Autumn conditions this year began almost exactly with the Autumn Equinox and temperatures have become steadily cooler since then. There are still green leaves on many trees but much of the foliage is yellow or red and showers of cold rain and some northern breezes have reduced temperatures a lot.
Lower temperatures slow the growth of plant life, but also have an immediate effect on insect populations, killing many of them and sending others into torpor or hibernation. Despite this there are still some hardy species to be seen around, including some rarities, such as the very rare and beautifully marked Juniper Shieldbug (Cyphostethus tristriatus). I found this one last weekend, and it is the first recorded in Ireland since 2016. There were only 15 recorded in Ireland before this one:
They are probably far more common than the recorded numbers suggest. Keep an eye out for them.
There are many other insects which are very numerous in Autumn, such as the 22-spot Ladybird (Psyllobora vigintiduopunctata), which seems very at home in the Autumn landscape:
Although temperatures are usually hovering around 10°C, on sunny days some butterflies reach the 15°C necessary in order to fly. Today I found a Red Admiral flying about, feeding on the few remaining blooms of Butterfly Bush:
Some insects are very obvious, such as the handsome little 22=spot Ladybird (Sometimes you might not realise you are looking at an insect, or insect activity. If you can find an oak tree of any size, see if they have oak “apples”. As everyone knows acorns are the fruit of the oak tree. Oak apples are not fruit but look far more like fruit than acorns do:
Oak apples are actually growths caused by tiny insects, oak gall wasps, which somehow create them by making a change happen at a molecular level. These growths are protective pods in which the insect grubs grow and develop. Eventually they hatch out, fly away, mate, and lay eggs on an oak tree.
Although there are fewer insects there are still lots of attractive birds about, and in autumn it’s often easier to get close to them than in summer, as they are forced to forage closer to human habitation. One particularly difficult bird to see is the Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis), but as foliage surrounding ponds and lakes begins to die back they become more apparent:
One bird that is very easy to spot because of it’s bold white colouration is the Little Egret (Egretta garzetta). This bird was very rare in Europe and almost extinct up until the 1950s. The reason for its rarity was due to overhunting for its head plumes, which were used in ladies’ hats back in the days when ladies wore ridiculously ornate hats on a daily basis. In fact, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the RSPB, was originally set up with the aim of protecting the few remaining individuals of this species living on the island of Great Britain:
How did such a rare species come to be living in Ireland, of all places. Incredibly this species is no longer rare. In fact, they can be found all across Europe in huge numbers due to the decline in the fashion for ridiculous hats. For reasons which are not yet understood they migrated into Ireland and can now bee seen in huge numbers along the coast, or on rivers and lakes.
This weekend brings another Heritage Week to a close, but summer isn’t over yet. For one thing, I am still seeing one or two Swifts around. These birds are summer visitors, like much larger versions of Swallows and House Martins, but they arrive later, near the end of May, and they generally leave for their wintering grounds in the early weeks of August. They are quite easy to identify, forming crescent shapes when seen in silhouette:
Compare this Swift (Apus apus) above with the shape of a Swallow (Hirundo rustica) below, which has much shorter wings, and a much longer forked tail although here it is photographed at a slight angle as it climbs:
And there are quite a few beautiful moths around to be seen, and for many of them this time of year is their time of year. Keep an eye out for the stunning Garden Tiger (Arctia caja), a large moth that sometimes comes to window light:
There are also quite a few handsome butterflies to be seen in meadows and grasslands, such as this female Common Blue (Polyommatus icarus), which I photographed this morning:
Where there are butterflies there are also predatory insects to hunt them in the air – this is one of the best times of year to get close to dragonflies. The small Common Darter (Sympetrum striolatum) usually perches on fence posts, or walls and darts up to snatch at smaller insects: I saw this one perched on top of a Butterfly Bush:
However, in the last week I have seen the far larger, and incredibly robust Autumn Hawker (Aeshna mixta) dragonflies about. These powerful dragonflies hunt on the wing, and seem to spend an inordinate amount of time on the wing, although they do find perches to rest on for long periods too:
I was very fortunate to see and photograph (a bad photograph) a beautiful species of beetle I have never seen before, and that is the False Ladybird (Endomychus coccineus), which flew across a meadow and landed on a bench I was standing beside:
It is larger than the average ladybird and much longer, but is actually related and moves very much like a typical ladybird. Far less obvious and much harder to find, although very common, are bush crickets. This female Speckled Bush Cricket (Leptophyes punctatissima) was literally on a leaf I was looking directly at, but I only noticed it because it flicked its long, whip-like antennae, and it’s possible you might even struggle to see it in this photo, as it matches so perfectly the colour of the dock leaf it is standing on. They are quite large insects:
However, many insects are much easier to see, such as this Drone Fly (Eristalis species):
So long as there are flowers there will be insects to feed on them.
