Tag Archives: Bluebells

The Great May Adventure

May is always a bit of a mixed bag. You never know quite what you’re going to get, but it’s always progressing towards the calmer months of summer. And in the natural world it’s a time of frenetic activity. This year we had May weather in April because the weather was so unusually dry for spring. First it started with early bird nesting.

A handsome Wood Pigeon in breeding colours carrying a large twig to its nest.
A Jackdaw carrying nesting material to a disused chimney where it has a nest.
A Robin carrying spider prey back to its nest, which is hidden in the hedge. It watched to make sure I had moved on before entering the nest and giving the location away.

But the most important aspect of the spring, apart from the weather, is the mass flowering of various plants. The most important is the spring dandelion bloom. Dandelions provide huge amounts of pollen that many insects depend on, especially our pollinators. Every conceivable species of bee, fly and many beetles depend on these flowers in the early part of spring. In May they reach a crescendo in their blooming and then rapidly seed while other spring blooms appear just in time to sustain the insect population. Here you can see dandelions and bluebells together:

The Bluebells are now mostly gone out of flower in the lowlands, but up in the highlands of Wicklow they are only coming into bloom, so if you’re looking for bluebells this late in May then you need to go upland. Tawny Mining Bees among many other species depend on these flowers. The Tawny Mining Bees are gone for this year, but you might see another pollinator about, the somewhat sinister-looking and beautiful Panzer’s Nomada (Nomada panzeri) a cuckoo-bee which parasitizes the mining bees. It is also known to have a bad sting, but this one was very calm and unthreatening:

Also, May is the time to see the Orange-tip butterfly (Anthocaris cardamines). The females are all white with very few black dots on the upper sides of their wings. The males have are identical but have stunning orange markings on the tips of their forewings.

The female Orange-tip looks pretty much like other species of white butterfly when seen from above, although she does have silvery-black forewing tips.
The male Orange-tip is very distinctive despite being fast-moving and rarely sitting still.

However, from below both the male and female Orange-tip look very different to other white butterflies, having a green marbling pattern which gives them camouflage.

The marbling pattern on the underside of both the male and female’s wings can be seen when the butterfly is at rest.

As the weather gets warmer more and more moths appear too, but keep a look out for caterpillars, because many of the caterpillars of moths found in Wicklow are far more spectacular looking than the adults of the same species. Here, for example, is the caterpillar of the Yellow-tail Moth (Euproctis similis). The moth is plain pale white with a bright yellow abdomen tip, but look at the gaudy colours of this caterpillar found on a Cistus bush:

The hairs of this caterpillar are a defence against predators and can cause irritation rashes 0n the skin of some people.

Along with dandelions the other big bloomer where the bees depend on is the big spiny Gorse or Furze bush. The yellow flowers fill the air with the scent of vanilla. Unfortunately in dry conditions they are highly flammable, but now we are at last getting some decent heavy rain showers the danger is passing. Some parts of Ireland have suffered terrible Gorse Fires this year. But fortunately Wicklow has escaped the worst of it:

January, outgoing

So we’ve finally reached the end of a January which was slightly wetter than most Januarys, but much more typical than December was. However, all the heavy rain of December provoked a remarkable response from the plantlife of Wicklow. Here, for example, are two photos from the 4th January, and they are quite incredible because this one is a tuft of natural Bluebells:

Yes, genuine Bluebells in early January.
Yes, genuine Bluebells in early January.

And these are the leaves of the Arum Lily, also known as Lords-andLadies or Cuckoo Pint, Arum maculatum:

Borad fleshy leaves of the Arum Lily.
Borad fleshy leaves of the Arum Lily.

Both are spring plants, but usually they don’t begin to appear until much later in the year, in March or April. However, the weather became more cold towards mid-January, and their growth slowed. Birds began showing up in gardens looking for food, as usually happens in December, January and February. Here are a few which came to feeders in my garden:

A spectacular little Blue Tit, one of our more common species.
A spectacular little Blue Tit, one of our more common species.
A Blue Tit and a much larger Greenfinch at a peanut feeder.
A Blue Tit and a much larger Greenfinch at a peanut feeder.
Two male House Sparrows at a seed feeder. These birds have become very rare in some parts of Europe, but are an invasive species in North America. In Ireland they are perfectly at home and still doing well.
Two male House Sparrows at a seed feeder. These birds have become very rare in some parts of Europe, but are an invasive species in North America. In Ireland they are perfectly at home and still doing well.
A Robin. The European Robin is a species of Chat, whereas the American Robin is much larger and a species of Thrush. Our Robins are starting to make territorial calls and to fight - breeding season is coming.
A Robin. The European Robin is a species of Chat, whereas the American Robin is much larger and a species of Thrush. Our Robins are starting to make territorial calls and to fight – breeding season is coming.
A male Blackbird basking in the weak January sun. Blackbirds have begun to sing their territorial songs and squabbling over territories just like the Robins. This year breeding season will be early for them too.
A male Blackbird basking in the weak January sun. Blackbirds have begun to sing their territorial songs and squabbling over territories just like the Robins. This year breeding season will be early for them too.

It is definitely one of the best times of the year to birdwatch, because birds need the food we provide and the shelter or our gardens, but it is important to remember that when the weather improves that they will become lazier and more likely to be killed by both cats and Sparrowhawks if they keep attending the feeders, and they will lose some of their foraging skills. So it’s best to help them when they need help in winter, but don’t make them dependant on bird feeders.

This week spring has made a serious declaration of intent – here are three photographs I took in the last few days which prove spring has properly begun:

Proper, wild Snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis, blooming brightly right now.
Proper, wild Snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis, blooming brightly right now.
The first Crocus bloom I've spotted this year, but it was eaten by a slug yesterday, before it could open.
The first Crocus bloom I’ve spotted this year, but it was eaten by a slug yesterday, before it could open.

And finally, here is one of my favourite spring sights of all:

24584088241_3ff70c7479A female Early Thorn moth, usually appearing in mid-February, but this one seems happy enough to join the spring bandwagon. Keep an eye out for these moths when they come to windows at night. They are like a butterfly in size and pose. Absolutely beautiful. This Monday is 1 February, which means St. Brigid’s Day, the first day of the Celtic spring. This year spring wouldn’t even wait for the saint.

Daffodils! Already?

Incredibly, yes. Yesterday (December 28) I found quite a few daffodil leaves had already burst through the soil, something which I’ve never seen before so early in Wicklow. These are not special early-flowering daffodils either, just regular ones that appear every year in the same place. Usually they would be very early if the appeared like this by the second week of January.

Daffodils are making a very early appearance this winter.
Daffodils are making a very early appearance this winter.

Last year was a much warmer December and they still didn’t put in an appearance so early. It’s fascinating to consider what the trigger mechanism for this growth is, but it’s definitely not temperature. Perhaps after millions of years of evolution these bulbs are hard-wired to recognise subtle changes in conditions that suit their growth, of which we are almost entirely ignorant. But they are not alone – I’ve heard reports of wild Primroses blooming in fields in Wexford since late November, and here are still more Buebells rising above the ground early –

Bluebells rising in another area. Do they know something we don't?
Bluebells rising in another area. Do they know something we don’t?

Probably most incredible of all are the wild Lords-and-Ladies arum lilies, the leaves of which can be seen well above ground in many places, still furled like fleshy green flags. However, I haven’t spotted my old reliables yet – Early Crocuses, which my own studies suggest are the most accurate indicators of the arrival of spring. There is still a lot we have to learn about the natural world, but one thing is for certain, the temperature outside tonight is – 1 degree Celsius and there’s a strong frost which has made lawns crunchy under foot.