The Cuckoo and the Naturalist

Anyone who read the last instalment of this blog will be interested by a little twist to the tale: the photographer on the beach who told me that a Cuckoo was hiding among the sea-buckthorn turned out to be Mark Carmody, a well-known wildlife photographer, and co-author (with Jim Wilson) of a recent book about Irish wildlife, The Shorebirds of Ireland. This fantastic book is packed with extremely useful information, and all of the photos are by Mark. The photos are so good that even if it had no text you would buy the book for them alone.

My only regret is that I didn’t know it was Mark Carmody I was talking to, so that I could get a photo of him in his wildlife-watching regalia to add to this blog. I had communicated with Mark before, but only via email, which makes the situation even more hilarious. However, this goes to show that you never know what interesting and knowledgeable people you might bump into when you venture into the wilds of Wicklow.

Goodbye Spring! Hello Summer!

The following photographs were taken both by me and by my brother Trevor, over the past few days.

When the Swallows and House Martins are joined in the skies by the much larger, crescent-winged Swifts then you know spring is in the process of giving way to summer. Individual Swifts are sometimes reported very early in the year, but these a more or less freak early arrivals. The first wave of migrant Swifts normally arrive in Wicklow in the last weeks of May. Usually the very last week. These beautiful birds are said to be in decline throughout Europe, and their bizarre and beautiful calls certainly don’t fill the summer skies the way they used to. The last summer migrants to arrive, and the first to depart too. Depending on the weather they usually begin to leave in mid-August, but hopefully a good summer will keep them here in Wicklow longer.

Swift - Apus apus

But these high fliers are not the only notable migrants to be found in the Wicklow countryside. On Sunday a bird photographer gave me a tip that there was a Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) to be seen in some Sea-buckthorn (Elaeagnus rhamnoides) by the beach in Kilcoole. He proved to be exactly right, and as Swifts shot past, the Cuckoo suddenly bolted from the thick cover and glided across the dense thicket of thorns. The Cuckoo is heard in Wicklow along the coast, but much less often than it used to be. But seeing one is truly rare, and this was the first time I have ever seen a Cuckoo in Wicklow, although I have heard them on many occasions. In order to get close enough to get a photo I tried to make my way along the narrow gaps in the extremely spiny bushes. If you look at the photo below you will see it was not very easy to do.

Sea-buckthorn thicket near Kilcoole.

At this time of the year Cuckoos usually don’t make their trademark call. This is normally heard earlier in spring, in April and the first weeks of May, when the males arrive before the females and begin carving out breeding territories. Once this has been accomplished the females then arrive and find themselves in one territory or another, where the resident Cuckoo landlords father their offspring. The Cuckoo will remain in Ireland until August, perhaps later, before flying to sub-Saharan Africa for the winter. Throughout our summer they stay well hidden, laying their eggs inthe nests of many bird species. In colouration the Cuckoo most closely resembles a Sparrowhawk, but is slightly smaller and has an even longer tail. In behaviour it is most like a Jay, the crow that forages in woodlands. The Cuckoo usually makes a diving, gliding flight but never goes too far. The trick to seeing it is to follow it with your eye after it breaks cover: where it seems to land is usually where it actually does land. And, for some peculiar reason, the Cuckoo usually picks a branch that is too small, and spends its time wobbling on its perch – but maybe it’s to make it blend in better with its surroundings. Anyhow, I do have a photo to show for my trouble, but it’s certainly not a great one. Just good enough.

The Cuckoo in the Sea-buckthorn

But the Cuckoo is not quite so spectacularly watchable as other migrants seen around the coast. The Breaches in Kilcoole (check out Garden of Ireland.com‘sĀ  interactive map) is one of the most important breeding sites for Little Terns (Sterna albifrons) in the whole world, so it is a must see from May to July. They are often accompanied by larger Sandwich Terns (Sterna sandvicensis) and Common Terns (Sterna hirundo). All of these birds used to be known as “Sea Swallows” because of their migratory habits, forked tails, incredible flying abilities and maritime lifestyle.

A Little Tern returning to its nest with food.

Their nests are on shingle beaches, and when the Little Terns land you quickly discover how excellent their colouring is as camouflage, as they are almost invisible among the stones.

Little Tern on its nest.

The Little Terns can be seen diving for fish close to the shore, and are fantastic to watch. At the other end of the seabird size spectrum there are often Gannets (Morus bassanus) to be seen close to shore, as there are this week. They are like gigantic terns, and when their black-tipped wings are spread out they are as wide as a man is tall.

Although normally associated with cliffs Gannets can often be found cruising all along the coast of Wicklow and diving near beaches.
A Gannet plummeting towards the water to snatch unsuspecting fish. You are looking at the underside in this photo.

Gannets are magnificent hunters, but an even more common sight is the Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo), which uses a completely different method of hunting, and seems to have a very different natural history. Whereas Gannets (and Terns) fly overhead, and then dive into the water, often flying through it to quickly snatch fish, the Cormorant spends much more time submerged, propelling itself beneath the waves with its legs and stiff ruder-like tail. And this has caused the feathers of these two different types of hunters to evolve completely differently: Gannets have buoyant, waterproof feathers that allow them regain the air again, but Cormorant feathers become waterlogged, allowing them to swim move better through the water like submarines. This creates a slight problem for the Cormorants – their feathers become to wet to let them fly, so they have to dry out after they go swimming. You can often see them on inland waterways and along the shore on rocky perches, with their wings raised to the sun, making them look like prehistoric creatures.

Cormorants drying off by an estuary.
A dried-off Cormorant in flight.

Of course, there is another, completely different style of hunting, used by a very different waterbird. The Grey Heron is probably the most voracious predatory bird found in Ireland, which is really saying something, as it’s not a raptor or an owl. Grey Herons are stalking killers: they move through long grass or wade through water in a very cautious and methodical way, and snatch frogs, newts, fish, rodents, shrews, nestlings, small birds, and one has even been photographed (in the UK) drowning and swallowing a young rabbit. It is probably no great surprise that these large hunting birds also have an unfortunately common tendency to choke on their food. Probably more than any other birds, because unlike many other hunters, they don’t tear their prey into pieces before eating them.

A handsome Grey Heron stalking frogs in a bog pond.
Grey Heron moving to another hunting area.

Despite their wide diet they are not monsters, and effect the numbers of other species of wildlife less than more specialised hunters because they hunt no prey exclusively. We have these beautiful birds all year. Of course, you will find other beauties of the bird world around the Wicklow coastline all year round that can match them for colour: the Oystercatcher is just one extremely common and lovely example. It is probably one of the few birds whose call matches its appearance for beauty. It is a deep and resonant piping that can be heard as the bird calls from rocky outcrops at certain times of the day, particularly morning and evening, at twilight.

An Oystercatcher gliding slowly to a landing.

The Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus) actually feeds on many types of molluscs but not Oysters, which are normally found in deep water and not on the edge of the seashore. Recently it was thought that two species were developing out of one, based on hunting strategy: some were observed to crack the shells with harsh blows from their blunt-tipped beaks, and others were observed delicately prizing shells apart with long thin tweezer-like bills and pulling out the soft innards to eat. Then, recently, it was discovered that this was actually a sexual dimorphism, and the males tend to have the shell-cracking beaks and the females do the fine tweezer-type work.

Technically true or astronomical summer does not begin until the Summer Solstice (21 June), the longest day of the year. But, to all intents and purposes we are already entering the summer weather pattern. It is a great time of year for birds, but watch out for other interesting creatures too, particularly in the marram dunes near the shore. The Cinnabar Moth (Tyria jacobaea) is an amazing-looking day-flying species that relies on bright warning colours to advertise its toxic body, so that birds and other predators know not to eat it. They are not very frightened of anything.

A poisonous Cinnabar Moth: no touble for a human, just so long as you don't eat it.

