In the early hours of this morning a large cargo ship carrying hundreds of tonnes of limestone sank after breaking in half between the Wicklow and Welsh coasts of the Irish Sea. Unfortunately many of the crew are still missing, although some were successfully rescued (and rumours are circulating that William, Duke of Cambridge, son of the Prince of Wales, was actually flying the Welsh-based helicopter that successfully recovered some survivors).
What makes this sinking so unusual is that the peculiar weather conditions overnight seem to have conspired to produce a gigantic freak wave that struck the vessel, causing it to break in half. Up until very recently these gigantic waves were considered myths or merely fantastic tales. However, a few years ago they were positively proven to exist and one was scientifically recorded. They can reach 30 metres (97 ft 6 inches) in height and this one must have been as large to have sunk such a large vessel. These waves can break long ships due to their peculiar shape: the part of the wave that crashes against the ship at velocity is not the most problematic, but instead it is the huge trough behind the wave producing a see-saw effect as the wave strikes and passes the ship.
Such weather conditions are extremely rare in the comparatively safe waters off the Wicklow coast, but as in all cases it is not a good idea to put to sea in a storm, although most large vessels can handle even the roughest conditions, which is why tragedies of this nature are extremely rare off the Irish coast in modern times.
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.
A few years ago an incredible book hit the Irish bookshelves, and only a few months ago was a bestseller on the NHBS, the Environmental Bookstore, website. I came across it when it first appeared in late 2008, and flicking through the pages discovered it to be a stunning work of scholarship by a somewhat mysterious Dublin author named Glynn Anderson. The book is Birds of Ireland: Facts, Folklore and History, one of the Collins Press’s prestige publications, and it is the most impressive Irish wildlife book you’re likely to ever come across. Each species of Irish bird is treated in fantastic detail, and what is even more spectacular is that rather than using modern photos the author has chosen lavish 19th century illustrations, mainly by the great naturalist John Gould. In short, a book I simply could not leave on the shelf, so I bought it.
This is one of those rare and brilliant books that should be produced by authors in every country throughout the world, but for which we in Ireland seem to have the monopoly, in the form of this one outstanding example. Here’s a very nice sample regarding the Gannet (Morus bassanus):
“Gannets must be careful to land exactly on their own territory as disputes can be deadly. Once down, the Gannet can only take off from well-defined and well-used ‘runways’. These runways are kept clear at the edges of the colonies and each Gannet must walk the gauntlet through other territories to reach them. The departing birds signal their intention by walking with their bills pointing directly into the sky as a swordsman would hold up his sword. Birds behaving so are granted passage but the ritual must be strictly adhered to…. The name ‘Gannet’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon ganot meaning ‘goose’. The Latin Morus bassanus translates roughly as ‘Foolish Bird from Base Rock’ (in Scotland). The birds are also called Solan Geese on Northern Ireland and Scotland from the rock Sula Sgeir (Gannet skerry) or Solan Rock some forty miles off the northern Scottish coast.’
While I was at Zoe Devlin’s book launch I got talking to one of the guests, who happened to be strolling around with a big camera taking photos of everyone to publicise the event. He said he had come to support Zoe because he had also had books published by the Collins Press, and introduced himself as Glynn Anderson – I instantly recognised the name and asked if he was the same Glynn Anderson who was the enigmatic author of the above book: he was.
It is still incredible that after this massive success Glynn has been hidden from the media, and not picked up by television or radio: the research and writing of his bird book took five years! It is such a popular book that you would imagine the media would have him on speed-dial, having proven his expertise, and at least would expect an appearance in a wildlife documentary, but he managed to maintain his mysteriousness. So it seems the privilege falls to me to introduce this great naturalist to the world in the photo below.
Glynn Anderson’s bird book (soon to be followed by his latest book, on cheese !) is available from Amazon: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Birds-Ireland-Facts-Folklore-History/dp/1905172729/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1320616264&sr=8-1
Niall MacCoitir’s books are also available from Amazon: http://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=niall+maccoitir&x=0&y=0