Category Archives: Bramblestown Diary

A dairy describing some encounters with nature mostly around the townland of Bramblestown, near Gowan in County Kilkenny

A solitary existence

The Ashy Mining Bee (Andrena cineraria)

I took the dogs for their usual Sunday walk across the fields; I use the term ‘walk’ loosely for it is more an adventure than a walk. A route of no more than 1km long can sometimes take two hours to cover for all the nature distractions along the way. The two dogs are old now so their pace matches mine, but it wasn’t always thus.

The far side of Greg’s field marks the boundary between the townlands of Bramblestown and Neigham. It’s an overgrown treeline on a large earthen bank with a stream flowing along one side.  It stands out for being such a wonderfully rich boundary compared to the other tightly trimmed hedgerows of which Bramblestown has many.  Spring has certainly arrived; a couple of chiffchaffs in full song with their ‘chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff’ tune (phonetics are important for in the German speaking world it is ‘zilp-zalp’ and the Dutch ‘tjift-jaf’), and the ‘chakk, chakk’ of a scolding blackcap from a willow, before it too bursts forth into its delightfully rich and energetic song. And from the wings of this natural stage a quiet nasal ‘tweeb’ belies the handsome bullfinch. Willow warblers are a bit late this year as their song has not yet graced Bramblestown. But their arrival is imminent.

A solitary bee nest in the bank

Along the earthen bank, between the primroses, are hundreds of small holes; evidence of the nesting activity of the mining bees, a group of Ireland’s solitary bees. Unlike their honey bee relations solitary bees nest individually rather than in colonies. It is hardly solitary, however, for there is such great activity crammed into a relatively small area; their living arrangements are more suburbia than tower block but definitely not splendid isolation.  Solitary bees are notoriously difficult to identify, but fortunately most of the bees I saw were the most easily distinguishable species, the Ashy Mining Bee, with its conspicuous grey hairs.

It’s not always a solitary existence

Hundreds were busily flying onto the earthen banks, excavating holes in the friable earth for nests, then depositing stores of pollen for their larvae to eat and survive on before emerging next spring, to start the whole cycle over again. They fly in spring to coincide with flowering fruit trees, of which they are one of the most important pollinators. For these creatures to survive and flourish they need to have suitable nesting habitat and adequate food resources within a relatively small area. They can forage up to 600m from the nest if they have to, but generally would forage much less if food sources are plentiful.   Knowing this, it makes me happy that we planted a few wild cherry and apple trees a number of years back, no more than about 300m from their nests as the bee flies. At the time, unbeknownst to me, I was building a relationship with these bees; I provide food for them in the form of blossoms in spring, and they reciprocate by providing me a bounty of apples and cherries in autumn. Mind you, with the cherries, it is those blasted birds the benefit more than I!

Waiting for woodcock

Waiting for woodcock

I am volunteering to survey some woodland sites this year for the Breeding Woodcock Survey being undertaken by James O’Neill, a student in University College Cork. I visited a nice mixed woodland at Kilfane, just before dark. I arrived a bit later than I had planned. At the woodland entrance three blackbirds were calling agitatedly, seemly unhappy in each other’s company, and a great tit gave a brief song before the woodland quietened down for the night. I walked for about a kilometre to a small woodland clearing that provided a view of a portion of the sky.

A grey squirrel scurried away and the still silhouette of three woodpigeons looked down on me from the branches of a tree 30 or forty feet above. There I waited, straining my ears at every sound that might indicate that woodcock were nearby. A dog barked in the distance and the sound of the nearby stream flowing over rocks was all that could be heard; almost complete silence with not even the movement of branches in the still cool evening.

Straining my neck looking skyward over the tree canopy waiting for a roding woodcock to come into sight, the only movement I detected were a few bats flying close by my head, probably inspecting this strange interloper. Staring at the sky, up at the big dipper, with the moving aircraft like shooting stars across the night sky. Forty-five minutes standing, listening and looking in vain for woodcock as darkness descended was time well spent. I will just have to come back another evening.