Tag Archives: “Cinnabar Moth”

Field Meeting of the National Biodiversity Data Centre

National Biodiversity Week ended on bank holiday Monday, but it really only heralds the start of summer. We have had a very mixed spring, with a colder May than anyone would have expected, but the wildlife is certainly out there. During Biodiversity Week the National Biodiversity Data Centre held its field meeting for volunteer recorders of butterflies and bees here in Wicklow, starting in Glendalough.

Above the Upper Lake in Glendalough Dr. Úna Fitzpatrick gets the recorders to pose. I'm not in the photo, for obvious reasons.
Above the Upper Lake in Glendalough Dr. Úna Fitzpatrick gets the recorders to pose. I’m not in the photo, for obvious reasons. In this particular area we were looking for Graylings, a species of butterfly quite rare in Ireland.
Dr. Tomás Murray and Dr. Úna Fitzpatrick who administer the butterfly and bee recording projects. You will probably know them from the radio, and they are always looking for new recorders. Here pictured at Buckroney Nature Reserve to the south of Brittas Bay.
Dr. Tomás Murray and Dr. Úna Fitzpatrick who administer the butterfly and bee recording projects. You will probably know them from the radio, and they are always looking for new recorders. Here pictured at Buckroney Nature Reserve to the south of Brittas Bay.

Most of the wildlife seen was actually at Buckroney Nature Reserve on the second day of the meeting, and not in the very crowded valley of Glendalough. However, there were lots of these insects which you will see around over the summer, Common Dor Beetles (Geotrupes stercorarius) one of the most common species of dung beetles. They are related to the famous Egyptian scarab beetles and have massive digging claws as they do.

One of many Common Dor Beetles in Glendalough. These ones were very recently hatched out as they had no mites on them.
One of many Common Dor Beetles in Glendalough. These ones were very recently hatched out as they had no mites on them. Usually these stocky beetles have loads of mites hitching rides on them from dung heap to dung heap.

Down at Buckroney Nature Reserve we had more luck. This area is part of the Brittas Bay dune system and very hot in bright sunlight due to all the sand. And it’s packed with wildlife.  Such as…

A freshly emerged poisonous day-flying Cinnabar Moth, one of the most beautiful moth species and remarkably common along the dunes. It's poisonous to eat of course, so you're safe unless you have a taste for moths. It actually looks far more like a butterfly when flying.
A freshly emerged poisonous day-flying Cinnabar Moth, one of the most beautiful moth species and remarkably common along the dunes. It’s poisonous to eat of course, so you’re safe unless you have a taste for moths. It actually looks far more like a butterfly when flying.

And here are what naturalists look like in the field when they’ve caught something interesting…

Dr. Murray examines a specimen brought to his attention. Don't worry folks, they were all released unharmed.
Dr. Murray examines a specimen brought to his attention. Don’t worry folks, they were all released unharmed.

There were quite a few interesting creatures at Buckroney, so I’ll post some photos of them in the next instalment.

 

 

The Summer Solstice

Because our calendars don’t exactly match up with the reality that the earth takes 365.24 days to orbit the sun, the exact point of the Summer Solstice varies in date. Most people assume June 21 is the Solstice, but in reality it can even fall on June 23. This year it fell on the 21, the exact moment being 10.51 am. But don’t confuse the Solstice with Midsummer’s Day – that arrives with nightfall on June 23 and continues until nightfall on June 24. That’s another day’s explanation. Today was a magnificent Summer Solstice in Wicklow. It was warm and sunny, and a Saturday too. Perfect. And I found so much wildlife today I could barely keep up. In fact, most of it found me. Just to start the ball rolling, here’s a Potter Wasp at work on a mud-gallery. If this pot was for sale I don’t think I’d buy it:

Ancistrocerus, but not necessarily the same species as previously seen.
Ancistrocerus, but not necessarily the same species as previously seen.

This time a different type of wasp decided it was going to pay me a visit. I heard what I thought was water falling and found a wasp chewing through a solid pine window frame like an electric drill. Look at the saw-dust:

The rear-end of a Digger Wasp as it burrows through a window frame, in only minutes!
The rear-end of a Digger Wasp as it burrows through a window frame, in only minutes!

There were two of them, and this other one seems to be the male. Based on the largish size and pattern of markings I’m pretty sure this species is Ectemnius clavifrons, which has not been recorded in Ireland since before the turn of the century:

A very beautiful wasp with jaws as powerful as a Black-and-Decker buzz-saw.
A very beautiful wasp with jaws as powerful as a Black-and-Decker buzz-saw.

