Tag Archives: garden

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

(A special thanks to Auntie Ros for her recent endorsement.)

The Summer Solstice was on Wednesday morning at 5.24 am (BST) aka 4.24 am Greenwich Meantime. However, Midsummer’s Day is actually tomorrow, St. John’s Day, making this the magical time of year known as Midsummer’s Eve. According to legend the most dangerous time of Midsummer’s Night is between midnight and sunrise. This is when the most powerful magical beings were said to roam the earth. However, modern time-keeping has created great confusion because true midnight, when the sun is on the exact opposite side of the earth to when it is in daytime at noon, is 12.00 am GMT.

But thanks to British Summer Time true midnight is actually at 1:00 am tonight at Greenwich in England. But, true midnight does not actually occur here in Wicklow, on the east coast of Ireland, until half-an-hour later because we are a few hundred kilometres to the west. So for us the magical beasts don’t actually have the run of the place until 1.30 am and for the very few hours until sunrise, which is very early in northern Europe. And yes, Midsummer’s Night is actually Midsummer’s Eve’s Night, or more correctly by modern reckoning, Midsummer’s Morning.  And there are some wonderfully magical creatures out there right now, such as this beauty:

   The White Plume Moth is a small moth which appears soon after dark and flies about at the ends of gardens. It looks just like a child’s idea of a fairy and appears to glow in the dark. Also, they are so white their details can only be seen properly in sunlight – your kids will be certain they’re seeing fairies as soon as the sun goes down. So do have a look for these at sunset. And then there is a very similar but much larger creature, the Ghost Moth (Hepialus humuli):

   The very best place to see these moths is on meadows along the seashore on warm balmy nights when they hover like small ghosts over the grassland. You can easily approach them. The males are a shiny, silky white and the reason they hover is that they are searching for the yellow and pink females lying in the undergrowth below them. These are quite large and impressive moths and really do seem magical. They can also be found in gardens with unsprayed lawns where their caterpillars feed on dandelion roots.

The magical creature I’m searching for tonight, and have never managed to see in my life, is the moth that this gigantic caterpillar will turn into:

   This is the caterpillar of the Elephant Hawkmoth (Deilephila elpenor) a very large moth which is a stunning pink and yellow colour. It feeds on honeysuckle in hedgerows and other similar plants, and lays its eggs on Rosebay Willowherb, which the extraordinary caterpillar feeds on. I have found several of these little monsters in my garden in the last few years, but have still never managed to see the moth, so tonight I’ll definitely be looking. And if I have any luck I’ll definitely be posting the photo tomorrow. In case you’re wondering about the caterpillar, it does give the species its name, but those are not eyes but in fact eyespots designed to make it look like a larger animal, perhaps a lizard. The actual head is at the very end of the ‘trunk’ and is a typical caterpillar-type head.

A Good Cold January

After the wettest December on record in Ireland, and an unseasonably warm one, the rains of early January have finally given way to good cold clear skies chilled by winds from the Arctic. Although daffodils did bloom, and some snowdrops have already awoken, more sensible crocuses are still lying dormant here in Wicklow and it has become typical January weather.  In 1998 there was also a very severe El Nino Effect which brought terrible rains to Europe, but miraculously the Jet Stream was far to the south of Ireland and we were spared. However, this time another severe El Nino was predicted and it hit the island right on the chin, and we got what we missed in the winter of 1997/98. These things do happen. Wicklow, as usual, is well able for floods and has only suffered minor inconveniences in comparison with the rest of Ireland. On New Year’s Day I spotted this beautiful creature in my neighbours, a cock Ring-neck Pheasant.

24344036925_2b9fba9564He is already approaching breeding plumage, and has a habit of calling loudly outside my bedroom window in the early hours of the morning.  In the past pheasants would never have been considered ‘garden birds’ but in the last decade, all across Europe, they have started to become so, and they make for a spectacular addition to any garden. Here’s the same bird, but his head is a little blurred as he pecks up small insects and other creatures from the ground.


Killer Flowers

In spring and early summer many trees and shrubs come into bloom, and many are so heavily in bloom that they are like the terrestrial equivalent of coral reefs, absolutely teeming with wildlife of all kinds, shapes, sizes and colours. Take the blooms on this massive shrub in my garden for example, a Wedding-Cake Viburnum, which blooms from May to June in good years like this one, and which is as old as I am. It looks like a giant icing-covered cake:

A whole city of flowers, and one-tree habitat and my favourite of all.
A whole city of flowers on a one-tree habitat which is my favourite garden tree of all.

Anyhow, as you look over this wonderland you might see something strange. You might see a bee perched on a flower with its head jammed into the petals, as this small solitary species is. Bees do get drunk on pollen, but usually fall off flowers when this happens. What is it doing?

A solitary bee looking a bit odd.
A solitary bee looking a bit odd.

And then you might see something stranger than that. You might see a big drone fly, a species of hoverfly, doing a head-stand! How?

A big bee or fly doing a headstand on a flower is not as unusual a sight as you might think - but what on earth is it up to?
A big bee or fly doing a headstand on a flower is not as unusual a sight as you might think – but what on earth is it up to?

This is the same area of blossom two days in a row – clearly something is amiss, but what? We need to see the same petals without the yogic insects. Do you notice anything odd?

There's something funny about these flowers...
There’s something funny about these flowers…

Have you noticed anything? Don’t worry if you haven’t, it’s not easy to see. But there is something hidden among the petals. In fact, you might actually be looking at it and thinking it is a petal. It is in fact our largest species of crab spider, the Flower Crab Spider. It’s an ambush specialist and to make sure it can’t be seen by its insect prey is can even change colour, but not to any colour. Just some. It doesn’t make a web, it just perches on a suitable flower and waits for an insect to come down to feed. Can you see it now in this next photo?

If you can't see it let me tell you this, it's looking right at the cameras and waiting to grab it.
If you can’t see it let me tell you this, it’s looking right at the cameras and waiting to grab it.

Okay, maybe you can see the spider now, but are finding it a little difficult to make out the details, so I’ll make it a little clearer. Check this out:

Here it is, as clear as day, with long forelegs outstretched to snatch prey when it comes to land.
Here it is, as clear as day, with long forelegs outstretched to snatch prey when it comes to land.

This is a female Flower Crab Spider. She is much larger than the male and has a smooth shiny body with bright yellow eyes. She can almost turn green but is usually bright white or bright yellow. These spiders get their name because they hold their long forelegs out like crabs claws. In fact, they generally stand on their four short back legs and hold out their four long front legs, and when they walk they scuttle sideways. The venom is not known to be harmful to humans, but it is so powerful to insects that it kills them instantly, preventing them from escaping the spider which has no web to aid it. The small male is very thin and coloured like bird-droppings, and will usually deliberately perch on bird droppings splashed on leaves. The female is not gigantic, but its cushion-like body can reach almost the width and length of a human thumbnail.

So now that you know what it is for sure, go back and look at those other photos and see if you can recognise the spider clearly among the petals. But the story doesn’t just end here…