Category Archives: Garden Biodiversity Challenge

Garden Biodiversity Challenge #10

Getting to grips with hoverflies

We planted a shrub in the vegetable patch years ago. I am sure at the time we knew what type of shrub it was, but this information has long since been lost from the Lysaght family folklore.  Briefly, early in the year, it throws out small white flowers that seem to be great favourites of the early bees when there is little else flowering.  Other than that quality, I usually think of it as a nuisance. It grows like billyoh and needs to be cut back with great vigour each year. It was planted in the wrong place taking up way too much space where it grows. And as if to add insult to injury, it is just a pale green colour, blending in marvellously with all the other pale green vegetation in the garden.

The start of the week saw a significant turn in the weather. The air temperature dropped and the rain arrived. In the classic descriptor of Irish weather, it was showers with sunny spells; during the day it rarely got above 11 or 12 °C. Insects that need the warmth of the sun to fly and go about their business, struggled. They sought out the warmest spots to bask in whatever bit of sun there was. It was in this context that I saw my unloved bush in a new light. When the sun appeared, no matter how briefly, the bush became a magnet for insect life. Flying insects of all types seemed to descend on the light green leave to bask in the sun. I presume the slightly lighter hue of the vegetation made it more attractive than the nearby foliage. I found I no longer needed to roam the garden in search of elusive creatures to find and photograph, but instead could just wait by my bush for them to come. I found a new past time – Dipteran window shopping. On display were all types of flying insects, like mannequins, basking in the seasonal glow.

Diptera is the scientific name given to the taxonomic group of True Flies; derived from the Latin ‘di’ meaning ‘two’ and ‘ptera’ meaning ‘wings’. It includes some of the insects that we think of as generally being a nuisance, such as mosquitoes, craneflies, house flies, bluebottles, midges, etc. But it also includes hoverflies, those wonderfully industrious creatures that diligently pollinate all the flowers and crops that grow in our garden and fields. They are an amazing group of insects that only do good. Most people would be familiar with those that are striped black and amber, but they come in a wide variety of shapes and patterns. There are over 180 different species of hoverfly in Ireland. Some can be identified with care in the field, but this requires an intimate inspections of hoverfly anatomy. Identification of hoverflies will bring you into a world of familiarity with abdomen pattern, scutellum colour, antennae shape and colour, wing vein pattern, femur, tibia and tarsus colour, and should you venture further, knowledge of the halteres club and plumule. A veritable rabbit hole of complexity that should you chose to go down there is little hope of escape.

My interest in hoverflies only extend to the most flamboyant ones that are crying out to be noticed. Even those provide a sufficient challenge for me.  But having spent some time around my new favourite bush in the garden, I have found at least five that I am now confident in identifying.

Species #41 The Tapered Drone Fly (Eristallis pertinax) is one of the commoner hoverflies in the garden. It is very similar to another hoverfly E. tenex, but its abdomen is more tapered, hence the common name. Its front legs are also pale in colour.
Species #42 – Helophilus pendulus is one of the hoverflies that look as if they are kitted out to play for Kilkenny. There are three similar species. This is H. pendulus because of the black stripe on the face and it has black only on the lower third of the hind tibia (Trust me!).
Species #43 This may be Syrphus ribesii, but it is very difficult to separate from another species S. vitripennis, but the latter is less widespread.
Species #44 Epistrophe eligans is a small species of hoverfly that has distinctive markings on its abdomen.
Species #45 Blotched-winged Hoverfly (Leucozona lucorum) is a stunning little hoverfly. It is one of three species that occurs in Ireland with the distinctive black blotch on its wing, however it is the only species with an orange-brown scutellum.

Garden Biodiversity Challenge #9

Beautiful butterflies

April sees the butterfly season kick off in earnest and there has been a very predictable pattern to the sequence of their emergence. So far this year I have seen seven different species in the garden. The first butterfly was the small tortoiseshell for it overwinters as an adult. It spends the winter months in our house as the old stone, cold walls must provide near perfect conditions for its hibernation. They are a constant companion during the winter months and at one stage I counted 14 hibernating, unmolested, in my daughter’s vacated bedroom. On bright sunny days in February when the sun streams through the windows an occasional one gets fooled into thinking that spring has arrived, rouses from its torpor, and seeks the freedom of the great outdoors. These pioneers perish as the air temperature is still too cold for them to survive.

In late March when we had the first succession of bright sunny days, the holly blue appeared in the garden. I was delighted to see one flying about in March and I noticed that there was both a male and female about. Then one day last week I counted at least four individuals, the most I have ever seen in the garden. Holly blue are unusual in that they have two generations each year and both generations have a different food plant; holly is the preferred food plant of the first generation and ivy of the second.  We have ivy in abundance in the garden as the older trees are laden down with it. When we first arrived here to Bramblestown there was no holly in the garden so we planted some. It has never really prospered but we have three or four scraggly bushes that just might be doing their job for the holly blues.

Then, during the second week of April coinciding with the spell of warm, sunny weather more species emerged. The first peacock was seen on 8th April followed in quick succession by the orange-tip, comma and red admiral. The peacock and comma both overwinter as adults so it just needs the aim temperature to warm up sufficiently for them to fly; a few bright days of around 10 °C will suffice. Peacock is a very common and mobile species so it can be seen almost anywhere. The comma has a more interesting back story. The first comma in Ireland was recorded from the Raven Nature Reserve in Wexford in 2000. Since then its population has grown and its range has expanded. I first recorded it in the garden in 2015 and while it is never abundant, I have seen it every year since. Superficially it looks rather like a dowdy small tortoiseshell, but it has a lovely scalloped profile and a prominent comma-shaped mark on its underwing, hence its name. I also find it a quite confiding butterfly.

Red admiral is also an interesting species. It can be very abundant flying into late autumn. It was the last species I noticed flying in the garden last year, on a very cool day in October. But it is thought that very few if any survive the Irish winter and that the first adults seen in spring each year are immigrants from Europe. The red admiral I saw on the 10th April coincided with a southerly airflow, and later that night I trapped a large yellow underwing moth in the garden, also a migratory species. This would tend to confirm that it was a migrant rather than a resident butterfly.

The last few days saw the emergence of both speckled wood and green-veined white, two of the commonest, most widespread and longest flying species in Ireland. Speckled wood has three generations each year and can be found flying from April to September.  It favours the sun dappled lane and hedgerows where the male takes position guarding a sunspot, pouncing on any passing male or female, either to chase or court depending on the sex.

Butterflies are marvelous creatures and they brighten up any garden. Butterflies can tell us a great deal about how our environment is changing. Each species needs a specific plant species or group of species for their caterpillars to feed on, so their distribution and abundance can be influenced by changes in land use that disrupt the distribution of these plants. They are susceptible too much artificial fertiliser in the environment so modern farming methods are not the butterfly’s friend.  Butterflies also have distinct flight periods that have evolved to coincide with certain seasonal traits, so impacts of climate that mess with these timings can be detected by studying butterflies. Butterflies are good indicators of a changing environment so it is important that we monitor their populations.

Over the years I have seen evidence of these changes here in my garden. I have already mentioned that the comma is a new addition to my garden species list, but another has also been lost. When I first moved to Bramblestown there were still wall browns to be seen, however, these have long since disappeared from the county of Kilkenny.

Species #33 Small tortoiseshell hibernate in our house, and so can be seen year round. Its food plant is nettle of which there is no shortage in our garden.
Species #34 Holly blue is seen daily in the garden and it appears to be more common this spring than in other years. I have been watching individuals settling down for the night on a shrub that we planted in the vegetable garden.
Species #35 Peacock is on of the most spectacular butterfly species to visit the garden. It too finds plenty of nettles in our garden on which to lay its eggs.
Species #36 Orange-tip is one of the most delightful and conspicuous butterflies to be found in the garden. The first male was sighted on 9th April. There is none of its food plant, the cuckooflower, growing in the garden but it does grow in the surrounding fields.
Species #37 Comma is a relatively new arrival to Ireland, having been first recorded here in 2000. I first saw comma in the garden in 2015 and it is now a regular. It overwinters as an adult so is one of the first butterflies to be seen each year. I say it first on 10th April.
Species #38 Red admiral butterflies are most abundant in autumn each year, but few if any are thought to survive the Irish winter. The first red admiral I saw on 10th April was almost certainly a migrant, having arrived here from Europe.
Species #39 Speckled wood has up to three generations each year, consequently it is one of the species that can be seen flying from April to September. The first seen in the garden was on 13th April.
Species #40 Green-veined white is an extremely common butterfly in the garden. The first was seen flying on 16th April. Trying to protect the brassicas from its caterpillars is the bane of many a good gardener – glad I’m a bad gardener!

 

Garden Biodiversity Challenge #8

Unexpected discoveries

If the truth be told the lock down is no great hardship for me. I am getting my paid work done, and still getting paid. I have set myself up with a desk at the bedroom window overlooking the garden. Instead of phone calls and the distraction of work colleagues, the only distractions now are the occasional scheduled conference call, the holly blues flitting past the vegetable patch and the antics of the starlings as they build their nest in the gable of the shed.

After three weeks of working from home I now have a route. Up at sunrise to walk the dogs. I generally do two laps of the neighbour’s field, first stopping at ruins of the old derelict cottage and then checking out the drying pond just to see if anything changed overnight. Invariably it hadn’t. Then before breakfast, back in the garden, I check the moth trap to see what delights it has to offer. For the last week or so there have been few delights.  Just a small handful of moths of the same two or three common species.

When I first opened the door yesterday morning I noticed it was noticeably milder and there was a light fog. I had placed the moth trap in the pond area just inside our entrance, in a nettle infested corner of the garden that has been largely abandoned; sorry I meant a corner of the garden that we have deliberately surrendered to those wonderfully important nettles as part of our biodiversity enhancement measures. I could see straightaway that this morning was different for there were three moths settled on the light funnel, and two more and a caddisfly resting on the outside of the trap. I unclipped the trap from the car battery and went to work sorting my catch.

I was delighted to find that moths clung to each of the six or so egg cartons in the trap. I found my usual acquaintances from the previous nights, Hebrew Character, Early Grey, Shoulder Stripe and Streamer, only this time in greater numbers. A beautiful Herald, a relatively nondescript Common Quaker and a solitary Clouded Drab looking, well, rather drab. And a March Moth, which doesn’t seem to have been recorded in County Kilkenny previously, was the first unexpected find of the morning.

There were also nine magnificent black beetles in the trap, each at least 2 centimetres long. I recognised these as the Black Sexton Beetle, easily identified for it is all black. It is one of about a dozen species of carrion beetle that occurs in Ireland. These beetles fly about at night searching out carrion. Any they find, they will bury up to five or six centimetres deep in the soil, into which the female lays her eggs. Within a day or so the eggs hatch and larvae merrily munch their way through the putrid goo helping the decomposition process. They are performing what scientists call an ‘essential ecosystem service’- helping rotting flesh to decompose recycling the nutrients back to the soil.

Right at the bottom of the trap, crawled head-first into a tight cavity in the egg carton was a light tan coloured moth. I recognised this straightaway as a Large Yellow Underwing, for it is probably the most common larger moth during the summer months. What surprised me though was the time of year. This is usually seen from June to September, not in early April. This was clearly an immigrant, that had just arrived into Ireland. I had read that the first migrant moths, in particular the Silver-Y, had been trapped elsewhere over the last couple of nights, so other migrants had begun to arrive into the country. Interesting to think that this moth, that looked pristine, was the advance party for others that would shortly be arriving from Continental Europe, weather permitting.  I wondered what made it chose its landfall in Bramblestown?

It was only when I was collecting up the egg cartons to tidy them away, that I noticed another tiny little brown moth that I had missed first time round. I photographed it, knowing it was going to be one of those little brown jobs that are notoriously difficult to identify. Mind you, it did have a relatively distinct mark on it wing, rather like an elongated question mark, which I thought might be a help. I failed hopelessly to find a match in my moth identification book. Then Michael O’Donnell of MothsIreland, whose facebook page I went to for assistance, made the rather helpful suggestion that I look in the other book, the one for micro-moth identification, for the answer. And sure enough I found a match; it was a species with no common name only a complicated scientific one, Semioscopis steinkellneriana. But what was really surprising is this is a very rare moth in Ireland. There have been only nine previous records for the island of Ireland, and all but one from County Derry, the other from the border between counties Galway and Tippperary.  It shows you, there are always unexpected discoveries to be made, even in a garden.

Who would have thought it? A rare moth quietly going about its life in the neglected corner of the garden. Hip hip hooray for nettles, is all I’ll say.

Species #28 – This small micromoth, called Semioscopis steinkellneriana, was a special find in my garden. There have been only nine previous records of this species from Ireland. This was a real surprise to find.
Species #29 – Large Yellow Underwing was another surprise find in the garden. Usually seen in June onwards, this was clearly a very early migrant to the country.
Species #30 Herald is a delightful moth. It overwinters as an adult and can be found in sheds and other cool places during the winter.
Species #31 Streamer is a small moth with a very distinctive black streak that ‘streams’ back from the front of the wing.
Species #32 Opening the moth trap to find nine Black Sexton Beetle was a surprise. This beetle is one of the carrion beetles, and play a valuable role in decomposition.

Garden Biodiversity Challenge #7

Lovely lichens

Watching spring unfolding in the garden requires patience. Fair enough, if you visit your garden only at weekends, in the intervening few days some things will have happened and changes can be detected. However daily, nay hourly, surveillance of the patch soon presents challenges even for the greatest of nature sleuths, and I certainly would not consider myself one of those. So to keep documenting I have to dig deeper, go the extra mile, step up to the plate, etc, etc, etc,.

There are some things that I accept are beyond my scope of understanding. Things like astrophysics, neuroscience and female intuition. Into this category I would also place lichen identification, for it is devilishly tricky. Lichens are one of these things that are everywhere, right under your nose so to speak, but you never notice them. They are equivalent to the base layers of the world’s great painting masterpieces providing depth, tonal foundation and definition to the natural world all around us. But only the most skilled observer can detect or understand them.

It was into this world that I threw myself for a few days, trying to get to grips with some of the lichens growing in the garden. After all, with the Coronavirus lockdown, I would never get a better opportunity and any exploration of garden biodiversity just would not be complete without reference to lichens. I was ably abetted in my endeavours by the wonderful book Lichens of Ireland written by Paul Whelan, who has done more than anyone else in Ireland to introduce people to lichens and demystify lichen identification.

To give you some sense of just how difficult lichen identification is, it is not even straightforward to say what is a lichen. Lichens are fungi that have formed a relationship with an algae or a bacteria, or both. This relationship is stable and so the forms that grow are distinct shapes and structures which allows clever people to identify them. However, whether these organisms should be classified as lichens or fungi has been a bone of contention for some time, until a scientific truce has been agreed by referring to them as ‘lichenised fungi’.

Lichen are great survivors. The fungal element of the lichen can feed on dead organic matter, whereas the algae or bacteria can photosynthesize, making them extremely versatile and able to grow on a variety of surfaces.  They adorn stone surfaces, tree bark and branches, leaves, soil and they even grow on other lichens. In short, lichens can be found everywhere in gardens.

Lichen generally come in three growth forms. Those that grow directly on the surface of a structure and look to be part of that surface are called ‘crustose’ lichens. Those that grow flat on a structure but have a distinct upper and lower surface of their own are called ‘foliose’ lichens.  The third group are those that grow like shaggy beards on trees, or have fruiting bodies like golf tees, are called ‘fruticose’ lichens. There is no shortage of lichens to find and study, for well over 1,000 different lichens have been described for Ireland. I thought I should at least be able to find and introduce you to a few from my garden. But I should issue you with a health warning, lichen identification is not for the faint-hearted. There is a good reason why there are so few lichenologists in this world; there are not that many clever people out there.

Lichens are not difficult to find, it just involves looking at things very closely. If you notice different blotches of colour on stone walls, you are looking at lichens. If you notice map-like patterns on the smooth bark of trees, you are looking at lichens. If you pry into cracks and crevices of branches and notice subtle textures, you are looking at lichens. Check any fallen branch and it will be covered in lichens. Finding them is the easy part; finding what they are called is an entirely different matter. But here are a few that I found in my garden; I can only hope that I identified them correctly.

Species #23 This foliose lichen is called Xanthoria parietina and is extremely common, covering most dead twigs in our hedgerows. The yellow-orange can be seen from quite some distance, but it tends to be a paler grey-green where it grows in the shade.
Species #24 This one is called Parmotrema perlatum, a common foliose lichen growing on some of the older trees of the hedgerow. Its common name is ‘black-edged leaf lichen’.
Species #25 This is one of a group of about 57 species of Lecanora lichens found in Ireland. It is a crustose lichen. I am taking a punt that this is Lecanora carpinea because of the creamy brown circular fruiting bodies (called apothecia) with the white rim. Another very common lichen on old branches.
Species #26 This is one of the fruticose lichens I found on a branch that had fallen from a tree. It has cool golf tee shaped fruiting bodies. It is a species of Ramalina, possibly Ramalina fastigiata.
Species #27 And here is a lichen growing on the gate post. Which one it is? I haven’t a clue.

Garden Biodiversity Challenge #6

Some of nature’s imperfections

Things have slowed down a bit this week as the temperature has dropped a few degrees and there is a biting north-easterly wind. There has been frost at night too, which hasn’t helped growth. I have been keeping an eye and ear on the garden to see if I could find anything new. Along the ‘highway’ some more cowslips are popping up their heads; well a lot of cowslips are popping up their heads actually. Last week what I thought were the leaves of primroses were cowslips. So much for my botanical skills! Ah well, I have plenty of time on my hands now to brush up on identification skills, so there can be no further excuses. The cow parsley seems unaffected by the downturn in temperature and continues to green the undergrowth and hedgerow margins. It is one of the earliest of the umbellifers to flower; umbellifers is the name given to a large group of vigorous plants from the carrot, parsley and celery families. Cow parsley is one of the carrot family and supposedly got its name because it was considered an inferior version of the ‘real’ parsley, and fit only for the cows.  It thrives in my garden, loving the nutrient rich soil, and smothers out almost everything else where it grows.  A few have begun to flower, beautiful spreading umbels of white flowers. In another few weeks, their blossoms will provide white powdering to the lane and nearby roadsides.

Close to the back door, when the children were little, we briefly had a sandpit. This has long since become grown over and is matted by grass. Somehow, the chickens have discovered that there is sand there and have managed to pry open the sod allowing them to bathe in the dust. In between the dusting hollows one patch of a lovely purplish-green plant grows. It is red dead-nettle, a plant that can be found flowering almost all year round. It is beloved by bumblebees as a rich source of nectar, particularly so early in the season when there are few other sources. Its delicate pink-purplish flowers grow as an imperfect whorl at the top of the plant, in among the wrinkled heart-shaped leaves. I always feel there is some imperfection to the array for when trying to photograph them, I can never find a plant where the flowers are symmetrical, it always seems as if a couple have been plucked off.

Speaking of imperfections. Just outside our gate, along a disused path that once formed a right of way between two townlands, there is a clump of buttercups growing in some damp ground. The bright golden-yellow flowers stand upright and strong, but what is curious is that none of the flowers are complete. All seem to be missing at least one, if not more of their petals, yet seem otherwise totally undamaged. This, I was to learn, is one of the characteristic features of the goldilocks buttercup, a close relation to the common or garden buttercup. This was a new species to me, as I never heard of goldilocks buttercup before.

And there growing low down on a small earthen bank, below a stone, I spied a small white flower. It is the barren strawberry, identified from the wild strawberry in that its five petals are spaced apart. It is another one of our wild plants that flowers early in the year. They tell me the fruit are nothing to write home about. I’ll write nothing further about it so.

Species #19 Cow Parsley grows vigorously in shaded parts of the garden, smothering out other plants. It is one of the carrot family.
Species #20 Red dead-nettle can be found flowering at almost any time of the year. Its pink-purple flowers are a very important nectar source for bumblebees at this time of the year when there are few others sources of food.
Species #21 Goldilocks buttercup was a surprise find for me as I hadn’t seen it before. One curious characteristic is that it rarely has fully formed flowers, usually one or more petals are missing.
Species #22 Barren strawberry is an inconspicuous little flower that grows low down on an earthen bank in the garden. As its name suggests, its fruit are nothing to write home about.

Garden Biodiversity Challenge #5

Most people know about the beauty of butterflies but what might surprise many is that despite flying at night, moths are equally colourful. And what is more, there are far more species to find. Moths are a hugely diverse group of insects with about 1,500 different species occurring in Ireland; many of which are small and almost impossible to identify. The larger of these are described as ‘macro-moths’ and these can, with care, be identified. There are 578 different species of these to keep you busy identifying.

Finding moths can prove a bit of a challenge. Scanning an outside light at night gives you some indication that there are moths out there to be found. But to really begin to find what moths are in your garden, you need a moth trap. I have one, a small portable Heath trap. This is essentially a tin box with a funnel on top into which sits a small fluorescent bulb. The bulb emits a whitish-blue light (technically called actinic light) which is attractive to moths but is not too bright for human vision. The moths approach the bulb, fall into the box through the funnel, then settle underneath the egg cartons until inspected and released in the morning.  The trap runs off a 12 volt car battery allowing me to place it in different spots around the garden.

Moth identification can be difficult and overwhelming if you get a good catch in your trap. Most moths fly in the warm summer months, so putting a moth trap our early in the year when fewer moths are caught, is a good idea. You can take you time examining your catch, and identification doesn’t do your head in, at least not too much! I set up the trap last night, the first time this year, but didn’t really expect to catch many moths. The evening turned really cold, with a nasty cold easterly breeze.

I remember Angus Tyner, one of the fathers of moth recording in Ireland, once describing opening moth traps in the morning was like opening a different present each day for you never knew what delights awaited you. I opened mine and was delighted to find eight moths of four different species. And what is more, I was able to identify all four. In the trap were four Hebrew Character, two Clouded Drab and one each Early Grey and Pale Pinion.

