Last year it felt like summer right up until the Autumn Equinox and even beyond, but this year autumn seemed to follow the old Celtic tradition and start in early August. The bouts of rain have brought a coolness in with them and only for the bright sunlight of the late morning and afternoon, between showers, creatures would be few and far between. However, keep an eye out for the big strong Autumn Hawker dragonfly (Aeshna mixta) which can be seen patrolling gardens an hedgerows all across Wicklow right now. Occasionally they land and you can see their beauty:
These powerful dragonflies are migrants and snatch big insects such as butterflies and moths out of the air. They hunt by sight, like most birds. The really funny thing about them is that this species was a rare visitor to Ireland until the turn of the 21st century when they first began to arrive in large numbers. But some insects are adept at hiding from such predators, such as the Silver-Y moth (Autographa gamma). Can you see this one hiding among the dried flowers of a phacelia plant? Look for the Y markings.
Many other flying insects are ending their life-cycles, and their last act is to mate and lay eggs from which caterpillars hatch. If you look on lettuces, cabbages, watercress or nasturtiums you have a good chance of seeing quite big Large White butterfly caterpillars (Pieris brassicae), like this one stretched out on a nasturtium leaf.
And lastly, and sadly, there are still some small numbers of swallows around. Our swallow is found not only in Europe and Africa but also across much of Asia and in the Americas where it migrates from North to South America every year. It is properly known as the Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) and it feeds entirely on insects, so far as is known. Here are a large number of them I photographed at the end of August, as they gathered on electricity cables to rest before beginning their long flights south across Europe and over the Mediterranean Sea and the vast Sahara Desert to tropical and southern Africa where they will spend our winter. For them it will be another summer.
A few people have been asking me about the moths which invaded the Stade de France in Paris this evening during the European Cup Final between France and Portugal. I have checked the many, many photos of them available online, and can say with certainty that they are migratory Silver-Y moths (Autographa gamma). They eventually find their way to Ireland, albeit in smaller numbers, and here’s one I photographed feeding on Soapwort (aka Bouncing Beth) a few years ago.:
Some media have attempted to account for the swarm by blaming flood lights for being left on last night, but this species flies both day and night and is not particularly attracted to lights of any kind, although they might use them to navigate in darkness. They have already arrived here in Ireland this summer, and more may well be on the way. They swarm out of southern Europe and Africa every year in vast clouds, flying north, and at the end of the summer they fly south again. They are often desperate for water and salts in hot weather encountered en route, and will gladly drink both sweat and tears, of which there was no short supply in the stadium in Paris tonight.
Congratulations to Portugal. I suggest the team adopt a silver ‘Y’ letter as their jersey insignia to commemorate their great historic win on what has been a very unusual night indeed.
Right now Wicklow is swarming with Silver-Ys, muscular moths which migrate from North Africa and southern Europe every summer. Some years they are in small numbers, and some years in large ones, and this year they are in the latter. You will see them flying by night mostly, but individuals are very noticeable by day too, moving from place to place or perching on walls and windows. They come to garden plants by night in hovering swarms which are very impressive.
The moth’s scientific name, Autographa gamma, literally means ‘self-written y’. Both the common and scientific name are due to a silver-coloured ‘y’ marking on each forewing, as you can see clearly in the photo below.
Silver-Y moths are believed to attempt to migrate home in autumn, but some will instead opt to hibernate, and with some success as I have discovered them springing to life in sheds in springtime. It’s difficult to know how long they can live but we do know Painted Lady butterflies not only migrate from North Africa to Ireland, but also can successfully make the return journey in autumn, so the robust Silver-Y should be equally capable of this feat. As with so much in nature, however, it remains to be conclusively proven.