Category Archives: Bramblestown Diary

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

A walk in the woods

14th March –  The Corona Virus is a real worry, but as long as my family and I stay healthy I have the pleasure of still being able to get out into the fresh air and enjoy the countryside. It’s a cool windy day; not quite raining, just damp and no more than about 8 degrees. The dog is getting restless for he knows it is time for a walk. I decided to visit Glencoum, an afforested hill a few kilometres south of where I live. I walk my butterfly transect here each year, and it is one of my regular haunts for in Kilkenny, there are surprisingly few areas where it is free to walk off-road.

Today, my dog and I had the place to ourselves. I walked the route of my butterfly transect to check it out before the monitoring season begins. It’s a two kilometre loop through the forestry along a forest track. I was surprised that there were so few signs of spring, certainly far fewer than visible at lower elevations. The leaves of the honeysuckle are well out and the larch leaves are just breaking free of the twigs. But other than these there was little fresh growth. Even the birds were mute today. Just a couple of chaffinch, blue tit and goldcrest calling, with the only song coming from a couple of Robins. Glencoum is a favourite place of mine. It has been planted with sitka spruce but there are areas too of mixed woodland around the perimeter. Birch, oak, larch, willow and hazel grow here, and there is even a line of sweet chestnut trees and some horrible leylandii. The leylandii is spreading, closing in on the path, and in places little saplings are growing. I spent a few minutes pulling out a dozen or so young plants from the path that I had missed in autumn, the last time I weeded here.   I am intrigued how this combination of trees came to grow here. The sitka spruce were certainly planted, but the others must be the remnants of older woodland, but even this wouldn’t explain the sweet chestnut or leylandii.

I am somewhat fascinated by Glencoum. Trees were planted here on what used to be dry heath. The forest paths created by infilling with shattered shale, retain some of the characteristic of dry heath, and are surprisingly biodiverse in summer. Knapweed and Bird’s-foot trefoil grow in profusion along the tracks, and these in turn support a wonderful insect life. I can rarely identify any of the masses of hoverflies and other flying and crawling creatures that I see here in summer, but for me, seeing dingy skipper and common blue butterflies flying low over the ground in spring is a real delight. Then in late summer, when there is a flush of vanessid butterflies (the peacocks, red admirals, painted lady and small tortoiseshells) sometimes butterflies are so numerous it makes counting them difficult. There is no doubt but these paths are important for biodiversity, yet, take a few strides off the path into the forestry plantation and it is a dramatically different picture. Shade and a dreary understorey of moss and the odd fungus the only real signs of biodiversity between the spruce trunks. It is not true to say that these forests are sterling. But it is true to say that it is hard to think of any other type of forestry that would have less biodiversity associated with it. And I know that soon the clear-felling machinery will move in causing utter destruction to the landscape, soil and water.

Today I had little choice but to explore the minutiae of nature along the forest edge. The light blue foliose Parmotrema lichen was advancing on last year’s larch cones that no longer had the vitality to protect themselves. The smooth bark of the hazel was a masterpiece of lichen landscape, where different species competed for space to grow and conquer their relatives. A veritable lichen battlefield and cryptogam war zone, the lines of attack and defence clearly visible as bands and blotches all over the trunks and branches. I could make out some species of Caloplaca, Lecanora and Opegrapha, but precisely which ones? I fear I will never know. For I lack the meticulous approach needed to truly get to grips with this difficult group of organisms. And there, standing proud on an oak twig was an insect gall, last year’s wasp creation. Even on this damp, dull day, I enjoyed my walk in the woods.


My coffee break

A red-headed cardinal beetle

My brain is frazzled. A morning of looking at budgets and worrying about how the Data Centre can be properly funded does nothing for one’s mental state. But one of the advantages of working from home today is that instead of drinking coffee at eleven, I can bring the dogs for a stroll across the fields to clear my head.  Expectations are low for it is cloudy and cool, and my mind is elsewhere. But just outside, feasting on dandelion heads, are three delightful goldfinches that fly off, charming as they go.

Good. The cattle are in another field so I won’t be disturbed. A clump of bramble and nettles at the far side of the field is my focus of attention. A quick scan and 7-spot ladybirds are there as usual standing proud like brooches of the undergrowth.  I wonder, is it their bright red warning colour that allows them to be so audacious?

I pause to get my eye in. I spy a small yellow dot on a bramble. The geometric shaped dots reveal that it is a 14-spot ladybird. I reach down for a photograph, knock against a leaf, and it scurries off before it can be photographed for posterity. No matter, I have recorded them here before. I loiter at my bush and quickly find another, then another. I see that 14-spots are here too in good numbers, but unlike the 7-spots, they remain secluded among the leaves and the thorns.

And there, standing alert, trying to blend in with the leaves is a green shieldbug. I move to take a photograph but it too sensed movement and disappeared. I did, however, manage to get the better of another one nearby. Closer to the ground, basking on a dock leaf were two of the curiously shaped dock shieldbugs. I move in closer with my camera, but they were having none of it; darting off surprisingly quickly. Then after careful scrutiny of the brambles, I spied a different shieldbug in the depths of the bush; it was a beautiful bronze shieldbug. Seeing three species of shieldbug together wasn’t bad going, I thought to myself.

