Tag Archives: botany

Make a Meadow

Last year I made a meadow in my garden with a lot of help from my brother, and the results were spectacular as all sorts of insects were drawn in to feed and collect pollen, and hunt. It’s worth considering doing, and here is a video I made of it, with some nice music from Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers:

Among the flowers are phacelia, buckwheat, poppies, marigolds, anthirrhinum, stock and buddleia bushes. Among the insects in this video are Buff-tailed Bumblebee, Red-tailed Bumblebee, White-tailed Bumblebee, Carder Bee, Honey Bee, Greenbottle fly, Large White butterflies, Green-veined White butterflies and a Common Blue butterfly.

And there is also a species of solitary wasp not often seen in Ireland near the end of the video.

An all too Spring-like Winter… so far

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:

Daffodil with flower stalk rising in the centre.
Daffodil with flower stalk rising in the centre.

And if that wasn’t enough the pennant-like leaves of Arum Lilies have begun to unfurl:

The leaves of Arum Lily, also known as Cuckoo-pint and Lord's-and-Ladies.
The leaves of Arum Lily, also known as Cuckoo-pint and Lord’s-and-Ladies.

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:

32193439185_c03ec74e9d_z   However, most surprising of all is an Elder tree which has sprung fresh green leaves all along the ends of its topmost branches:

Fresh elder leaves glowing in the winter sunlight.
Fresh elder leaves glowing in the winter sunlight.

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:

The Winter Moth is quite small, about thumbnail size.
The Winter Moth is quite small, about thumbnail size.

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:

All of these caterpillars can be found on and under lawns in winter.
All of these caterpillars can be found on and under lawns in winter.

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):

A Dusky Slug grazing on mould and moss on a piece of ceramic.
A Dusky Slug grazing on mould and moss on a piece of ceramic.

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:

Keeled Slugs get their name from the raised line on their backs, which is like the keel of an upturned boat. Its is very distinctive on the Budapest Keeled Slug.
Keeled Slugs get their name from the raised line on their backs, which is like the keel of an upturned boat. Its is very distinctive on the Budapest Keeled Slug.

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):

A bumblebee feeding on Vinca difformis today. This plant is sometimes known as Star-of-Bethlehem due to its habit of flowering in winter, bit it blooms sporadically throughout the year.
A bumblebee feeding on Vinca difformis today. This plant is sometimes known as Star-of-Bethlehem due to its habit of flowering in winter, bit it blooms sporadically throughout the year.

Only time will tell how this winter pans out, so in the meantime Happy New year!

On Safari in Glendalough

There are two wonderful creatures which I have not managed to see properly with my own eyes – the Emperor Moth, which only flies from April to early June, and the Green Tiger Beetle. The male moths fly over the heather of bogs in daytime, looking for the mcuh larger resting females. They are as large as butterflies, and often are even larger. The beetles are shiny green, with huge eyes and remarkable markings. Both species are very common in Wicklow, but I have only once managed to catch a glimpse of male moths flying past me on the mountains. This time I wanted a photograph, of both creatures.

Looking over the Lower Lake towards the ancient monastic city of Glendalough.
Looking over the Lower Lake towards the ancient monastic city of Glendalough. There was quite a haze over the water. Note the round tower.

The title might seem like an exaggeration, but it’s not. A good walk in Glendalough on a sunny day can be quite a safari, with big animals as well as little. While the lowlands where covered in cloud I went up there one afternoon last week with might brother, and found it bathed in sunlight.  We followed the path up by the Poulnadrass Waterfall and the many timber steps up to the Spinc overlooking the Upper Lake. This also seemed like a good place for a heroic portrait:

27036891242_b8c9278a42The whole hilltop was covered in heather and Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus). Bilberries are widely known in Europe as blueberries, and are a very close relative of the true, North American Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum). I even found one bush already had berries growing on it – they start off red in colour, and only turn blue in late summer:

The bases of flowers swelling to become berries. They have a long way to go still.
The bases of flowers swelling to become berries. They have a long way to go still.

Two reddish Emperor Moths flew past us, but we could not chase them over the deep boggy mud. They flew too fast for photos. But then I spotted something very exciting – the largest wild lizard I have ever seen in Ireland, and it was basking on the steps:

A very handsome male Viviparous Lizard, in breeding colours.
A very handsome male Viviparous Lizard, in breeding colours.

The lizard was over 20 cm long, and very boldly patterned. We have only one native species of reptile in Ireland, the Viviparous Lizard – Zoothoca vivipara. It is sometimes referred to as the Common Lizard, but this species is not always as common as other species in Europe. It gets its name because the female can lay eggs, but will also hatch her eggs internally and then give birth to live young, like mammals, an ability which allows this creature to live in much colder climates than other lizards. In fact, they can be found at the Arctic Circle in Scandinavia. It’s very strange finding them on mountain tops, but apparently they’re able for the harsh conditions. And they had a great view:

From a viewpoint like this lizards can see their main enemies coming - birds-of-prey such as the Kestrel.
From a viewpoint like this lizards can see their main enemies coming – birds-of-prey such as the Kestrel.

After climbing to the highest point we began to descend to the Glenealo Valley above the Glendalough valley. Here we found much larger wildlife:

A feral goat above Glendalough.
A feral goat above Glendalough.

There was a large herd of ‘feral’ goats. These animals have been living wild for centuries so ‘wild’ is probably a more accurate term for them. However, the goats were not alone, as nearby there were plenty of deer:

This would appear to be a pregant female, and she was quite large. Deer in the Wicklow Mountains are mostly crossbreeds between native Red Deer and Japanese Sika, both of which are classed as seperate species, but are genetically the same species, which is why their offspring are fertile.
This would appear to be a pregant female, and she was quite large. Deer in the Wicklow Mountains are mostly crossbreeds between native Red Deer and Japanese Sika, both of which are classed as seperate species, but are genetically the same species, which is why their offspring are fertile.

From here we made the long, scenic descent to the floor of the Glenealo Valley and followed the long stoney trail to the very rear of Glendalough’s valley, which you can see here very well:

After crossing the handsome footbridge across the floor of the Glenealo Valley we followed the stream to the waterfalls dropping into Glendalough. You can see here where Glenealo terminates and Glendalough begins far below.
After crossing the handsome footbridge across the floor of the Glenealo Valley we followed the stream to the waterfalls dropping into Glendalough. You can see here where Glenealo terminates and Glendalough begins.

Just as we reached the bottom of the Glenealo Valley we spotted what appeared to be orchids next to the pools and streams, but the leaves were sticky and insects were lying dead on them – they were carnivourous plants:

Pinguicula - better known as Butterwort.
Pinguicula – better known as Butterwort.

There are three known species of Butterwort native to Ireland, and based on the leaves I suspect this one is Common Butterwort (Pinguicula vulgaris) but I’ll need to return to see them in flower to be certain of the species. Believe it or not, but there are actually more than ten wild species of carnivorous plant in Ireland.

We still had a bit of walking to do before we got back to the Upper Car Park, which has its own security in summer, and costs €4 for the day, which is worth it for peace-of-mind, and to be certain of a parking place.  We saw, but failed to photograph a few bird species, namely the Wheatear, Meadow Pipit and the huge chortling Ravens spiralling above us. Sadly, this walk is beyond the capabilities of wheelchairs or mobility scooters, but some day in the future this might not be entirely the case. However, the valley floor of Glendalough is almost completely wheelchair accessible and there is always lots to see and photograph, not to mention the beautiful sounds and scents of the natural world.