreed to pose for a photograph. He is a famous wildlife documentary film-maker (and author) but always preferred to be behind the camera instead of in front of it, although he is a charismatic presenter. De Buitléar has contributed to many documentaries besides his own, including images of migrating eels to David Attenborough’s The Trials of Life TV series. His most recent TV series, A Life in the Wild, is one of the most beautifully filmed and interesting documentaries I have ever seen, and is also a quirky biography filled with his globe-trotting adventures.

Éamonn De Buitléar when I met him today.
Cover of DVD series A Life in the Wild

 

I also met Angus Tyner, one of Ireland’s foremost moth experts, and the “go-to guy” most government scientists ask for advice on moths. He is a devoted specialist when it comes to moths, but also has a general interest in wildlife and a terrific knowledge. Today he was championing moths and other wildlife as part of the Newcastle Expo. The moths in the photo were caught with a light trap last night. Early Thorn and Hebrew Character moths, among others, can be seen here. Angus runs a number of websites and a major moth-recording website at www.mothsireland.com

From the undergrowth up

When autumn arrives it starts at the top and works down: the leaves fall off the trees, the undergrowth loses its shelter and dies back and in some species it even retreats underground. The shelter of the leaves, and plants goes and the earth is largely exposed to the atmosphere, causing it to cool. In spring the opoosite situation arises. Spring starts from the ground and works up. As the light increases a race among the plants begins. The first undergrowth plants to begin growing are ivy and Dog Violets. The violets grow very low to the ground, but rely on insects to pollinate them, so have to start flowering very early, usually in February.

Common Dog Violets (Viola riviniana) are beautiful little flowers appearing in early spring.

Soon after the violets appear the densely-growing leaves of Lesser Celandine appear, followed by a sea of luminous yellow flowers. Lesser Celandine is in the buttercup family. This plant flowers from now into the summer, and smothers the violets, although the usually continue growing alongside quite happily.

Lesser Celandine (Ranunculus vicaria)

Lesser Celandine is a very important plant because it provides a lot of nectar for insects, and is one of their main food flowers before the shrubs and trees begin to flower. Dog Violets and Lesser Celandine are normally found in wooded areas or along hedgerows and thrive before the leaves appear in the canopies.

In more open land, such as meadows and fields, Primroses begin to flower. They are another extremely common wildflower species in Wicklow. They often flower beneath layers of snow, so are not good indicators of warm weather, but certainly are most numerous in the warmer weather of March.

Primrose (Primula vulgaris)

However, for most people the quintessential symbol of spring is the daffodil. Although daffodils are found everywhere growing wild along roadsides in Wicklow, they are not a native species to Ireland. With the exception of crocuses and violets, the blooms of the Wicklow spring are predominantly yellow, like the spring sun.

 

Daffodils (Narcissus pseudonarcissus) growing in the outskirts of a Wicklow village.