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Messages from Samuel Connolly

How to SEE in Wicklow

It may seem a very strange thing to say, but there is an art to seeing Wicklow, and if you are to truly enjoy this landscape you really need to learn how to see it. So I’m going to give an example, taken from one hour in one afternoon, which was today (but technically yesterday, as it’s now early morning of a new day). Anyhow, you drive off the National Primary Road that is the N11. You park your car by a lonely little gateway, and you take out your binoculars, or camera, and point it at the magnificent green landscape. In this case we’re on a road that goes east off the N11, and we are looking inland towards the beautiful hill of Dunran, and the foot of the Wicklow Mountains. Hidden by the undulating countryside of low hills overlooked by Dunran is the N11 itself. In fact it is the M11 at this point, a motorway of European standards, but there is no sign of it.

Dunran Hill across some lovely Wicklow countryside, but the M11 motorway is hidden behing the hill in the foreground!

In fact, you won’t notice them in the photograph, but there were deer grazing near the top of Dunran. It’s an interesting name: anything with “dun” in it signifies a fort. “Dun” is Gaelic for “fort”. This probably means an ancient fort in this case. So, now you can see roling countryside and greenery, but you probably don’t notice the detail. Okay, so now, if you’re me, you look down at your feet, and find yourself standing among (and on) some stunning little wild flowers:¬† golden yellow Meadow Vetchling, and the closely related, royal purple, Spring Vetch.

Meadow Vetchling - Lathyrus pratensis
Spring Vetch - Vicia lathyroides: and something has taken a chunk out of this flower.

And then you turn you lift your head, suddenly noticing the colours, and immediately the beauty of a wild rose, growing in the hedge in all its May splendour. This is the so-called Dog Rose, the original rose of the countryside that would give rise to the horticultural varieties that are now the standard.

Wild or Dog Rose - Rosa canina: why it's known by this common name is something of a mystery.

So now, like me, realising what you were missing by being unaware, ou cast your eyes across the landscape again, and suddenly notice birds bursting from the undergrowth and crossing the fields: why? Then one of the birds slowly crosses the sky, and you realise it’s not a pigeon, or nearly as small as it looks, and then it grows larger and larger as it flies towards you, and circles lower and lower, and you realise you are looking at a large and powerful bird-of-prey. It looks like an eagle, but it is actually a Buzzard. Unlike the American Buzzard, which is a species of vulture, the European Buzzard is more closely related to eagles, and the American Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus). It is a bird that soars and scavenges, but will hunt for small, inexperienced rabbits and ground-dwelling birds such as pheasants. They are so common in Wicklow now that it is hard to believe that they were not seen in the Republic of Ireland until the late 1990s, having been hunted to extinction. In 1992, my brother Trevor and I saw one, and we reported it to a local birder. This was long before I had any qualifications of any kind. Years later that same ornithologist apologised to me for not believing I’d seen a Buzzard, which surprised me because I could barely remember seeing one (a LOT of time had passed!) and that he had disbelieved us. But I later discovered I had sensibly recorded the sighting in a journal from 1992. But now they are once again so common in Wicklow that you would never guess they had ever been absent: a majestic bird to see, so pay attention!

A European Buzzard (Buteo buteo) swooping low over the fields of Wicklow, and slightly nervously over my camera.

So, keep your eyes out and your wits about you, and don’t let the green jungle of foliage smother your senses when you look out across the Wicklow landscape.

High drama in May

It has been a somewhat blustery and cool May, with a many showers, but according to a new version of an old saying: “Wet and windy May, fills the barns with corn and hay”. But the rain and the sunlight combine to support lush vegetation in Wicklow, and there are dramatic scenes everywhere. The Hawthorn, the sacred tree of the ancient druids, bursts into blossom and crowns the spring and announces the summer.

Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) in bloom.

Hiding on the blooms of dense plants like the Russian Comfrey (Symphytum x uplandicum) the small predators aim to catch big prey. The Flower Crab Spiders are especially brazen, and can even be seen attempting to snatch bumblebees.

Flower Crab Spider (Misumena vatia) waits in ambush to snatch a bumblebee collecting nectar from Russian Comfrey. It failed, and some bees even knocked others away from the flowers.