Just for a change I want to tell a story, basically showcasing one afternoon of a photo safari I made from Bray, over the Cliff Walk on the cliffs of Bray Head to Greystones, and then on to Kilcoole on a spectacularly beautiful and sunny day just over a week ago. So please enjoy this story, shown as it happened. So, to start, here’s Bray as seen from the start of the Cliff Walk:
Firstly, this year there are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of Painted Lady butterflies along the coast, and this one posed beautifully for a photo at the start of the Cliff Walk:
These butterflies have flown from southern Europe and were almost certainly greatly assisted by easterly winds during the continental heatwave in June and July.
Here, a short distance from where the butterfly was photographed, facing south and looking up the cross on Bray Head from the Cliff Walk:
It was on the wall which you can see to the left that I found a very handsome species of Wolf Spider, which I have yet to identify. It as quite small, but boldly patterned.
A lot of the Cliff Walk, especially on the Bray side of Bray Head, is navigable by wheelchair, but, sadly, wheelchairs can only go so far. I hope this will change in the future. Here is another photo, looking back towards Bray. Along the cliffs there are thousands of Kittiwakes, small gulls which want as little as possible to do with human beings. They don’t enter cities and will never try to take food from you. They are the true “sea gulls” and happily spend their lives at sea. Here are adults at their nesting sites along Bray Head:
Here is what they look like closer, and the handsomely patterned ones are the juveniles. Young kittiwakes have black legs and feet:
Another species I saw was the largest known gull, the gigantic eagle-sized Great Black-backed Gull:
These monsters are so large they can kill and eat rabbits, swallowing them whole. One thing about the cliffs is that they are great places to see birds, but mostly seabirds, of course. Among the most interesting are the famous Cormorants, which do not have water-proof feathers like other seabirds, and spread their wings to dry them as they stand on sunny rocks:
Very similar species are the Shags, which are a dark bottle-green colour and have long, serpentine necks. They look almost like they belong to the age of dinosaurs:
I was very lucky to see all of these birds in such good light, but I was particularly very lucky to see a very beautiful seabird, the Black Guillemot:
Unfortunately it was a long distance from me, but you can make out the bright red feet in the photo.
But black guillemots were not the only creatures at the foot of the cliffs. I watched as a paddle-boarder was pursued by a mischievous seal he had got to close to. The seal, a Grey Seal, seemed almost to be laughing at the man as he paddled away, nervously looking over his shoulder:
The seal then went to sleep!
Summer is the breeding season for Grey Seals and they often come ashore on narrow beaches or flat rocks along the cliffs and away from people. The seal cows have their calves here.
