Up until last week it was still quite cold, but finally the weather has improved and at last we are getting proper warm spring weather. It’s that special time of year, the height of the great spring dandelion blooming. Dandelions support the vast majority of pollen-feeding and pollinating insects to a degree impossible to any other spring flowers. It’s great to see these important plants are finally starting to get the recognition they deserve:
They are beautiful flowers too, and give us a bright yellow landscape. Other flowers are starting to reach their full bloom too – here, for example, are Bluebells, the true wild bluebell which is quite common in Wicklow and possesses a beautiful scent, unlike the similar-looking Spanish Bluebell:
That butterfly is a Peacock (Inachis io) and it soon gave up the bluebells to feed on dandelions again.
This is also the time when the cherry trees are candyfloss pink from blossom, and they really do brighten the place up a good bit:
However, as beautiful as it is, it’s also important to remember spring is a time of high drama. At the moment you have a good chance of seeing the rare Tawny Mining Bee, which I mentioned in the last post. The male bees have now passed on, and the females are pregnant and busily constructing their nests, which are burrows. The mouth of each burrow is surrounded by a mound of soil, sometimes quite a lot. Tawny Mining Bees are parasitised by Cuckoo Bees, such as Nomada panzeri. They lay their eggs in the nests of the Tawny Mining Bees, and their young feed on the larvae of the mining bees. Here is a Cuckoo Bee, in the foreground, watching for an opportunity to get into the nest of a Tawny Mining Bee, but the owner is watching from the entrance:
As I tried to get a closer photo I accidentally scared the Cuckoo Bee off, and the Tawny Mining Bee decided it was safe to emerge:
These bees are usually gone by May, so now is the time to look for them. Next year’s generation will soon be hidden underground awaiting their time to fly in the sunshine.
Unfortunately the first post of this new year must be a sad one – I have just learned that one of Wicklow’s best known naturalists, Stan Moore, passed away on the last day of 2016 after an illness. Stan wrote the column Nature’s Corner in the North Wicklow Times for many years. He had an all-encompassing interest in nature, was a brilliant artist and produced lovely oil paintings, photographs and videos of the natural world. The first time I met him he came to my house with an illustration of a fish he had found, and needed to look at some of my books to positively identify it as it was a strange one. A few years later I recorded him being interviewed by a journalist for a programme which was aired by the Greystones Community Radio Project, and if I can dig that out I’ll put it on the blog. Sadly I did not take up photography until later, so I have no photo of the naturalist. Rest in Peace Stan!
This January is very different to last year – instead of the incredible wet weather caused when Ireland was struck full force by last year’s severe El Nino event we have had long dry spells, and some of them have been quite balmy. This had apparently caused the vegetation to get very self-assured, and as early as the 9th of December I saw my first daffodil leaves breaking the surface of the soil, and now many of them are well above ground and soon to bloom:
And if that wasn’t enough the pennant-like leaves of Arum Lilies have begun to unfurl:
And today I spotted dozens of Alexanders which had broken through the ground and come up all leafy along a roadside verge – Alexanders normally don’t appear until February at the earliest:
However, most surprising of all is an Elder tree which has sprung fresh green leaves all along the ends of its topmost branches:
So the question is, are we getting an extremely early spring? Can the plants predict, or are they just reacting to the immediate circumstances. The short answer to that question is that I don’t know. Last year’s freak wet weather, followed by this year’s very dry weather could have thrown the natural world off-kilter, but plants have had millions of years to evolve an ability to predict and behave accordingly, so perhaps the smart money should be on an early spring. But I have seen all of these plants struck by sudden cold spells before, and killed, and the only plants I have seen in my garden which never appear until the winter has finished its work are a certain group of wild (feral) Early Crocuses. Until I see them I’m not convinced the weather is definitely on the up. However, in the meantime the amount of wildlife to be seen is growing. A few days ago I spotted a male Winter Moth (Operophtera brumata) on a wall by a window light. It was actually more brownish than it appears in the photo, but the camera flash had a strange effect on the colouration:
There are also caterpillars of spring and summer moths to be found at this time of year, most having hatched from their eggs in late autumn. They eat and sleep all winter. Here is a handsome green Angle Shades caterpillar, and two smaller Large Yellow Underwing moths, all of which will get much larger before becoming moths:
Because the nights are so long keeping birds asleep, and there are few other invertebrate predators around in winter, slugs can be often seen in huge numbers on warm dark winter nights. Some of them can be very handsome. Here, for example, is a medium-sized species known as the Dusky Slug (Arion subfuscus):
And this distinctive species is a relatively recent arrival, the Budapest Keeled Slug (Tandonia budapestensis), which was first identified in the British Isles in the 1920s, probably carried in on plants:
Slugs might not be to your taste, but if not then there are still quite a few bumblebees to be seen feeding on winter-flowering garden plants such as Mahonia and Vinca. Here is one I saw today, with noticeably full pollen sacs on its legs, a Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris):
Only time will tell how this winter pans out, so in the meantime Happy New year!
Last weekend one of my neighbours told me daffodils were coming up all over his garden and he showed be a photo of one actually blooming and asked me if I would like to see for myself and get some photos. Unfortunately, due to a whole week of rain it took me until this weekend to get around to it, but first I decided to check my own garden, where daffodils are usually much slower to rise – and here’s what I found:
I was amazed, and am more amazed because much more advanced ones are now visible all around my garden. However, my neighbour reliably informs me his daffodils rose three weeks ago. And yesterday he had one going out of bloom and one in full bloom.
And here’s the same one from another angle…
In fact, daffodils are being reported from all across the island of Ireland, already in bloom. And there are not only daffodils, but snowdrops are also starting to bloom, although the ones my neighbour has in his garden are admittedly of a cultivated variety, and possibly tend to be earlier:
But there is a bigger mystery to this than there seems to be. For the past two weeks we have had extremely mild temperatures for December, and warm wind systems have been rising over Ireland from the Caribbean due to the Jet Stream being far to the north of the island, which is unusual. An extreme El Nino effect has occurred and is believed to be largely responsible for having affecting the weather systems in the Northern Hemisphere, particularly those emanating from the Caribbean. However, my neighbour tells me his daffodils rose while we we experiencing typically cold weather at the end of November. So what interests me is this – can the plants be somehow anticipating warm weather?
Last year we had early snowdrops and daffodils too, but not this early, and meteorologists concluded it was due to the extremely warm summer of 2014. However, we had a cold and mostly wet summer for 2015, so that cannot be the solution to this mystery. However, we have had an exceptionally wet November and December, so that could be a factor. In 2013 I recorded temperatures as high as 16 degrees Celsius (about 61 degrees Fahrenheit) in the December, but the snowdrops and daffodils didn’t show up until late January, and gradually through February. So it seems temperature and sunlight are not triggering this phenomenon, but rain-levels stil possibly are doing so. But will it mean a mild winter and mild spring? We’ll find out soon enough.
And since temperatures are mild, and flowers are producing food in the form of pollen and nectar, then you would expect to see insects – and you do. This week I found a hoverfly feeding on a cistus flower, something I have never seen before in December:
And some creatures which are normally lying low and hiding in leaf litter, or beneath the soil feeding on roots of plants, can actually be seen walking about in broad daylight, such as this caterpillar, of the Large Yellow Underwing moth (Noctua pronuba):
And finally, here’s a sight I look out for every year, and don’t usually see until the end of February or early March – a cultivated pulmonaria in the garden here. Something is unusual is certainly happening: