Tag Archives: life

The Winter Solstice

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The Winter Solstice occurred at 10.44 am GMT this morning, which is our local time in Ireland, but there probably won’t be a noticeable lengthening of the day until 25 December, Christmas Day. This is the deepest point of the greater winter, the time exactly halfway between the Autumn Equinox and the Spring (Vernal) Equinox. According to the ancient Celtic calendar this was also the centre of true winter, halfway between Martinmas and St. Brigid’s Day. But in the modern world it is only the start of Astronomical Winter, which ends on the Vernal Equinox in late March. And the weather generally matches the astronomical seasons, with proper winter cold not getting going until now although the days are growing longer.

At this time of year some wildlife is hard to see, some is completely hidden, some not so obvious. But some wildlife is easier to see, especially birdlife as many birds come into gardens looking for food. Some insects species only appear at this time of year, such as the moths in the previous post, and here’s yet another handsome one, the Scarce Umber – Agriopis aurantiaria. 

Scarce Umber
Scarce Umber

This might be the last Scarce Umber to be seen this year, as they only fly from October to December, and are therefore a true autumn moth. And, as is the case with many moths in autumn and winter, only the male has wings. The female is a strange-looking wingless insect.

Also keep an eye out for late autumn fungi. There are some spectacular Common Inkcap – Coprinopsis atrametaria – about, usually along roadsides in small groups at the bottom of earthen banks or ditches, as was the case with these ones:

Common Inkcap
Common Inkcap

April Transformation

We had a very cold and somewhat wet March, and April has been somewhat similar, bright and sunny but often windy and chilly at the very same time. However, a huge change is underway and spring is unfolding by the day and the hour. Only a few days ago I was delighted to see a queen Carder Bee (Bombus pascuorum) sunbathing on some bare ground among the violets.

A furry queen Carder Bee, which usually appears later in spring than the much larger Buff-tailed Bumblebee queens. This is very much the spring bumblebee.
A furry queen Carder Bee, which usually appears later in spring than the much larger Buff-tailed Bumblebee queens. This is very much the spring bumblebee.

Particularly delightful is the sight of Tawny Mining Bees (Andrena fulva) on the wing.  Usually males appear first, but this year I spotted a big furry female days before the first male. This is officially our rarest species of solitary bee, and as a result the National Biodiversity Data Centre are looking for recorded sightings from the public.  Here is a link to the record sheet, which is easy to follow and make submissions on: http://records.biodiversityireland.ie/submit_records.php?fk=SolitaryBeesStandard&caching=cache

And here is a photo I got two days ago of a female Tawny Mining Bee:

25689979503_90c1d788e2And here is a photo of a male Tawny Mining Bee from the same day:

The male Tawny Mining Bee has a distinctive white 'beard'.
The male Tawny Mining Bee has a distinctive white ‘beard’.

There is a similar but smaller species of mining bee also appearing right now, the Early Mining Bee (Andrena haemorrhoa). The males are very similar to the Tawny Mining Bee males, but much smaller and lack the white beard. The female is very beautiful, and here is a photo of a female from the same day as the Tawny Mining Bee photos:

A pretty female Early Mining Bee. She is much smaller then the female Tawny Mining Bee, and about the size of a male of that species.
A pretty female Early Mining Bee. She is much smaller then the female Tawny Mining Bee, and about the size of a male of that species.

Also buzzing around the lawn, feeding on dandelion flowerheads is a small and somewhat sinister-looking wasp. This is in fact yet another bee, but for the mining bees it is indeed sinister, as it’s a parasitic bee which lays its eggs in the nests of mining bees, its grubs killing and eating the mining bee grubs. This particular species of cuckoo bee is Panzer’s Nomada (Nomada panzeri):

Panzer's Nomada
Panzer’s Nomada. There are many similar Nomada Bee species.

But it hasn’t all been bees. Despite the cold some sunny days have warmed up sheltered areas enough for migrating butterfly species to begin flying about. So far I have only seen two butterfly species, and this one is the second, a Peacock (Inachis io):

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Tyrannosaur on the Shore

Another visit to the Leitrim River in Wicklow Town, and this time a front row seat for watching a hunting Great Blackback Gull (Larus marinus). At first it was perched on a rock looking into the shallow waters near the wall running alongside the river. This species is the largest gull in the world and even dwarfs large species like the Herring Gull. The Great Blackback is as large as a goose.

The Great Blackback Gull is a handsome species, and the largest gull in the world.
The Great Blackback Gull is a handsome species, and the largest gull in the world.

And then it suddenly jumped into the water and grabbed something. It was a Green Shore Crab, as wide as the palm of my hand. The crab struggled helplessly in the dexterous jaws of the immense gull.

The Blackback Gull with its prey. It brought the crab to the rocky shore.
The Blackback Gull with its prey. It brought the crab to the rocky shore.

And then this happened – the gull showed how it deals with crabs, but I wasn’t expecting it to swallow it whole. Watch the video and you’ll be impressed. Unfortunately I was in a very windy place, so apologies for the sound. This species of gull is known to kill even adult rabbits and swallow them whole. If you don’t believe me, Google ‘Great Blackback Gull’ and ‘rabbit’ and you’ll be in for quite an education.

Great Blackback Gulls are found along coasts of the North Atlantic, and Ireland is in the southern area of its range. Keep an eye out for them on all coasts, but if you want to get close to them then visit the Leitrim River in Wicklow Town. You will usually see at least one, and many Herring Gulls and the smaller Black-headed Gull.