After removing the wasps, and shutting the window, and plugging the hole in the window frame, it was time for a stroll, and a big red-and-black butterfly flew past my face almost as soon as I started walking. It landed right in front of me – not a butterfly at all, but a highly toxic Cinnabar Moth – Tyria jacobaea. I got my best ever shot of this remarkable day-flying species.

The beautiful Cinnabar Moth revealing its scarlet hind wings. I actually know a Brazilian naturalist who was so impressed by this European moth that she got a tattoo of it on her arm. It's nice to think we have a species in Wicklow which Brazilians consider exotic.
The beautiful Cinnabar Moth revealing its scarlet hind wings. I actually know a Brazilian naturalist who was so impressed by this European moth that she got a tattoo of it on her arm. It’s nice to think we have a species in Wicklow which Brazilians consider exotic.

And if all that wasn’t enough, my brother spotted what he thought was a Buzzard circling over the garden, but it was something much bigger and less common around these lowlands – a Red Kite. Always glad of a good photo, I grabbed my camera and ran like hell to got there before it flew off:

Red Kites have much longer and proportionally narrower wings than Buzzards, but the real giveaway is the longer tail which is forked. Both species like to circle around areas.
Red Kites have much longer and proportionally narrower wings than Buzzards, but the real giveaway is the longer tail which is forked. Both species like to circle around areas slowly.

Goodbye Spring! Hello Summer!

The following photographs were taken both by me and by my brother Trevor, over the past few days.

When the Swallows and House Martins are joined in the skies by the much larger, crescent-winged Swifts then you know spring is in the process of giving way to summer. Individual Swifts are sometimes reported very early in the year, but these a more or less freak early arrivals. The first wave of migrant Swifts normally arrive in Wicklow in the last weeks of May. Usually the very last week. These beautiful birds are said to be in decline throughout Europe, and their bizarre and beautiful calls certainly don’t fill the summer skies the way they used to. The last summer migrants to arrive, and the first to depart too. Depending on the weather they usually begin to leave in mid-August, but hopefully a good summer will keep them here in Wicklow longer.

Swift - Apus apus

But these high fliers are not the only notable migrants to be found in the Wicklow countryside. On Sunday a bird photographer gave me a tip that there was a Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) to be seen in some Sea-buckthorn (Elaeagnus rhamnoides) by the beach in Kilcoole. He proved to be exactly right, and as Swifts shot past, the Cuckoo suddenly bolted from the thick cover and glided across the dense thicket of thorns. The Cuckoo is heard in Wicklow along the coast, but much less often than it used to be. But seeing one is truly rare, and this was the first time I have ever seen a Cuckoo in Wicklow, although I have heard them on many occasions. In order to get close enough to get a photo I tried to make my way along the narrow gaps in the extremely spiny bushes. If you look at the photo below you will see it was not very easy to do.

Sea-buckthorn thicket near Kilcoole.

At this time of the year Cuckoos usually don’t make their trademark call. This is normally heard earlier in spring, in April and the first weeks of May, when the males arrive before the females and begin carving out breeding territories. Once this has been accomplished the females then arrive and find themselves in one territory or another, where the resident Cuckoo landlords father their offspring. The Cuckoo will remain in Ireland until August, perhaps later, before flying to sub-Saharan Africa for the winter. Throughout our summer they stay well hidden, laying their eggs inthe nests of many bird species. In colouration the Cuckoo most closely resembles a Sparrowhawk, but is slightly smaller and has an even longer tail. In behaviour it is most like a Jay, the crow that forages in woodlands. The Cuckoo usually makes a diving, gliding flight but never goes too far. The trick to seeing it is to follow it with your eye after it breaks cover: where it seems to land is usually where it actually does land. And, for some peculiar reason, the Cuckoo usually picks a branch that is too small, and spends its time wobbling on its perch – but maybe it’s to make it blend in better with its surroundings. Anyhow, I do have a photo to show for my trouble, but it’s certainly not a great one. Just good enough.

The Cuckoo in the Sea-buckthorn

But the Cuckoo is not quite so spectacularly watchable as other migrants seen around the coast. The Breaches in Kilcoole (check out Garden of Ireland.com‘s  interactive map) is one of the most important breeding sites for Little Terns (Sterna albifrons) in the whole world, so it is a must see from May to July. They are often accompanied by larger Sandwich Terns (Sterna sandvicensis) and Common Terns (Sterna hirundo). All of these birds used to be known as “Sea Swallows” because of their migratory habits, forked tails, incredible flying abilities and maritime lifestyle.

