Tag Archives: zoology

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.

The Autumn Equinox

Tonight, and only a short time ago,  at 9.02 am local time here in Wicklow (8.02 pm GMT) was the exact halfway point between the Summer Solstice and the Winter Solstice. To put it bluntly, this is the definite end of summer and start of autumn, and from now until the Vernal Equinox next March each day will be shorter than the night. And the birds know that, so they’re fattening up, increasing their energy reserves by eating the various berries on the myriad trees and bushes which are brimming with them right now. Here’s a photo I got of a male House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) feeding on blackberries:

   And now butterflies are disappearing fast, although there are Large Whites, Green-veined Whites, Red Admirals, Peacocks and Small Tortoiseshells still to be seen in small numbers. The latter two will hibernate and need to find suitable accomodation relatively soon if they are to make it to spring. However, the most numerous butterfly at this time of the year, and the one that blends in best with the autumn colours, is the Speckled Wood, which is usually the last species seen along hedgerows in the autumn. Their numbers are falling too, though. This September has been cooler than those we’ve had in recent years and that’s probably a factor.

But, if any creature plucks the heart strings more than others as it disappears from the landscape it’s the Swallow, You can still see some in our skies, but they’re flying south-east at speed, and usually not playfully hunting for insects as they were a few weeks ago. Now they have no time to waste and need to get to southern Europe and across the Sahara Desert to southern Africa with some degree of urgency, as the insect population on which they depend crashes in the colder, less sunny climate of autumn. There’s still a lot to enjoy out there though, and I’ll be doing my best to showcase it. Here is my slightly out-of-focus photo of a Swallow flyng quickly south,  and quite high up, this morning. I guess this is farewell and bon voyage, until next March or April: