Tag Archives: Spring

An all too Spring-like Winter… so far

Unfortunately the first post of this new year must be a sad one – I have just learned that one of Wicklow’s best known naturalists, Stan Moore, passed away on the last day of 2016 after an illness. Stan wrote the column Nature’s Corner in the North Wicklow Times for many years. He had an all-encompassing interest in nature, was a brilliant artist and produced lovely oil paintings, photographs and videos of the natural world. The first time I met him he came to my house with an illustration of a fish he had found, and needed to look at some of my books to positively identify it as it was a strange one. A few years later I recorded him being interviewed by a journalist for a programme which was aired by the Greystones Community Radio Project, and if I can dig that out I’ll put it on the blog. Sadly I did not take up photography until later, so I have no photo of the naturalist. Rest in Peace Stan!

This January is very different to last year – instead of the incredible wet weather caused when Ireland was struck full force by last year’s severe El Nino event  we have had long dry spells, and some of them have been quite balmy. This had apparently caused the vegetation to get very self-assured, and as early as the 9th of December I saw my first daffodil leaves breaking the surface of the soil, and now many of them are well above ground and soon to bloom:

Daffodil with flower stalk rising in the centre.
Daffodil with flower stalk rising in the centre.

And if that wasn’t enough the pennant-like leaves of Arum Lilies have begun to unfurl:

The leaves of Arum Lily, also known as Cuckoo-pint and Lord's-and-Ladies.
The leaves of Arum Lily, also known as Cuckoo-pint and Lord’s-and-Ladies.

And today I spotted dozens of Alexanders which had broken through the ground and come up all leafy along a roadside verge – Alexanders normally don’t appear until February at the earliest:

32193439185_c03ec74e9d_z   However, most surprising of all is an Elder tree which has sprung fresh green leaves all along the ends of its topmost branches:

Fresh elder leaves glowing in the winter sunlight.
Fresh elder leaves glowing in the winter sunlight.

So the question is, are we getting an extremely early spring? Can the plants predict, or are they just reacting to the immediate circumstances. The short answer to that question is that I don’t know. Last year’s freak wet weather, followed by this year’s very dry weather could have thrown the natural world off-kilter, but plants have had millions of years to evolve an ability to predict and behave accordingly, so perhaps the smart money should be on an early spring. But I have seen all of these plants struck by sudden cold spells before, and killed, and the only plants I have seen in my garden which never appear until the winter has finished its work are a certain group of wild (feral) Early Crocuses. Until I see them I’m not convinced the weather is definitely on the up. However, in the meantime the amount of wildlife to be seen is growing. A few days ago I spotted a male Winter Moth (Operophtera brumata) on a wall by a window light. It was actually more brownish than it appears in the photo, but the camera flash had a strange effect on the colouration:

The Winter Moth is quite small, about thumbnail size.
The Winter Moth is quite small, about thumbnail size.

There are also caterpillars of spring and summer moths to be found at this time of year, most having hatched from their eggs in late autumn. They eat and sleep all winter. Here is a handsome green Angle Shades caterpillar, and two smaller Large Yellow Underwing moths, all of which will get much larger before becoming moths:

All of these caterpillars can be found on and under lawns in winter.
All of these caterpillars can be found on and under lawns in winter.

Because the nights are so long keeping birds asleep, and there are few other invertebrate predators around in winter, slugs can be often seen in huge numbers on warm dark winter nights. Some of them can be very handsome. Here, for example, is a medium-sized species known as the Dusky Slug (Arion subfuscus):

A Dusky Slug grazing on mould and moss on a piece of ceramic.
A Dusky Slug grazing on mould and moss on a piece of ceramic.

And this distinctive species is a relatively recent arrival, the Budapest Keeled Slug (Tandonia budapestensis), which was first identified in the British Isles in the 1920s, probably carried in on plants:

Keeled Slugs get their name from the raised line on their backs, which is like the keel of an upturned boat. Its is very distinctive on the Budapest Keeled Slug.
Keeled Slugs get their name from the raised line on their backs, which is like the keel of an upturned boat. Its is very distinctive on the Budapest Keeled Slug.

Slugs might not be to your taste, but if not then there are still quite a few bumblebees to be seen feeding on winter-flowering garden plants such as Mahonia and Vinca. Here is one I saw today, with noticeably full pollen sacs on its legs, a Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris):

A bumblebee feeding on Vinca difformis today. This plant is sometimes known as Star-of-Bethlehem due to its habit of flowering in winter, bit it blooms sporadically throughout the year.
A bumblebee feeding on Vinca difformis today. This plant is sometimes known as Star-of-Bethlehem due to its habit of flowering in winter, bit it blooms sporadically throughout the year.

Only time will tell how this winter pans out, so in the meantime Happy New year!

The Winter Solstice

IMG_9535

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

Warm Spring Weather at Last!

In fact, it feels more like summer than spring, and all in the space of a week. And summer weather at its best too. The sudden warming of the weather has brought bluebells into full bloom in the lowlands of Wicklow, apples into blossom, and many insects into view.

A beautiful little Holly Blue butterfly, no larger than an adult human's thumbnail with its wings folded.
A beautiful little Holly Blue butterfly, no larger than an adult human’s thumbnail with its wings folded.

It’s a great time to see Holly Blue butterflies, which are everywhere at the moment. Gardens, lanes, hedgerows and even bare muddy ground where they can lap up nutrients directly from the soil, and get some sunbathing done.  But there are also some beautiful and interesting moths about, such as the Small Phoenix (Ecliptopera silaceata):

The Small Phoenix as seen from above. This one is a male.
The Small Phoenix as seen from above. This one is a male.
The male Small Phoenix always keeps its abdomen cocked up in the air.
The male Small Phoenix always keeps its abdomen cocked up in the air.
A commonly seen ground beetle, also known as a Sun Beetle.
A commonly seen ground beetle, also known as a Sun Beetle.

You will probably see some very shiny little black beetles running about the footpaths in the last week, and throughout the summer, and these are Sun Beetles. They are omnivorous, eating small creatures, vegetable matter and even seeds, and run speedily up and down the burning hot sunlit paths at the sunniest times of day, but also after dark on warm nights. The species above seems to be Amara familiaris, although there are many very similar species and they are poorly recorded in Ireland.

Also keep a look out for St. Mark’s Flies (Bibio marci). These large ungainly flies can normally be seen hovering in a sinister motion along hedgerows, but they are completely harmless and actually quite clumsy. As adults they live only to breed and this year they are much fewer in number than is usual. They are named for their tendency to appear in or around St. Mark’s Day, 25th April. However, this year they are later than usual due to the cold spring conditions. Nevertheless, here is a mating pair I came across on the road:

A mating pair of St, Mark's Flies. The male is on the left and has much bigger eyes than the female.
A mating pair of St, Mark’s Flies. The male is on the left and has much bigger eyes than the female.