Even on the ground in towns and villages there is drama and action: watch for ants hurrying back to their nests with food and prey. Their incredible strength is fascinating in itself.

A Black Garden Ant (Lasius niger) carrying an unfortunately squashed Bark Louse (Psocidid) back to its nest along a footpath.

However, not all of the action near to the ground is of a predatory fashion. Some creatures have no problem finding food in abundance, and therefore have plenty of time for other activities. On the large fleshy leaves of the Broad-leaved Dock (Rumex obtusifolius) you will often see beautiful sweet-wrapper shiny green beetles calmly munching on the vast leaves. This is the Dock Leaf Beetle (Gastrophysa viridula), a very distinctive species of leaf beetle, due to the enormous abdomen of the pregnant female. She becomes swollen with hundreds of eggs, and is usually garded closely by a mate, or a suitor waiting for her to lay her eggs so he can take his turn fathering offspring.

He likes big butts! A male Dock Leaf Beetle perched on a heavily pregnant female.

All of this excitement between waist and ground level is wonderful to observe, but it can distract you from incredible seens high above. A chance glance at the Wicklow clouds could bring your eye into line with a flock of fleeing pigeons or doves, and just in time to see a Peregrine Falcon slowly wheeling above. If you can see it clearly then your back will almost certainly be to the sun, and the great predator’s prey will be even further from you than the falcon, because this bird likes to fly at it prey from the direction of the sun, where it can be seen least well, if at all.

Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) soaring above Wicklow.

Although a very similar species of falcon, the Hobby (Falco subbuteo), can occasionally be found in Wicklow, this Peregrine is a stouter bird with wings that appear wider from front to back when seen in flight. It has recently been dicovered that Peregrines living in cities and towns will hunt actively at night, usually striking their night-flying prey from beneath, in the ambush-style of their sea-dwelling equivalent, the Great White Shark. It is theorised that the lights from buildings illuminate the undersides of birds flying above them, allowing the Peregrine to see its prey in the dark, although it might also be argued that it is using the lights of the buildings in the same way it uses the sun during daylight hunting, to prevent its prey from seeing it.

A Peregrine Falcon seen from the side, preparing for a stoop, its attacking dive. On this occasion the pigeons spotted the hunter and managed to escape. The black "executioner's mask" markings of the head are easy to see from this angle.

Some notes on wildlife-watching kit

If you are visiting Wicklow with the intention of watching wildlife, and visiting habitats, then here is some advice that will help make things easier. In my opinion the most useful items you can bring with you are as follows:

1. Water-resistant messenger bag with shoulder strap; 2. water resistant pouch for camera; 3. Compact super-zoom camera; 4. mobile phone; 5. small penknife; 6. rugged journal; 7.crushable all-weather hat.

The advantage of a messenger bag is it leaves your hands free and can be dipped into quickly, without having to be first removed (as in the case of a back-pack). The messenger bag only needs to be light and preferably with some degree of water-resistance, allowing you to keep your more precious items dry, and carry a sandwich if you intend going out for a few hours. It also allows you to carry a light jacket and a hat in case of rain or a sudden drop in temperature.

For your camera you will ideally have a seperate pouch. Unless you are specifically on a photographic expedition in the pay of National Geographic, for roaming around the countryside a compact superzoom camera will be more than ideal. Any camera is good, but a small superzoom will let you take good long distance and close-up macros too, while not being heavy to carry, or, in the worst case scenario, expensive to replace in the case of an outdoors accident. Always keep the strap wrapped around your wrist! These cameras are superb pieces of equipment: they allow you to record nature without harming it, and to examine it in minute detail, and so are a terrific replacement for the old magnifying glass or botanical lens.

Mobile phones are virtually vital pieces of equipment to take out in the field: they allow you to stay safely in contact

with the outside world in the event of an accident, or getting lost. This doesn’t happen very often in Wicklow, but anyone can wander off the beaten track and sprain an ankle, or fall on a mountainside, or encounter someone in distress in the sea on a lonely stretch of coatline, so always carry your mobile phone and keep it charged. Many of the newer ones have GPS and compass applications so you can navigate with them, allow people to follow your route as you make it, or allow you to keep track of the night sky, even if it’s hidden behind a veil of cloud. Also, mobile phones almost always have built-in cameras, so yours can be a useful back-up to your main camera.

