It’s impossible to underestimate how important ants are to any ecosystem, but in Wicklow and the rest of Ireland they could just about be described as the maintainers of the ecosystem. Last week there was a mass eruption of Black Garden Ants (Lasius niger) in Wicklow and Swifts, Swallows, House Martins and Sand Martins were swooping low over the countryside, joined by Robins, Blackbirds, Spotted Flycatchers, Grey Wagtails and Stonechats, among many others. And I got a photo I didn’t expect when a mating pair of these ants landed on a picnic table in front of me.
The male is tiny, but somehow contains enough sperm to fertilise the huge female for the remainder of her long life (several years). He dies soon after mating. This single female will bite off her wings having successfully mated, and find a suitable place to build a nest. Her children will eventually number in the thousands, if not hundreds of thousands.
So much is happening now as July draws to an end that I’m going to have to publish a lot, so expect more very soon.
It has been a somewhat blustery and cool May, with a many showers, but according to a new version of an old saying: “Wet and windy May, fills the barns with corn and hay”. But the rain and the sunlight combine to support lush vegetation in Wicklow, and there are dramatic scenes everywhere. The Hawthorn, the sacred tree of the ancient druids, bursts into blossom and crowns the spring and announces the summer.
Hiding on the blooms of dense plants like the Russian Comfrey (Symphytum x uplandicum) the small predators aim to catch big prey. The Flower Crab Spiders are especially brazen, and can even be seen attempting to snatch bumblebees.
Even on the ground in towns and villages there is drama and action: watch for ants hurrying back to their nests with food and prey. Their incredible strength is fascinating in itself.
However, not all of the action near to the ground is of a predatory fashion. Some creatures have no problem finding food in abundance, and therefore have plenty of time for other activities. On the large fleshy leaves of the Broad-leaved Dock (Rumex obtusifolius) you will often see beautiful sweet-wrapper shiny green beetles calmly munching on the vast leaves. This is the Dock Leaf Beetle (Gastrophysa viridula), a very distinctive species of leaf beetle, due to the enormous abdomen of the pregnant female. She becomes swollen with hundreds of eggs, and is usually garded closely by a mate, or a suitor waiting for her to lay her eggs so he can take his turn fathering offspring.
All of this excitement between waist and ground level is wonderful to observe, but it can distract you from incredible seens high above. A chance glance at the Wicklow clouds could bring your eye into line with a flock of fleeing pigeons or doves, and just in time to see a Peregrine Falcon slowly wheeling above. If you can see it clearly then your back will almost certainly be to the sun, and the great predator’s prey will be even further from you than the falcon, because this bird likes to fly at it prey from the direction of the sun, where it can be seen least well, if at all.
Although a very similar species of falcon, the Hobby (Falco subbuteo), can occasionally be found in Wicklow, this Peregrine is a stouter bird with wings that appear wider from front to back when seen in flight. It has recently been dicovered that Peregrines living in cities and towns will hunt actively at night, usually striking their night-flying prey from beneath, in the ambush-style of their sea-dwelling equivalent, the Great White Shark. It is theorised that the lights from buildings illuminate the undersides of birds flying above them, allowing the Peregrine to see its prey in the dark, although it might also be argued that it is using the lights of the buildings in the same way it uses the sun during daylight hunting, to prevent its prey from seeing it.