Due to huge snows we had last week and over the weekend (and even now some places in Wicklow are still under snow), I had hoped this week I would be showing photos of exotic northern birds such as the Redwing, Fieldfare and the Bohemian Waxwing, but I didn’t see any whatsoever. You will find photos of Redwing and Waxwing in my photos from previous years but for now I will leave you with photos of the snow as it appeared here in eastern Wicklow on the weekend. Hopefully this represents the end of what has been a long and cold winter for us:
A few people have been asking me about the Mouse Spider, following a scary story in the media this week about a British man who was bitten by one which had somehow climbed into his bathrobe. The man had an allergic reaction causing his back to swell up, and it was because of his own knowledge of spiders he was able to identify the spider as a Mouse Spider (Scotophaeus blackwalli). The media went into overdrive, some reporting that the Mouse Spider is a close relative of the deadly Australian Sydney Funnel-web spider. This is a mistake – there are a number of species of spider in Australia known as Mouse Spiders, and they are related to the Sydney Funnel-web, but they are no relation to the much smaller European Mouse Spider. Here is a photo I managed to take of the European Mouse Spider in May 2015 – I haven’t seen one since then:
The common name for this species comes from the fact it has mouse-coloured hair on its abdomen – it is nowhere near as large as a mouse, and, in fact, appears quite a bit smaller than the so-called Giant House Spider (Eratigena atrica) which terrifies so many people in the autumn, when big long-legged males enter houses cruising for females. Here is one of these harmless terrors I photographed a few weeks ago:
The Mouse Spider is a stocky, slow-moving spider which is native to Northern Europe, including the British Isles, and widespread but very rarely encountered by ordinary householders. It tends to like bark and stones to live under, and will wander around at night, hunting small invertebrates by sneaking up on them. The female has a reputation for biting if handled, but it is a shy species and definitely doesn’t go looking for trouble. The body of the female would be about as large as the body of a female Giant House Spider, but the legs are far shorter and it is, in many ways, more handsome. The bites are usually harmless although definitely noteworthy, but an allergic reaction is always possible with any creature capable of biting or stinging.
The best way of keeping spiders out of your house is to not leave doors open at night, in the morning or approaching darkness, and to check outside before opening windows. Also, do clean your home regularly to prevent them making themselves comfortable.
This year autumn really feels like autumn. Since the Equinox the weather has seemed markedly cool, although there’s been good sunshine too. There’s a lot of rain about also, though. However, there are still some very interesting things to be seen. All across the landscape there are the big, beautiful, shimmering webs of the Garden Spider (Araneus diadematus) slung between bushes and trees, and occasionally buildings too:
These webs are mostly made by the females, which reach full size at this time of the year. They are extremely pretty spiders, almost jewel-like, and very ungainly on the ground, so they almost never leave their webs. There are mainly two variations – a common, boldly-marked one with strong brown and white markings; and a pale, almost golden variety, which you can see here:
The presence of these large, stout spiders attracts insectivorous birds. Spiders are extremely nutritious, on average about 40 times more nutritious than a fly of similar size, and also relatively easy to catch in comparison to flying insects. As a result, this is one of the best times of year to see bird species such as the Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea), which are much less shy than they usually are during the majority of the year. Usually they hunt along riverbanks, and specialise in catching semi-aquatic insects, such as mayfly or stonefly:
Many people assume, when they see one, that they are looking at the Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava) as this one has so much yellow on it, but the Yellow Wagtail is actually almost completely yellow, whereas the Grey Wagtail has quite a lot of grey on it, although it’s not so noticeable when one of these birds flies across the path in front of you. Although spiders are easy pickings, birds have lots of flying insects to hunt too. The past summer was a bumper year for Comma butterflies (Polygonia c-album), and you can see a second, even more brightly-coloured generation this autumn, if you keep your eyes peeled. Here is one I came across at the weekend:
Besides butterflies there are also many moths to be seen, and one very interesting species which is attracted to the lights of windows, is the Feathered Thorn (Colotois pennaria). The ‘feathered’ title comes from the shape and size of the male’s antennae, which do look like miniature feathers. Here is a very handsome specimen which I photographed on a wall by a window the night before last. It’s a male, but unfortunately its antennae are folded beneath it: