All posts by Samuel Connolly

The Naturalists

Today I had the great honour of meeting Ireland’s most famous naturalist, Éamonn De Buitléar, and he kindly agreed to pose for a photograph. He is a famous wildlife documentary film-maker (and author) but always preferred to be behind the camera instead of in front of it, although he is a charismatic presenter. De Buitléar has contributed to many documentaries besides his own, including images of migrating eels to David Attenborough’s The Trials of Life TV series. His most recent TV series, A Life in the Wild, is one of the most beautifully filmed and interesting documentaries I have ever seen, and is also a quirky biography filled with his globe-trotting adventures.

Éamonn De Buitléar when I met him today.
Cover of DVD series A Life in the Wild

 

I also met Angus Tyner, one of Ireland’s foremost moth experts, and the “go-to guy” most government scientists ask for advice on moths. He is a devoted specialist when it comes to moths, but also has a general interest in wildlife and a terrific knowledge. Today he was championing moths and other wildlife as part of the Newcastle Expo. The moths in the photo were caught with a light trap last night. Early Thorn and Hebrew Character moths, among others, can be seen here. Angus runs a number of websites and a major moth-recording website at www.mothsireland.com

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