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Wildlife as the humidity increases…

As tropical weather systems move across the Atlantic from the Caribbean the Barn Swallows have an abundance of food and can take time to rest and socialise. This is probably the best time of year to view their colours, as they perch on the ground.

Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) on the ground

Between the showers, and even in them, you have a very good chance of spotting Ireland’s unique subspecies of Mountain Hare. The Irish or Blue Hare (Lepus timidus hibernicus) has a bluish sheen, which you can just about see in this photo, which was taken in difficult lighting just before a shower of rain.

An Irish Hare on the alert.

However, in the humidy of May keep your eyes on the hedgerows and you will see some very interesting creatures, such as the brilliant shiny green Birch Weevil, and the Strawberry Ground Beetle, which is a hunter that also enjoys eating strawberries. The Strawberry Ground Beetle is one of the most common beetles found inWicklow, and you will often find it under flowerpots. Although it does eat strawberries, it makes amends with gardeners by eating slugs too.

Birch Weevil (Polydrusus sericeus), on a Dock leaf, just to cause confusion.

 

Strawberry Ground Beetle (Harpalus rufipes), crossing a deep pile carpet of Sphagnum moss.

 

However, the most striking and bizarre thing that you are likely to see in the hedgerows at this time of year is a vast web, covering whole trees and bushes, and more. Many people are startled by the sight of this phenomenon, and often fear the invasion of some terrible tropical spider species like from the film Arachnophobia.

Tent-webs on a hedge

Those who dare to get closer are often startled by thousands of caterpillars writhing in the webs. The truth of the situation is far more interesting than you might think: the caterpillars spin these webs themselves, as protective tents to keep predators at bay while they feed unopposed. They are caterpillars of the beautiful, tiny, white-with-black- spots Small Ermine moth, which can be seen flying over the hedgerows throughout the summer months.

 

Caterpillars of the Small Ermine (Yponomeuta patella) feeding in their protective tent.

 

May Changes

At this time of the year the plants and animals usually behave in careful time. One of the first definitive signs of May is the so-called Maybug, the large and ungainly Cockchafer Beetle, which flies through the air on balmy nights, often blundering into people, windows and car windshields. This ungainly beetle gets the name “Maybug” because it takes to the sky at this time of the year, having spent over a year underground as a white beetle grub, feeding on dandelion roots. The name “Cockchafer” is because it is one of the chafer-type beetles, that feed on pollen in flowerheads, and seemingly because the frilled antennae of the males (used to sniff out female pheremones on the wind) bear a striking resemblance to a cock’s/rooster’s comb. I photographed this one feeding on newly blooming Hawthorn, one of the quintessential Irish spring blossoms.

 

Maybug or Cockchafer Beetle (Melolontha melolontha) on Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna).

This is the time of year for what we humans term “love”, and the various insect species are especially busy. On the large fronds of Broad-leaved Dock (Rumex obtusifolius) you will often find the dead leaf-imitating camouflaged Dock Bugs, mating on the leaves.

Dock Bugs (Coreus marginatus)

These bugs feed on the sap of the Dock plants, and live happily among these plants. They belong to a group of insects known as shieldbugs due to their shield-shaped bodies, or alternatively as stinkbugs, due to their habit of emitting extremely noxious scents and foul-smelling liquid on anyone or any thing that dares handle them roughly. Otherwise they are completely harmless.

 

If you look at the hanging yellow-green blossoms of Sycamore Trees (Acer pseudoplatanus) which appear at this time of year, you will find dozens, if not hundreds of shiny black flies bearing a remarkable resemblance to the St. Mark’s Fly, except that they are much smaller. These are Fever Flies (Dilophus febrilis), a species which is found throughout the spring and summer months, but is most common in spring in huge numbers, when breeding occurs.

Fever Flies on Sycamore blossoms.

All this insect activity creates a surge of predatory activity among the invertebrate predators. You will often see large net-like webs placed horizontally, like platforms, across bushes in sunny areas. These are the hammock-like webs of the appropriately named Hammock-web Spider. The spider is quite small, and runs along upside-down and underneath the web, biting it’s prey through the silk. This method protects the spider from injury to some degree.

Hammock-web Spider - Linyphia triangularis

Some insects are a bit too big to handle. At this time of year in Wicklow, you will see the huge female Red-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius) bumbling from flower-to-flower, collecting vast amounts of nectar. The male is very different, and much smaller, looking like a more typical bumblebee.

Red-tailed Bumblebee

Sadly, the busyness of spring often causes animals to be off their guard. This is especially dangerous on the winding roads of Wicklow when people begin to make day-trips into the countryside in sunnier weather. I found this unfortunate Badger (Meles meles) dead by the side of a narrow country road. This one appeared to be a boar, and about the size of a muscular Jack Russell terrier. When taking a car into the wild Wicklow landscape it is a good idea to drive very cautiously and to be aware of other creatures that might be crossing the roadways. Drive carefully and safely. There’s no hurry!

A dead Badger lying by a narrow roadside.

 

Tearmann Community Garden

Last month I visited an extraordinary project in the village of Baltinglas in west Wicklow. The Tearmann Community Garden was the brainchild of Sister Mary Carmody, a Mercy Sister, whose keen interest in the natural world drives a desire to encourage the people of Baltinglas to connect with nature in a harmonious and productive way. Anyone is welcome to drop in for a visit, and picnics are welcome too. The orchard and picnic area are exactly what a painter or photographer would want to see. The video below gives only a sample of this extraodinary community project.

There is a very good reason for visiting this extraordinary garden: it is one of the very best places in Wicklow to see and photograph Cowslips (Primula veris), those increasingly rare wild flowers that signal the health of the countryside. In Tearmann Community Garden they grow in abundance across the lawns, making this beautiful little paradise in west Wicklow an important stop-off for anyone wanting to get good photos of this plant. Sister Mary collects the seeds and has told me she will gladly provide seeds to anyone, in return for a small donations to help maintain and support this garden. Money well spent! If you plan to create a truly complete wildlife garden then you will certainly want cowslips.

Cowslip - Primula veris

There are many very good reasons for visiting west Wicklow. Spring arrives slightly slower there than to the east of the mountains, and blooms you missed in the east will only be appearing some weeks after in the west. Of course, the rules vary according to altitude, angles and shade.If you make the journey from west to east Wicklow, along either the Sally Gap or Wicklow Gap mountain passes you will travel past pine forests, and here you have a very good chance of seeing Red Squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris).

Red Squirrel - Sciurus vulgaris - photo by Trevor.

In the British Isles (the geographic term for the islands of Great Britain, Ireland, the Isle of Man and the many hundreds of smaller islands around them) Red Squirrels are in decline. On the island of Great Britain they are rarely found south of Scotland, and the larger, introduced North American Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) has been blamed for this decline by out-competing its smaller cousin and spreading the squirrel Parapox virus. But in Ireland the evidence is certainly not so straightforward. The Grey Squirrel was introduced in 1911, and slowly began to spread throughout the island, and did seem to be either filling the gap left by Grey Squirrels, or else were being directly driven out by them. Between 1989 and 2008 when there was an extremely warm period in Ireland, with little or no snow during the mild winters, the Grey Squirrels seemed to spread more rapidly. It could be because the Greys normally don’t hibernate, whereas the Red Squirrels are used to cold winters which require some degree of hibernation.

But there is a huge paradox at the centre of the Red Squirrel story: evidence from records suggests that it was already extinct by the late 17th or early 18th century in Ireland, possibly due to overharvesting by the fur trade, or an environmental factor that has not been identified yet. The Red Squirrel species was then systematically reintroduced to Ireland from 1815, and the numbers have apparently fluctuated ever since, although the Grey Squirrel numbers did not seem to rise significantlyor in a threatening manner until the 1990s.

However, whatever the factors involved, in Wicklow you will sometimes find both species living, and apparently thriving, quite close together.