Another attraction of moths is that they have wonderful names. For centuries those who studied moths, Lepidopterists, have been naming moths on behavioural characteristics and patterns on their wings that help to distinguish one species from the next.  Carl Linnaeus came along and put more structure on naming of organisms by giving each a unique Latin name, based on two components, a family name and an individual name. This naming system, what is referred to as binomial nomenclature, has stood the test of time and is how scientists still refer to organisms. Nevertheless because of advances in science and the constant evolution of knowledge, species naming has become both a wondrously rich and equally perplexing tapestry of names, homonyms and synonyms.  One of the four moths I caught last night is called the Hebrew Character with the scientific name Orthosia gothica. The common name, Hebrew Character, refers to the black saddle-shaped mark on the centre of its forewing, because it was seen to resemble the Hebrew letter ‘nun’, equivalent to our letter ‘n’. Linneaus, however, saw this pattern as more Gothic in form, hence called it ‘gothica’. So, you see, while there is a reason why scientists need to be precise as to which species they are referring, that does not necessarily mean that there is much logic unpinning the names the species have acquired.

Species #15 – Four Hebrew Character moths were trapped last night. It is one of our earliest moths to emerge each year flying between March and June.
Species #16 One Pale Pinion moth was trapped. It overwinters as an adult so flies early in the year. Its larval food plants are different shrubs and trees that can be found in hedgerows. Interesting to see that it has been recorded from only one other location in County Kilkenny.

 

Species #17 The Clouded Drab is another common moth, flying early in the year.
Species 18 – The Early Grey flies very early in the year, and can be seen from February through to May. Its food plant is honeysuckle which grows commonly in the hedgerows around the garden.

Garden Biodiversity Challenge #4

For me one of the cues of  the advancing spring are the changing choristers in the garden. Four days ago I heard the first of our migrant birds calling from an ash tree, the distinctive two notes chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff repeated over and over.  This is an easy one, a chiffchaff for the bird is named after its song. Apparently Germans hear its song differently, for they call it a Zilpzalp! These tiny birds, weighing less than a 2 Euro coin, have flown here from the Mediterranean, where they spend the winter months. Each year more chiffchaff are tending to linger in Ireland year round, presumably because of the milder winters. I suspect the one I heard in the garden was a true migrant, for it was followed in subsequent days by others. Then yesterday, coming from the thicket at the back of the garden, I heard the first delightful song of the blackcap. Blackcap is a bird about the size of a robin. Its plumage is  greyish-green, but what sets these bird apart is the jet black crown of the male and deep warm chestnut crown of the female that contrasts with the rest of their drab plumage. For such an energetic songster, with a wide repertoire of melodic notes, these birds are surprisingly difficult to see, as they tend to stay under cover in bushes. Yet, BirdWatch Ireland lists blackcap as one of the top 20 most common garden birds in summer.  For me, there is something magical about these birds.

Bird-‘watching‘ is a strange term for keeping track of what birds are around, for watching only is like a bird trying to fly on only one wing; bird-‘listening‘ is equally as important.  For as I write, I hear at least a half dozen species singing in the garden – dunnock, wren, robin, great tit, woodpigeon and guinea fowl (did I tell you we have guinea fowl too? Not great songsters -noisy feckers, if the truth be told!). And from the fields I hear a distant yellowhammer singing; what a joy it is to hear these delightful little birds that are threatened in Ireland but which, fortunately, are still common around here.

One of the consequences of a family bakery is that from early evening the house becomes silent with only the office worker awake. Even sitting at my computer, when it is dark outside, I sometimes hear birds flying overhead (doesn’t say much for the insulation qualities of our windows, grant you). Two nights ago a moorhen flew past low over the house. It may have been prospecting our pond as a suitable nest site (which I am sure it rejected thanks to our ducks) or it may have been just moving between the few small wet areas in the nearby fields. They have bred in a couple of these over the years. Later the same evening around eleven, as I let the dogs out before bed, a snipe flew over, calling. I always wonder what these birds are doing, going to and fro at night, while we sleep.

Then, in the early light of the following morning, a mistle thrush and blackbird tried to out compete one another in welcoming the new day. The world would be a far poorer place without the backdrop of birdsong heralding the arrival and departure of our daylight. Spring is such a delightful time.

