Tag Archives: zoology

Birds in Autumn

It can be hard to love November. Whereas October is like a watered down, slightly colder version of summer, November is often wet, quite cold, and very dark as the sun travels across the sky at a very low angle causing very long shadows. And, of course, the days are now much shorter than the nights. We have very long nights. But because of this there are often great opportunities to see many species of birds close-up. Small birds in particular, come into villages and towns, and gardens in Wicklow looking for food and shelter. Some are harder to spot than others, but here is one you really ought to keep an eye out for – the Treecreeper (Certhia familiaris):

   It is an unusual-looking bird with a narrow curved bill with which it probes for insects and spiders in the bark. A Treecreeper will usually land at the base of a tree, or a wall, and walk up it to the top, before flying back down to another side, or area, to start the climbing process again. They are quiet birds, but quite calm, and can easily be mistaken for mice due to their colouring, long tails and habit of climbing.

The Goldcrest (Regulus regulus) is difficult to see for a very different reason – it is green like a leaf, is so hyperactive it seems like a leaf in the breeze rather than a bird as it hunts for insects under the leaves and twigs of bushes and trees, and it’s tiny. In fact, it’s the smallest bird in Europe. However, despite the difficulties I managed to get some photos. Here is one, which shows how camouflaged a Goldcrest is, despite the gold ‘crown’ on its head:

   Some birds are a lot easier to see because they prefer to look for food in the open, and they are coloured more boldly. One of them is the Pied Wagtail (Motacilla alba), which is black and white and likes to bob along in front of walkers, relying on them to scare insects up from the ground so the Wagtail can leap up and snatch them. They will also enter supermarkets, and even small shops, in cold weather to shelter from cold or wet weather. Here is one which hopped across a flower tub to take a better look at me as I sat at a table outdoors:

However, even common garden birds can be a little bit shy sometimes. Here is a Robin (Erithacus rubecula), observing me from behind a leaf on a tree, a little shy of my camera. I like this photo:

Autumn Changes

I’m sure a lot of people are a little tired of the spider hysteria which grips the nation every year. However, due to spiders appearing around houses in Autumn we also have larger creatures. Rural gardens, and even gardens in villages and small towns in Wicklow are often visited by Pheasants (Phasianus colchicus), and you are almost certainly guaranteed a sighting of a big handsome male pheasant if you stop by the gate of a field and take a look inside. Male pheasants are very territorial birds. Here is one I managed to get a shot of recently:

Last spring I was woken very early in the morning, before sunrise, by a tapping sound on my bedroom window, and when I got up and drew back the curtains I found a startled pheasant on the other side of the glass, spider webs hanging from the corner of its beak. It had been plucking them off the outer window frame.  Spiders make up a substantial part of the diet of these birds, as do many insects.  This species was introduced from central Asia in the 18th century as a gamebird, and domestic pheasant cocks often have ring-necks, but after several generations the ring-neck disappears and many wild Wicklow pheasants are now more or less identical to those found in their original habitat. These big insect-eaters are also joined in gardens by smaller ones, and arguably  the cutest of the lot is the Long-tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus):

   These acrobatic little birds travel in small flocks, and they sing to each other in communication as they hop and fly through the canopies of trees and shrubs. Because of their size and long tails, and habit of climbing everywhere, not to mention their somewhat mammalian appearance, they were known as ‘tit-mice’. Keep an eye out for them. You’ll hear them before you see them.

However, Autumn is best known for the fruiting bodies of fungi which appear everywhere, and in huge numbers. I hope to do a little bit of a showcase of these mushrooms and toadstools shortly, but will start with this little one, which is found on manicured lawns everywhere at this time of year – the Brown Mottlegill (Panaeolina foensecii), also known as the ‘mower’s mushroom’ – a mower being a lawnmower, or the person using it:

This weekend is the time to see them, because if Hurricane (or ex-hurricane) Ophelia lands on Ireland on Sunday night and Monday morning, then most of the mushrooms and toadstools will be destroyed by torrential rain. But let’s hope it is much weaker by the time it arrives here.

Embracing Autumn in Wicklow

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:

However, this is the end of the time of the Commas, and very soon this second generation will also be gone into hibernation. They live to re-emerge in the springtime when they breed.

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:

   Autumn is only beginning, and there are many interesting things to be seen, and still more to come.