Tag Archives: biology

Winter Beasts

Although it’s cold and dark and not particularly pleasant, there are some advantages to Winter. For one thing the cold and general shortage of food supplies often brings larger animals closer to human proximity, and you can see creatures which normally don’t like to get too close. My dog recently had her ham bone stolen by a fox which came to visit my garden. I put a camera down in a good position and managed to get a nice shot of the fox paying a very early morning visit to the dog’s bowl, and glimpsing a person through the back window it hastily made its escape. Here is a photo of the fox looking up through the window, shortly after 5 a.m.:

Wildcamera

The fox never seemed to notice the camera. This is the Red Fox – Vulpes vulpes, which can be found pretty much worldwide these days. Foxes are particularly beneficial for one reason – they eat more rats, and are far better at catching them than cats are.

Anyhow, although we are in the coldest part of the winter, there are already some definite signs spring is not far away. Here is a video I made this weekend which shows some of these signs:

The Spring/Summer Intermediate

We’ve had a cold spring this year, and now we have reached the intermediate time when spring turns into summer. The first thing you will notice about this time of year is that, despite long days and sunny spells, there are few butterflies about. You might see one or two Orange-tip butterflies still on the wing,  but their time is now pretty much over until next year. They are beautiful though:

There are, of course, other butterflies around, but they are small in number, and mostly more drab species, such as the Speckled Wood,  which is a species I’m very fond of because it makes up for its lack of colours with attitude, being a cheeky butterfly that will ‘buzz’ you. However, butterflies aside, there are lots of other interesting creatures, such as beetles. In woodland glades you might find long horn beetles, aka timberman beetles, feeding on pollen. Here’s a very handsome species, Rhagium bifasciatum, which I found on a buttercup flower:

On the bogs along the coast of Wicklow there are many interesting creatures and plants to be seen at this time of year. There are warbler species and Stonechats are very brazen and beautiful in their breeding plumage – such as this male which regarded me suspiciously as I walked along the railway fence:

At this moment the bogs are covered in the beautiful blooms of the Yellow Flag, an iris species which grows in waterlogged ground and even in ponds. Many insects depend on them:

Keep an eye out for a very large caterpillar, which you might see crossing your path on a bog walkway if you visit a nature reserve. This wonderful-looking creature is the caterpillar of the Drinker Moth (Euthrix potatoria). The caterpillar is actually the source of the name, as it is said to be seen to drink drops of dew at this time of year,  a story that could have some truth to it, as folklore often does.:

The moth is much smaller than the caterpillar, but technically a large moth, as all of its relatives are quite big. The Drinker Moth is very stout and robust in a chunky sort of way. While you are looking for these caterpillars you might have a largish dragonfly zoom noisily past your ear. This will probably be the Hairy Hawker (Brachytron pratense), which is one of our earliest large dragonfly species. It is colourful and definitely hairy. I was very lucky to get a close-up shot of one only recently, and the camera lens was literally only a few centimetres from the dragonfly, which remained calm as it perched on a nettle:

Finally, a number of people have asked me if I could tell them what the amazing-looking  small blue-green beetles are that can be found on almost every flower along the coastal dunes in the last few weeks, as it is not easily found in books or online. That is definitely true. This beetle is the Blue-Green Soft-winged Flower Beetle (Psilothrix viridicoeruleus), which is a remarkably hairy little creature and seems to spend its time eating pollen and mating. Living the dream, I guess:

   Lately we have been having a very wet and cold time of it, and this does sometimes happen, with the weather far below par up until the Summer Solstice, which is the longest day of the year, but also the exact border between the seasons, ending the springtime and starting the true summer. The Summer Solstice this year will be this Friday at precisely six minutes before five o’clock in the afternoon in our local time, which is British Summertime (15.54 GMT). Many great summers started off as bad, if not worse than this one, so we can still hope for the best.

Autumn Geese and a natural mystery

Autumn came in very slowly this year, but it turned quite cold quite quickly. However, now at last we are getting rain in proper autumn levels. We had proportionally very little rain all last winter, spring and summer. Finally the geese have started to arrive too. Here are two of the most common species, the Brent Goose (Branta bernicla):

and a flock of Greylag (Anser anser), with two Rooks (Corvus frugilegus) providing a sense of scale:

All of these birds are pictured at the famous Kilcoole Breaches and nature reserve.

There have been two noticeable trends this autumn – firstly there have been far less spiders than you would expect on average, particularly House Spiders. But all species seem to be lower in number than usual. The only spider species at normal levels, or apparently normal levels, has been the Garden Spider (Araneus diadematus), which is also the most obvious autumn spider:

    Conversely, there has been a population explosion of Brown Rats (Rattus norvegicus) which has been attributed to the long hot summer and the summer heatwave of May, June and July which almost led to a severe drought. The increased population of Brown Rats very likely has reduced the number of spiders, as rats and mice will happily eat large spiders. More rats equals less spiders.

However, from my own observations I disagree that the summer heatwave is responsible for the population explosion of rats – back in March, during the heavy snows, there was a massive surge in rat numbers. They were especially attracted to bird feeders. The winter had been very cold even before the snows arrived late, and it seems that this factor drew rats from the countryside towards human settlements in order to find food and warmth. But whatever the exact cause, there were a lot of them around, although numbers at last seem to be returning to normal: