Tag Archives: Painted Lady

A Wicklow Coastal Safari

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:

 

The Butterfly Extravaganza

Somehow, yet again, we’ve reached the middle of August and the days are getting noticeably shorter, but they’re still long and warm despite there being a bit of rain about. We are now at the peak of the summer bloom, and this is when you will see the most butterflies and most kinds of butterflies. Keep a look out for the Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui), although we don’t have a lot of them around this year.

The Painted Lady is found across Europe and Asia and even in North America and is a migrating species.

This summer we have had an abundance of Peacock butterflies (Aglais io) which are very popular with tourists from the Americas and I have been told on more than one occasion by American tourists that when it comes to seeing and photographing butterflies, the one they most want is the Peacock. And who could blame them – it’s absolutely stunning.

However, a very close second when it comes to popularity is the closely-related, but quite different looking Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae) , another Old World species much prized by wildlife photographers from the US and Canada.

Personally, I think they are all equally beautiful and the fact that you can often see them all flying together at this time of year, feeding on soil minerals and bramble blossoms, not to mention Butterfly Bushes (Buddleia davidii) and many other plant species, makes them even more special. There are also other beautiful butterflies which occasionally fly among these butterfly species and I hope to see and photograph some of them before the summer is over. Make sure you get out and have a good look at the butterflies this summer, while the spectacle lasts. In two or three weeks the numbers will begin to drop so make the most of it.

The Last Days of Summer

Recently I have been asked if we are still in summer, or is this technically autumn. It can depend on weather conditions, but after a more typical kind of summer, like we just had, then this is still summer. The days are getting shorter, but are still longer than the nights, summer blooms are still blooming, and the trees still have their leaves and the various plants have their foliage, which keeps temperatures higher than in spring because the wind cannot run across the landscape as it pleases lowering the temperatures. There are still butterflies to be seen, swallows and house martins (and maybe even the odd swift) and many interesting species of summer moth.However, Friday night saw our Autumn Equinoctial Full Moon, the full moon which is closest to the equinox, and in a matter of days it will be autumn, because night will be longer than day.

Beneath the Equinoctial Full Moon
Beneath the Equinoctial Full Moon

Late summer sometimes brings in extraordinary creatures, particularly when the weather is warm – early last week Wicklow had temperatures of 23 degrees Celsius, and Dublin recorded 26 degrees. On Thursday I found two huge Convolvulus Hawkmoths (Agrius convolvuli) flying around inside the polytunnel in my garden, their wings as loud as birds’. In fact, they are as large as our smallest bird, the Goldcrest, and about the same weight.

A Convolvulus Hawmoth - our largest resident moth species.
A Convolvulus Hawmoth – our largest resident moth species.

It’s been a very good summer in Wicklow, especially in the coastal lowlands. There is always the possibility of an Indian Summer, which is technically summerlike weather conditions after the Autumn Equinox. This year the Equinox occurs this coming Thursday 22 September at 2.21 PM (GMT) which is 1.21 Summertime.

Poppies and Tansy-leaved Phacelia in a meadow I sowed this year. This is how they are right now.
Poppies and Tansy-leaved Phacelia in a meadow I sowed this year. This is how they are right now.

However, the summer flowers are still blooming happily and feeding the many insects. There are quite a few handsome butterflies around, including this famous migrant, the Painted Lady:

A Painted Lady calmly basking in the sun.
A Painted Lady calmly basking in the sun.

However, the most numerous butterfly species in late summer, and in early autumn, is the Speckled Wood. These butterflies like gardens, woodlands and hedgerows, and will happily bask in the sun, or shelter from the wind, on the walls of houses.

A Speckled Wood sheltering from a strong gale on a wall. This is probably a male as the female has very bright cream-coloured spots.
A Speckled Wood sheltering from a strong gale on a wall. This is probably a male as the female has very bright cream-coloured spots.

As regards photo opportunities – although the harvest is mostly already done, and most of the bales of hay and straw have been taken in, you can still find some out in the fields drying off before storage for the winter. They always look beautiful.

Bales of hay in the late summer sun.
Bales of hay in the late summer sun.

Finally, there are already many quite spectacular spiderwebs and spiders to be seen, and there are sure to be many more as we move into autumn, but keep a lookout for the extrememly beautiful Garden Spider, also known as Cross Spider (Araneus quadratus) which is very bad at walking on the ground but makes terrific big webs to catch insects. That’s why it’s a good idea to wear a hat when walking about gardens and areas with trees or tall plants at this time of year – getting spider-webs over the eyes is very annoying.  Here is a large Garden Spider I found recently with it’s big metre-wide web strung between two large bushes:

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