Tag Archives: furze

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:

Flower Power in April

Of all of our months, April brings with it the most spectacular changes to the Wicklow landscape, so I’ve decided to showcase the changes so nobody can be in any doubt. This April was very sunny, dry and warm with very few ‘April showers’, until these last few days. Firstly, in the towns, villages and gardens, we had the cherry trees blossoming.

A typical cherry tree in blossom against a bright blue sky.
A typical cherry tree in blossom against a bright blue sky.
Beautiful pink blossoms, but some cherry blossoms are white.
Beautiful pink blossoms, but some cherry blossoms are white.

Now, under cold breezes and rain of the last few days these blossoms are beginning to fall like snow flakes. However, some are only now starting to blossom properly. However, while the streets were and are lined with these beautiful trees the surrounding Wicklow hills steadily turned bright yellow as the jungles of Furze bushes also blossomed. Their flowers filled the mountain air with the scent of vanilla.  They will continue to blossom for some time, and have another less-spectacular blossoming in the summer.

Furze or Gorse blooming bright yellow over the evergreen spiny leaves of this painful plant, much-loved by nesting birds.
Furze or Gorse blooming bright yellow over the evergreen spiny leaves of this painful plant, much-loved by nesting birds.The blossoms are very popular with bees, particularly Honey Bees.

Meanwhile, along the laneways and roadways of the Wicklow countryside the fleshy Alexanders have grown tall and putting a subtle fragrance on the spring air which can only be found in springtime. These plants die off in June and should be treated with respect as they are so vital to pollinating insects so early in the year.

Spring just wouldn't be spring without these roadside umbellifers. When the Alexanders die off they will be replaced by the hairy rough-stemmed Hogweed.
Spring just wouldn’t be spring without these roadside umbellifers. When the Alexanders die off they will be replaced by the hairy rough-stemmed Hogweed. In this photo you can see another spring flower, the yellow-flowered Lesser Celandine, growing alongside.

These plants grow on the roadside verges in front of the hedges, but in the hedges the wild Blackthorn trees have their white blossoms right now. They don’t really have a scent, but the blossoms are associated with ancient pagan fertility rites, and in recent times girls making their first Holy Communions would wear little tiaras of blackthorn blossom on their heads. The blossoms are very tough compared to cherry blossoms and don’t break easily.

The Blackthorn is famous for its extremely strong black branches, which are still made into walking sticks, and were used in stick-fighting by Irish men up until the late 19th century (and currently being revived as a sport and martial art in some areas), but the blossom was actually considered sacred and magical to the ancient Irish, and was an especially potent religious emblem up until recent decades.
The Blackthorn is famous for its extremely strong black branches, which are still made into walking sticks, and were used in stick-fighting by Irish men up until the late 19th century (and currently being revived as a sport and martial art in some areas), but the blossom was actually considered sacred and magical to the ancient Irish, and was an especially potent religious emblem up until recent decades.

Behind the hedgerows, in the fields, you have a good chance of seeing the great spring blooming of dandelions. These much-maligned wildflowers (not ‘weeds’) consitute entire eco-systems in their own right, and they are also edible and considered extremely good for cleansing the liver of impurities, which is why they should be eaten in moderation. They are the favourite flowers of many bee species, particularly the tiny Nomada cuckoo bees.

A sea of Dandelions in a field, and in the hedgerow behind you can see a mighty white blossoming of Blackthorn.
A sea of Dandelions in a field, and in the hedgerow behind you can see a mighty white blossoming of Blackthorn.

And then in the gardens the orchard trees are also blossoming. The Pear trees went first, as usual, and most have already lost the blossoms, which have been shorn from the trees by rain and dispersed by wind. But this is what they looked like at their height only just over a week ago –

Fresh pear blossoms in an orchard. Each blossom could potentially become an actual pear fruit, but in actuality only a small fraction do so because there are so few insects about capable of pollintaing these trees at this time of year.
Fresh pear blossoms in an orchard. Each blossom could potentially become an actual pear fruit, but in actuality only a small fraction do so because there are so few insects about capable of pollintaing these trees at this time of year. Pear blossom has a strange scent, almost like the fruit when it is cut, but more fragrant.
The height of the pear blossoming. Sadly these flowers last only a little over a week in even the most favourable conditions, as we had this April.
The height of the pear blossoming. Sadly these flowers last only a little over a week in even the most favourable conditions, as we had this April.

Finally, in many of the older gardens and escaped into nearby hedgerows, you will find dense shrubs of Flowering Currant. Every spring they turn red due to their scented hanging blossoms. These flowers are loved by almost all species of bee and hoverfly, not to mention human beings.

Flowering Currant on a bright sunny day. This year they had an exceptional blossoming. Make sure to stop and smell them.
Flowering Currant on a bright sunny day. This year they had an exceptional blossoming. Make sure to stop and smell them.

And that’s just the blossoms and flowers making their presence felt in April. May will bring with it a whole area of blossoming trees and wild flowers . Every tree and flower has its moment in Wicklow.

The Eclipse and Equinox

St. Patrick’s Day is usually the time when spring begins to feel like spring, and this year we had a bright and dry St. Patrick’s Day. And it was the first day I noticed the power of the spring booms.

The biggest bloomers of the moment are the prickly Gorse or Furze bushes. You need to lean in close to get the scent, but it's very strong and beautiful too.
The biggest bloomers of the moment are the prickly Gorse or Furze bushes. You need to lean in close to get the scent, but it’s very strong and beautiful too.
Alexanders is a smooth relative of the hogweed which dominates the banks and hedgerows of Wicklow in spring, dying off in early summer. They creamy flowers are like cauliflower, but the unusual frangrance they produce is very much the perfume of spring. They are very important flowers as bees depend on them to make honey at this time of year.
Alexanders is a smooth relative of the hogweed which dominates the banks and hedgerows of Wicklow in spring, dying off in early summer. The creamy flowers are like cauliflower, but the unusual frangrance they produce is very much the perfume of spring. They are very important flowers as bees depend on them to make honey at this time of year.

Friday, March 20, brought with it a rare event, an eclipse of the sun, the first since August 11, 1999. It was a cloudy morning but I still managed to get some decent photos of the spectacle. 90% of the sun was eclipsed at the darkest point. Our next one won’t be until 2026.

Approaching the darkest part of the eclipse the cloud gave way temporarily to allow me this photo.
Approaching the darkest part of the eclipse the cloud gave way temporarily to allow me this photo.
Ironically this photo of the eclipse nearing its end is more impressive than the earlier photo, largely because you can see more clearly what is happening between the two heavenly bodies.
Ironically this photo of the eclipse nearing its end is more impressive than the earlier photo, largely because you can see more clearly what is happening between the two heavenly bodies.

On Friday night at 10.45 pm GMT another important event occurred – the spring equinox. This moment is the exact half-way point between the winter and summer solstices. That means that Saturday was the first day of astronomical spring. And it was a beautiful day too. I have more spring phenomena report, but just for now let’s leave it at that.