And don’t forget to look at the earth and rocks too: there are fossils to be found. Here are some you might easily miss, from boulders excavated elsewhere in Ireland and deposited as part of coastal defence works near Kilcoole in the mid-20th century.

Crinoidal Limestone: containing the fossil remains of very ancient sea animals similar to todays Sea Lillies and usually dated to the Palaeozoic Era, some time between 542 and 251 million years ago. These bits would have been like long stems.

So, now that the weather is getting nice, warm and sunny, get out and look for these things. They’re all out there, waiting to be seen.

 

 

After the storms

The rainy period late this May caused temperatures in Wicklow to be lower than those of the balmy April, but this is often the case. And it bodes very well for June. It seems very apt when late at night a beautiful moth comes to the light of a window wearing what appears to be a fur-lined coat. From this time on through much of the summer there will usually be one of the Ermine moths found by a window. The beautiful one pictured is a White Ermine (Spilosoma lubricipeda).

A White Ermine moth. The feathered antennae distinguish this one as a male. The male moths can smell the pheremones of females wafting on the breeze from miles away.

This time of year, all across the countryside and gardens, a strange substance begins appearing on the leaves and stems of the undergrowth. To the casual observer it looks like saliva, and the phenomenon is known as Cuckoo-spit.

Cuckoo-spit on the stem of a chive flower.

However, it is actually a remarkable defence-mechanism used by a small insect, the so-called Cuckoo-spit Aphid. This is the larva of any one of a number of bugs known, unsurprisingly, as Spittle Bugs. The most common species is the Froghopper (Philaenus spumarius). If you carefully remove the foam you will usually find the funny, plastic-toy like bug larva near the highest point of the foam.

A tiny Cuckoo-spit Aphid. This one still has a bit of growing to do.

The foam consists of hundreds of watery bubbles of air blown out of the bug’s rear-end. It is a remarkably effective defence, and you will often find parasitic wasps that prey on the larva, drowned in the foam.

A small parasitic wasp drowned in Cuckoo-spit...an excellent method of defence.

In a few weeks the bug larvae will leave their foam fortresses and emerge as camouflaged straw-coloured adults with powerful spring-like hind legs that propel them into the air.

It is now that the more open country of the bogs and moors turns golden yellow as the Yellow Flag Irises (Iris pseudacorus) burst into bloom. If you find youself walking among these plants then you will also find that your feet are very wet, or that you are up to your neck in bogwater. Tread carefully!

Yellow Flag Irises on a saltmarsh. They usually grow in very wet and muddy areas of bogs.

Flying happily among this sea of flowers you will begin to see some very interesting insects. Especialy noticeable are the spectacular little damselflies. This is a good time to see the Azure Bluet (aka Azure Damselfly), the male of which is a deep and striking blue that boldly stands out against the background colours.

A male Azure Bluet (Coenagrion puella)

It is also a time to truly learn to appreciate nature in a very different way. Often you will find big bumblebees lying down on the ground, on roads or paths, and in serious danger of being stepped on or run over. This usually happens when the bees become weighed down from collecting too much pollen, or damp from rainy weather. When this happens you can easily help a bee, by simply lowering your hand or finger and letting it climb on. Admittedly there is a small risk of being stung, depending on how careful you are, and/or how the bee came to be lying on the ground in the first place. And if you have an allergy, then you shouldn’t try it, just in case.

Anyhow, the bee might raise up a little, but this is not usually a threat: the bumblebee will usually understand your aim and lift its body up off the ground so you can slide your finger underneath, and the bee can simply grab on. Then find a better place for the bee to rest (a tree trunk, wall, or shrub) and let it climb off. If you find this idea too intimidatingĀ  you can use a twig or anything else instead. I have lifted bumblebees off the ground with my hands many times and never been stung. Treat nature with respect an kindness and you will receive the same in return.

Lend a bumblebee a helping hand.

An Adventure in the Garden of Ireland