Species #12 – Chiffchaff is one of the earliest summer migrants to arrive back to Ireland each year. It has a very distinctive song, two notes ‘chiff-chaff’, ‘chiff-chaff’ repeated over and over again. Hence its name; early ornithologists obviously were not a very imaginative lot! Heard the first chiffchaff singing in the garden on 21st March this year. (Photo by Dick Coombes)
Species #13 The male blackcap has a distinctive black crown, but it is not the easiest bird to see as it tends to keep to cover. Instead its presence is announced by its beautiful full bodied and varied song. I heard the first blackcap singing in the garden on 23rd March. (Photo by Dick Coombes)
Species #13 The female can be easily distinguished from the male, for it has a beautiful warm chestnut coloured crown. In summer, juveniles birds, both male and female, have a brown crown. (Photo by Dick Coombes)

Garden Biodiversity Challenge #3

We have had two nice, sunny days now. Specks of colour are appearing in the garden, mostly provided by the yellow lesser celandines whose petals are opening wide welcoming the sun. More daisies are appearing as each day passes and the primroses are adorning the earthen bank we created at the west side, in the shade of the sycamore trees. I’m surprised that we don’t have any dandelions yet for dandelions have little to fear from the mower in our garden. Perhaps they should fear the geese, but not the mower.

I went in search of any other wildflowers that I could find. Plenty of plants have begun to grow, but only their foliage is showing and few are flowering yet. Finding any of these requires patience to search them out. Wildflowers are things of beauty, but generally not in a flamboyant way; their beauty is more subtle, more delicate. In a corner of our ‘highway’, a short strip of elevated ground created from earth excavated from the largest pond, I find a solitary cowslip growing in the shelter of the hedgerow. It is related to the primrose, and has similar wrinkled leaves and same yellow petals. Unlike the primrose, the cowslip’s flowers grow in bell-like clusters at the top of a stalk that rises above the leaves.  Cowslips were once a much more common plant of farmland happily growing, as the name suggest, on fields grazed by cows. But this was a time when fields had variety, and full of different grasses. I am grateful, however, that this beautiful cowslip has chosen our eircode to make its home.

The hedgerows surrounding the garden have a good mixture of different shrubs growing in it, including blackthorn. What is odd is that one bush, and only one, has decided to jump the gun on all the others and has burst into bloom. Blackthorn is easy to spot from now on for it is unusual in that it flowers before the leaves have grown, its bare dark twigs adorned with beautiful white five-petaled flowers.

All around the garden, in the shade of the trees, cow parsley is busy pushing out its leaves. It tends to smother everything else as the season develops. But in one spot, growing under the cow parsley, where there is a small break in the hedgerow, I spot a small little cluster of delicate blue violets. There are two species that grow at this time of the year, in similar places, and look almost identical. The trick is to examine the spur that extends out at the back of the flower; generally if this is pale it is the common dog-violet, whereas if it is dark it is the early dog-violet. What I found was the early dog-violet.

I mooched around the shaded lane and spotted another clump of violets, but the petal of these were white rather than blue. I was really surprised to find these for they are another species, the sweet violet. As the name suggests, just bend down and smell their lovely scent. This is a species that I don’t think I have seen before ever, it is a new species for me, so it shows there are plenty of things to find just under your nose if you just go looking.  So please, just go looking.

Species #8 Early dog-violet grows early on eastern side of the hedgerow when it gets some sunlight in early spring. It can be identified from its close relatives by having a dark spur extending out from the back of the flower.
Species #9 – Sweet violet was a new find for me. I hadn’t noticed it before growing along our shaded lane. As the name suggests, it has a lovely sweet scene, but you need to bend down low and get your nose close, to smell it!
Species #10 Blackthorn is unusual in that it flowers before the leaves come on the branches. It flowers is spring, but one bush in the garden is flowering now. Others will follow suit shortly.
Species #11 A solitary cowslip is growing in the garden. It is closely related to the primrose but the flowers grow in small bell-like clusters on the stem.

Garden Biodiversity Challenge #2

There is no better way to enjoy the birds in your garden than to put up feeders or put out food to attract them. That way they come to you, rather than you having to seek them out. We do not overdo the feeders; we have a large peanut feeder and another with niger seeds that we keep topped up only in winter and spring. In our yard there are also plenty of opportunities for food theft by the birds from the grain put down for the ducks; did I mention that we have ducks? Watching the different birds’ behaviours around the feeders given an insight into the different roles that different species play, or what scientists call an ecological niche. Think of a niche as an occupation or a job that is done. The great tits and blue tits tend to be masters of the peanut feeder, aggressively guarding their larder and easily raiding it by using the strong pointed bills to peck at the nuts.   Only the larger greenfinches seem unperturbed by the tits, ignoring them and feeding whenever they like. The greenfinch has a larger more powerful bill, with which it levers out broken nuts from the wire mesh with ease.   At quieter times, the gentler chaffinch and house sparrow nip in for a nibble. Goldfinches have the niger seed feeder to their own; their only quarrel is with each other. Their long slim bill has evolved to eat small seeds, so picking out the small black seed, tweezer-like, through the narrow slits is their specialised job.  Meanwhile, on the ground the red-breasted robin and its drab cousin the dunnock quietly go about their business mopping up the leftovers that fall from the feeders above. This is how nature works in our garden. All the food resources that we put out for our garden birds are used up, with different species getting their different share of the feast, and nothing is wasted. Of course, that is until the starlings arrive, those bully boys of the garden bird world; when this gang arrives, all others scarper.

Three of the tit species that I saw at the feeder today are #4 blue tit, #5 great tit and #6 coal tit.  And to add to this trio is #7 the starling.

Species #4 Blue tit is a very common resident of the garden. It is one of the first birds to come to the feeder when it is re-filled. It is easy to identify from the other tit species by its light blue crown.
Species #5 Great tit is the largest of the tit species. It has a black crown, very conspicuous white cheeks and a black band that runs down the front of its yellow chest. In males, this black band extends all the way down to between its legs.
Species #6 The third species of tit that comes to the feeder is the coal tit. Superficially it can look like the great tit, but it is smaller and lacks the yellow on its chest. Instead its chest is a light brown/buff colour. It also has a small white patch at the back of its head.
Species #7 The Starling travels in small noisy flocks. It is a slim black bird with a pointed yellow bill. In good light the plumage look glossy, with a green and purple sheen. When not bullying the other birds, it is search out cracks in our shed wall, looking for a suitable nest site.

Garden Biodiversity Challenge

This is an extraordinary time. The Corona Virus has shut us down, forced us to retreat home and wait out this dreadful pandemic. My family had a meeting, without me I should add, and I was declared the weak link in the family because in the past I have suffered from asthma. Unless I wish to risk familial harmony, I need to stay put. I am well set up to work from home, and there is plenty work to do, so that is not going to be a problem. However, I do enjoy being outdoors and exploring nature, and I think this is what I might mostly miss.

In order to avoid cabin fever setting in, I plan to document and share with you what biodiversity I can find in the garden over the next few weeks. The timing for this is good, for there is still very few signs of spring; today it is 7 degrees but feels cooler with the easterly breeze. But as each day passes, the garden should be bursting into life and many new finds to make. And I will share my finds on social media, as they say in Ireland, just for the craic!

Let me tell you a bit about our garden. I live in rural Kilkenny, surrounded by prime agricultural land. Our house is back about 200m from the road, down a rough lane surrounded by fields. The ‘garden’ is really just a triangular field of about half an acre, surrounded by poorly maintained hedgerows that cattle sometimes break through. Some rather old sycamore and ash trees grow in the hedgerows. We have a vegetable patch, about 10m by 15m, but over the years it has produced far more weeds than edibles. When we moved in about 20 years ago, we planted corners with native trees and shrubs, crated a ‘wildflower’ strip and dug three holes and lined them with polytunnel plastic to create ponds. One of those never really held water. A second works well, not great to look at, but does support wildlife. The third, the largest, a hole of about 20m by 10m was meant to be my pride and joy. Instead, it has become a magnet for our flock of ducks and geese, who have made shit of it, literally! Some aquatic wildlife persists in spite of the best efforts of our flock. The remainder is tussocky grass which gets cut occasionally. The soil here is enriched, so little else grows except grass and nettles in the open, and cow parsley and hogweed in more shaded areas. Oh, and did I mention the kids penchant for all things mechanical? At times it has doubled up as an assault course, a DIY moto-cross service area, and more recently a pit bike rat-run. In short, our garden is not really a garden at all; rather a field annexed from farmland as a multi-purpose outdoor youth academy, with ducks. There are always ducks. Despite this, biodiversity retains a foothold, and I will see what treasures it holds. And I will only list what has arrived into the garden of its own accord.

Here are three common flowers to start the list; #1 lesser celandine, #2 primrose and #3 daisy.

Species #1 Lesser celandine. One of the first flowers to be seen each year, with the yellow petals opening in sunshine but closing when sun retreats. It belongs to the buttercup family. It is a common plant around the garden.
Species #2 – Primrose is a very distinctive early flowering plant. It has light yellow petals, with a darker yellow ‘eye’, and wrinkled leaves. It grows on an earthen bank in the garden.
Species #3 The daisy manages to grow in the grass, and can easily survive regular mowing. There is hardly any time of the year when at least a lone daisy cannot be found in the garden.