A Little Tern returning to its nest with food.

Their nests are on shingle beaches, and when the Little Terns land you quickly discover how excellent their colouring is as camouflage, as they are almost invisible among the stones.

Little Tern on its nest.

The Little Terns can be seen diving for fish close to the shore, and are fantastic to watch. At the other end of the seabird size spectrum there are often Gannets (Morus bassanus) to be seen close to shore, as there are this week. They are like gigantic terns, and when their black-tipped wings are spread out they are as wide as a man is tall.

Although normally associated with cliffs Gannets can often be found cruising all along the coast of Wicklow and diving near beaches.
A Gannet plummeting towards the water to snatch unsuspecting fish. You are looking at the underside in this photo.

Gannets are magnificent hunters, but an even more common sight is the Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo), which uses a completely different method of hunting, and seems to have a very different natural history. Whereas Gannets (and Terns) fly overhead, and then dive into the water, often flying through it to quickly snatch fish, the Cormorant spends much more time submerged, propelling itself beneath the waves with its legs and stiff ruder-like tail. And this has caused the feathers of these two different types of hunters to evolve completely differently: Gannets have buoyant, waterproof feathers that allow them regain the air again, but Cormorant feathers become waterlogged, allowing them to swim move better through the water like submarines. This creates a slight problem for the Cormorants – their feathers become to wet to let them fly, so they have to dry out after they go swimming. You can often see them on inland waterways and along the shore on rocky perches, with their wings raised to the sun, making them look like prehistoric creatures.

Cormorants drying off by an estuary.
A dried-off Cormorant in flight.

Of course, there is another, completely different style of hunting, used by a very different waterbird. The Grey Heron is probably the most voracious predatory bird found in Ireland, which is really saying something, as it’s not a raptor or an owl. Grey Herons are stalking killers: they move through long grass or wade through water in a very cautious and methodical way, and snatch frogs, newts, fish, rodents, shrews, nestlings, small birds, and one has even been photographed (in the UK) drowning and swallowing a young rabbit. It is probably no great surprise that these large hunting birds also have an unfortunately common tendency to choke on their food. Probably more than any other birds, because unlike many other hunters, they don’t tear their prey into pieces before eating them.

A handsome Grey Heron stalking frogs in a bog pond.
Grey Heron moving to another hunting area.

Despite their wide diet they are not monsters, and effect the numbers of other species of wildlife less than more specialised hunters because they hunt no prey exclusively. We have these beautiful birds all year. Of course, you will find other beauties of the bird world around the Wicklow coastline all year round that can match them for colour: the Oystercatcher is just one extremely common and lovely example. It is probably one of the few birds whose call matches its appearance for beauty. It is a deep and resonant piping that can be heard as the bird calls from rocky outcrops at certain times of the day, particularly morning and evening, at twilight.

An Oystercatcher gliding slowly to a landing.

The Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus) actually feeds on many types of molluscs but not Oysters, which are normally found in deep water and not on the edge of the seashore. Recently it was thought that two species were developing out of one, based on hunting strategy: some were observed to crack the shells with harsh blows from their blunt-tipped beaks, and others were observed delicately prizing shells apart with long thin tweezer-like bills and pulling out the soft innards to eat. Then, recently, it was discovered that this was actually a sexual dimorphism, and the males tend to have the shell-cracking beaks and the females do the fine tweezer-type work.

Technically true or astronomical summer does not begin until the Summer Solstice (21 June), the longest day of the year. But, to all intents and purposes we are already entering the summer weather pattern. It is a great time of year for birds, but watch out for other interesting creatures too, particularly in the marram dunes near the shore. The Cinnabar Moth (Tyria jacobaea) is an amazing-looking day-flying species that relies on bright warning colours to advertise its toxic body, so that birds and other predators know not to eat it. They are not very frightened of anything.

A poisonous Cinnabar Moth: no touble for a human, just so long as you don't eat it.

And don’t forget to look at the earth and rocks too: there are fossils to be found. Here are some you might easily miss, from boulders excavated elsewhere in Ireland and deposited as part of coastal defence works near Kilcoole in the mid-20th century.

Crinoidal Limestone: containing the fossil remains of very ancient sea animals similar to todays Sea Lillies and usually dated to the Palaeozoic Era, some time between 542 and 251 million years ago. These bits would have been like long stems.

So, now that the weather is getting nice, warm and sunny, get out and look for these things. They’re all out there, waiting to be seen.