A small penknife is also an extremely useful tool to carry. In Ireland it is technically illegal to carry any sort of knife of any kind in any public place, but in practice there is a concept of “reasonable use” and the Garda√≠ (our police force) use their discretion. For a great many people a knife of some sort will be a necessary tool of their trade. Similarly, it is normal to expect back-packers, tourists, birdwatchers, anglers and hunters to carry knives for outdoor purposes. There is no doubt a penknife is a vital tool to have in the countryside, but do not carry one when visiting bars or nightclubs.

A good tough notebook is one of the most useful item of all you should carry in the countryside. For the naturalist and archaeologist they are a must-have, and for the average tourist they are incredibly useful, to say the least. The best kinds are usually found for sale in art-supply shops, and can be a little expensive. However, they can survive submersion in water, and take a beating without losing pages. Those with unlined pages are best, such as the Windsor Newton journal pictured.

A crushable hat can be either rolled up, or have its crown flattened. In my opinion the second type is better (some hats allow you to do both), as a rigid brim will protect the face from sun and much more importantly, driving rain or hail stones, which often accompany thunderstorms in even the hottest weather of summer. Coats with hoods are not as good, as they don’t adequately protect the face, and limits your field of view, often causing the wearer to face into the hood if he/she attempts to look over his/her shoulder. The advantage of a brimmed hat is that the brim protects the face, head and neck, and will even protect your camera, allowing you to take photos in inclement weather. And there’s no need to wear it everywhere, as it can be easily kept in the messenger bag. A draw string to prevent it blowing away might be useful in cliff or hill areas. A water-resistant outdoor hat is ideal.

An all-weather hat doing its job: because of its peculiar geography a hot, sunny day in Wicklow could be interrupted by an unexpected and heavy shower of rain.

One of the commonest plants in Wicklow is Gorse (Ulex europaeus), also known as furze or whin. Gorse is a beautiful and large bush, growing in dense thickets, and producing gently fragrant yellow blossoms. But it is also extremely spiny and easily punctures clothing and skin. The average person will not find any need to wander through gorse thickets, but because of this reason these areas are incredible havens for wildlife, so the wildlife tourist will want to wear clothes that allow him or her to move as painlessly as possible off the beaten track in order to encounter the more remarkable wildlife. Archaeology tourists will also find many ancient walls, buildings and artefacts lie hidden beneath gorse…the bushes take advantage of manmade structures under the soil to anchor themselves. If you see an archaeological structure marked on a map it will almost invariably be surrounded by or covered in gorse, although there will also normally be an unofficial path through the bushes.

Gorse bushes are beautiful evergreens, but they form thickets that are very painful for people to pass through, even on paths or tracks, and for this reason are havns for wildlife. Gorse grows on hillsides, but gives way to heather on mountains.

If you are an archaeologist you might be tempted to take a waterproof plastic-shelled padded jacket: if you are a wildlife enthusiast don’t even think of it. These jackets will mostly keep the spines off, but are extremely noisy and will alert wild animal to your presence long before you get near them. Volunteers on wildlife studies are usually banned from wearing such coats, even in heavy rain, as they make far too much noise. But even so, gorse needles will eventually puncture such coats.

Coats and jackets with nylon plastic shells are extremely light, comfortable, rainproof and wind-resistant, and will protect you from gorse...but they make far too much noise!

Although not nearly as waterproof, and a bit heavier, a cotton military-type tunic will protect you from gorse needles and allow the careful naturalist to move silently along paths through gorse thickets. Most also have good secure button-fasten pockets and epaulettes that reinforce and take some of the strain off the shoulders, and allow a messenger bag strap to be held securely over the shoulder. They can be treated to make them more water-resistant, but even this will be worn off by exposure to gorse over a period of time. But these are the best choice for the naturalist.

A military-style tunic is the best protection from gorse that a naturalist can wear, as it allows you to remain silent.