About midway along the Cliff Walk you can see the old railway tunnel, closer to the sea, the track now long since worn away and swallowed up by it. In the mid-19th century the famous engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel built a roller-coaster like railway line along the cliffs, a feat considered virtually impossible at the time:
The stone fence posts along the Cliff Walk at this point are great habitat for Leaf-cutter Bees, which make nests in the holes the wires are fed through, and they fill these nests with leaves, usually from wild rose species, which somehow stay fresh long enough for their larvae to hatch out and reach a pupal stage. Here you can see a Leaf-cutter Bee stuffing big leaves into one of the wire holes in a post:
From this point onwards the Cliff Walk begins to become more leafy and here I saw quite a few butterfly and moth species, such as this Red Admiral:
On the ivy I found a few Holly Blue butterflies too, and one posed for a photo:
There are lots of plant species to support these lovely insects, and especially impressive was the Red Valerian, which, ironically, can be red, white or pink. It seems to be mostly pink along the Cliff Walk. Thanks to this flower I managed to photograph the only Hummingbird Hawkmoth I’ve seen this year:
Unfortunately they were not the most in-focus shots, and the big moth promptly flew away, as there was no shortage of paparazzo-free Red Valerian to choose from. However, the shot I got shows how it carries its long, beak-like tongue curled up like a butterfly does:
A hot day on the cliffs in summer really does bring out the wildlife. But the flowers are vital for the insects, such as the beautiful Rosebay, one of the willowherbs:
You can also find wild Sweet Pea:
The vegetation begins to become almost jungle-like and the rocky cliffs then give way to huge sand ones, and this seems to suit dense undergrowth:
This is a good area to find grasshoppers in, especially the Yellow Meadow Grasshopper:
There are two in the photo, and one is a male, hiding behind the female. Look for his antennae.
Eventually Greystones comes into view, and what a view it was for me, contaminated by sky-stealing cranes and half-built apartment complexes where there had once been a beautiful, rustic harbour – long ago, it now seems, but not that long ago. The pink flowers of the rosebay dominated the scene:
Eventually the Cliff Walk comes down to lower ground and meanders through some beautiful fields, which were fields of wheat when I passed through them, and they look beautiful next to the sea:
The sad thing about the Cliff Walk in Greystones is that it currently draws to an end in what is, to all intents and purposes, an unprepossessing housing estate, still under construction but already partially populated. However, I suppose it has its own kind of beauty, but it’s not really my kind of beauty. Judge for yourself:
However, I couldn’t end a safari like this, so after a lot of cold drink and some food it was time to continue the journey a few miles further along the coast, while taking a look back over my shoulder, for a photo, of the Cliff Walk from the bathing spot that is the South Beach:
As you can see, there were lots of people out in the sunshine and a few in the water. Irish seawater doesn’t get properly warm until the end of August, usually. The path from the South Beach runs parallel to the railway track and has its own unique beauty, but especially so on a hot summer’s day:
It was very dusty, but, as usual, it was an excellent place to get close to nature. Here is a juvenile Starling on the same fence you can see above:
Behind the little bird is Sugarloaf Mountain, which resembles a volcano but is nothing of the sort… however it does look great. In fact, here is some more of the landscape as seen from the coast between Greystones and Kilcoole:
This area of Wicklow is one of the very best to get near Grey Seals and get good photos, as the water is deep close to shore, and I saw a mournful-looking seal only a few yards away:
Seals do find people fascinating.
However, the creature I most wanted to see was an insect, but one which can only usually be seen in late summer along the Wicklow coast, and only in some places. I managed to get a decent shot, after a very long chase – this is the Clouded Yellow butterfly:
I think you’ll agree it’s very beautiful, and almost surreal in its colouring. It likes very rough sandy and gravelly terrain, as you can see here:
At this point, if you pay attention to the landward side, on your right as you face south (the above photo is facing north, by the way) you will see the ruined outbuildings of what was once a massive country estate, Ballygannon House, belonging originally to the powerful Byrne clan. One of the Byrne daughters married a certain sea captain named Scott who ran his ship aground near the shore during the war between James II of England and the invading Dutch Prince William of Orange, who later became King William of England. Captain Scott was kept as a guest in the great house and then married one of the daughters and eventually inherited the entire estate, which comprised Kilcoole village. Ballygannon complex was essentially a village in its own right, and is today known locally as ‘the Lost Village’ to the inhabitants of Kilcoole and its environs.
If that’s an outhouse, just imagine what the actual house was like – it must have been immense. It was inhabited into the 1930 and, sadly, was leveled in the 1950s .
Not long after this Kilcoole neared, and behind it Wicklow Head was visible. There were quite a few bathers at Kilcoole beach too:
Kilcoole seemed a good place to end the safari. It had been one of the best day’s strolling with my camera that I’ve ever had. However, as enjoyable as the photography was, I also made a video, which you can see here: