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Messages from Samuel Connolly

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.

Preparation for migration

As the weather improves birds begin foraging and nest-building. Geese that have spent the winter sheltering in Ireland are suddenly preparing to fly north. The most numerous species found in Wicklow is the Brent Goose (Branta bernicla) which masses on the Birdwatch Ireland-protected saltmarshes at Kilcoole. They routinely gather in dense flocks and fly in a big ritualistic circle, moving from grazing area to grazing area like herd of miniature cattle with wings. As they need to fly to survive the geese cannot support the large multi-chambered stomachs many grazers require. Instead they swallow smooth round pebbles which roll around inside their gizzards, processing the food into more digestible matter.

Brent Geese in flight

Geese are not the only winter visitors soon to be leaving to breed in northern lands. The Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa limosa) is a handsome wader with long reddish legs and a spear-like bill. It is a common sight on the mudflats of the Breaches estuary between Kilcoole and Newcastle. This bird will fly to Iceland, and possibly even as far as Greenland, to breed this summer. Kilcoole is a very good place to see them.

Black-tailed Godwit

The Re-awakening

Wicklow has a bundle of microclimates, but can mostly be divided into east and west of the mountains. Most people live on the eastern side, which is sheltered mostly from the north and west winds. It mainly gets cold in the east when there is an easterly winter wind, which is not very common. Because Ireland is fed warm waters from the Caribbean via the Gulf Stream current spring usually comes earlier than any other area of the world at our latitude. St. Brigid’s Day (1st February) is traditionally the first day of the Irish spring. St. Brigid was not a genuine saint, but a much older pan-European goddess whose cult refused to die in the face of Christianity, despite the best efforts of the priesthood. In the end they had to incorporate her into Christianity by making her a saint. As a goddess she was identifiable with mothers and birth.
The Early Crocus is the most reliable sign of the arrival of spring. My studies suggest that won’t flower until the last snows have gone. This one appeared in mid-February.

A colourful sign of things to come.