The nettle weevil

The clump of nettles a couple of metres away is full of tiny active life forms. There are masses of miniscule bugs, they may have recently hatched for they look like miniature versions of the common nettle bug that I see here each summer, but these are only a fraction of the size. Actually, other than knowing that they are tiny, I haven’t clue what they are but that doesn’t detract one bit from my enjoyment of finding them.  But what is cool are the numerous nettle weevils sitting on the leaves; oddly shaped with their long snout and antennae, and a very distinctive bluish-grey sheen to their body. The closer I look at the nettles, the more the nettle reveals tiny creature of all sorts going about the business, unseen. It truly is an ecosystem in miniature. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I see a stunning red-headed cardinal beetle crawling through the grass. They are beautiful creatures and it is the first one I have seen this year.

I dally for a bit longer at the bramble bush and focus my attention on the flying insects. There are hoverflies, dung flies, solitary bees and a myriad of other types of flying insect of all shapes and sizes.  The longer I watch, the greater variety I see. The weather is cool so many are perched, finding what little warmth they can get from the sky.  Briefly the sun shines and almost immediately a male orange-tip flies past. Remarkable how quickly it responds to a small increase in temperature.

As I watch, a black fly with orange at the base of its wings lands right in front of me. I know this one, for it is distinctive; it is a noon fly. Noon? Makes me check the time. Feck! It is past 12 O’Clock! I have been lost in the wonders of my nettle and bramble patch for over an hour now. I must get back to work. I am sure my boss won’t mind me spending some time like this, but I will have to log the hour as CPD.

Counting our common birds

The Barrow at Milford

Early mornings never agree with me. But twice each spring I find myself at first light walking around the beautiful village of Milford on the River Barrow to survey breeding birds as part of the Countryside Bird Survey, a national monitoring programme that tracks population changes in our commoner widespread species. With my binoculars around my neck and clipboard in my hand, I feel a great sense of self-righteousness out collecting valuable long-term data while dreary eyed motorists speed past on their daily commute.

The survey involves walking exactly the same two 1km routes (or transects) twice during the breeding season, counting all the birds seen along the route and noting their behaviour. I know this area and its birdlife well for I have surveyed here now for 22 years. The first 1km transect takes me along the old Kilkenny to Carlow road, and the second 1km route begins along the Barrow and then through Milford village.  I find it extraordinary that year on year I can generally predict where I will see different species along the route. Linnets and goldfinches sing from the rough ground at Milford Cross, a moorhen is a permanent feature of the wet alder woodland, blackcaps along the riverside willows, and then towards the end of the village a noisy group of house sparrows and starlings either on the roof of a bungalow or hidden in a nearby bush. And in the distance a calling pheasant or two; there is always a pheasant or two.

But what makes this survey interesting is the subtle difference that occur from year to year. When I began walking this route back in 1997 I would have heard no more that a couple of singing blackcaps, and these I would have noted with great pleasure for a singing blackcap is one of my favourite species. But blackcaps are now much more common and this morning I counted nine singing males. Scanning the wet woodland to tick off the regular moorhen, I was thrilled that what I saw swimming among the alders was not a moorhen but a beautiful male teal; I think this is the first time in the 22 years that I have recorded a teal during the survey. One of the pleasures of this survey is that you never know what you will find.

The beautiful village of Milford

In contrast, in the early years a singing yellowhammer used to brighten up the telegraph wires running across a cereal field but, sadly, I haven’t seen or heard one here now for years. And even with the common species, each visit is different. This morning there seemed to be blackbirds everywhere, yet I heard only two singing robins. The ubiquitous wren; I counted 18 singing this morning. I wondered how did this compare to the same time last year? I found it strange that I didn’t see a single hooded crow or magpie this morning; they must be busy incubating eggs. And even though I know dunnock are a common species I only came across one, and that wasn’t even singing but skulking in the undergrowth.

I am always a little disappointed when I don’t glimpse a dipper or grey wagtail along the short stretch of the Barrow  close to the weir. But I know what matters isn’t the number of species that I see as I do my walk, rather ensuring that I am as consistent as possible in how I do the survey from year to year.

Any perception of change that I get from walking the transect from visit to visit is impossible to make sense of; it could be just the result of some local changes to land management or might even be influenced by factors such as weather condition, or indeed, how alert and perceptive I was on any given morning. But each year more than 400 surveyors participate in the Countryside Bird Survey, pooling their finding from across the country. When these finding are analysed it allows Birdwatch Ireland to separate out what are long term trends from short term local anomalies, and present hard evidence of how our common countryside bird populations are changing.

And the national trends confirm some of what I was seeing along my transect; the population of blackcap (and goldfinch) have shown what Birdwatch Ireland describes as ‘remarkable increases’ since 1998. And the biggest losers over that period were greenfinch, swift and stock dove. Interestingly, any changes seen in the population of yellowhammer were not statistically significant. That surprises me. And I see that pheasant were recorded in 80% of all the transects surveyed; a fact that does not surprise me one iota.

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

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.

Waiting for woodcock

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.