Two Kilometres

That’s all we’re allowed during the Covid19 lockdown for ‘necessary exercise.’ But I have spent years now exploring the townlands around us and I like nothing better than to ramble out with my camera looking out for whatever comes my way, like Rossbrin Castle, above. Robert has done something similar this week – each of us with our own take on what life is like here right now.

From the top: Seven-spot Ladybird; Peacock Butterfly; Mr Bull and his two cows observing social distancing

I’ve learned so much this way about the natural world. A lot of it has ended up as blog posts on Roaringwater Journal or as entries on my Wildflowers of West Cork Facebook Page.

From the top: Herb Robert, Greater Stitchwort and Ground-ivy

There is archaeology and history all around us too, from a wedge tomb to a tower house, from mining complexes to ring forts and standing stones.

From the top: a ruined farmstead bears witness to population decline; Mount Gabriel looms over a pastoral scene; the old gate once led into a mine

We miss our friends, The Chat in Budds, our Irish lessons and conversation group, the Book Club and Art House Cinema and Talks at the Vaults and all the other events that get us out into the community and keep us curious and learning. We miss our long drives, our Holy Well and Stone Circle hunting trips – and our lattes!

From the top: Tadpoles; Ivy-leaved Toadflax on an old stone wall

But these are small, first world, complaints and we do know how privileged we are to be well, to be able to buy groceries online, not to have small children to entertain and educate at home, and most of all to live in such incredible surroundings. It’s a good reminder not to take those privileges for granted.

I think I have barn envy

Meanwhile, we want to support everyone’s efforts to flatten the curve and we are in awe of the selfless dedication of so many people and desperately sympathetic to those who have lost income. The best way we know to do this is to be cooperative and follow the rules. And that’s what we are doing, mostly staying at home and when we go out keeping our walks to a 2km radius.

From the top: Contrasting textures – bark and barn; Distant view of Castle Island with the remaining castle wall and the abandoned farm houses

So herewith is a selection of what we’ve seen in the past few days as we walk several different 2km routes that present themselves from our front gate. Many of the wildflowers are tiny and only lots of practice enables me to spot them in the verges or the fields.

From the top: Dandelions and Celandine; Common Mouse-ear; Thrift and Scurvygrass 

It seems like spring has been slow to come this year although when I look back at previous years I see much the same assemblage of flowers for late March and early April. But beyond a golden day or two, it hasn’t warmed up yet so there is no sense of spring suddenly ‘bustin’ out all over’. Nevertheless the hedgebanks are slowly coming to life and I see something new every day.

From the top: Wild Strawberry; Three-cornered Garlic (AKA Three-cornered Leek); Scarlet Pimpernel; Primrose

The rock faces at my favourite bog soak are always fascinating, although you have to lie flat with your face an inch from the surface to really grasp the miniature world that teems on its surface. I’m still determined to improve my knowledge of lichen and mosses, but I can’t pretend I’ve advanced much.

From the top: Devil’s Matchstick, a type of Cladonia lichen: I don’t know

How are you all doing out there? Leave a comment and let us know – we want all our dear readers to stay safe and well!

 

A Wildflower Year

2019 was a good year for the wildflower watcher. This January pine cone looks otherworldly, having lost the seeds along its length.

February – Alder Catkins

I run a Facebook Page called Wildflowers of West Cork. It’s on its winter break right now, but take a look at the photographs and you’ll see the amazing variety of flowers I have seen this year. For this post, I have chosen one photograph for each month that represents something for me about that month, or that brings back a memory of my year of wildflower observation. It’s a personal selection, a bit quirky perhaps.

January (first photo) and February (above) are all about the waiting, with hints of what’s to come peeping out every now and then.

March – Colt’s-foot

I was pleased to find these Colt’s-foot flowers in March, but not in West Cork. Although distribution maps show it as occurring here, I’ve actually not seen it here at all yet. Must look harder!

April – Early Dog-violet

I found this one in Kerry. You have to look closely to see the difference with the Common Dog-violet (which we have in abundance). Don’t worry – I didn’t pick it, I’m just holding it steady for the camera.

May – Yellow Rattle

I planted these myself from seeds ordered from Sandro Caffola at Design by Nature and I was thrilled to see them coming up, especially after a crowd of pigeons showed up to feast on the newly-sewn seeds. Yellow Rattle parasitises on grass, loosening the soil and creating bare patches. I’m trying to cultivate a wildflower meadow in one part of my garden and this is one of the recommended strategies for encouraging wild flowers to drift in and take root.

June – Bee Orchid

This is a spectacular and relatively rare native Orchid. Altar Church at Toormore on the Mizen was practising a Don’t Mow, Let it Grow philosophy in the spring and early summer, and all kinds of flowers were flourishing there, including this beauty.

July – Figwort

This is such an easy-to-overlook plant – the red flower is tiny and unobtrusive and it’s only when you see it silhouetted against the sky like this that you realise how exotic it is. The tallest one I’ve seen towered over me.

August – Yellow-horned Poppy

I had a wonderful day on Long Island in August with my friend Damaris Lysaght, helping her do the annual count of this Poppy population. It grows on shingle beaches, but only in occasional locations around the coast, so it was a real privilege to be involved in monitoring such an important species. I had failed to find the Poppy in May when I took a reconnaissance trip to Long Island so I was thrilled to be with Damaris, the expert, on this occasion.

September – Wild Clary

Watching Damaris, I realised I had a lot to learn about counting wildflowers so I signed up for a day long monitoring workshop conducted by the botanist Paul Green for the Biodiversity Data Centre. It took place near Youghal and this was one of the flowers we counted. I really enjoyed the day – observing wildflowers is normally a very solitary activity for me so it was wonderful to hang out with simpatico folks and talk wildflowers all day.

October – Flax

Once widely grown in Ireland for the linen industry, Flax now crops up here and there, often as a result of birds distributing seeds from feed mixes. We had walked cross-country to find a stone circle that day – I wasn’t expecting to see so much Flax in the final field, and wonder if it was sewn as part of a green manure mix.

November – Pixie-Cup Lichens

This was the year we discovered Lichens and Little Things in the Woods and ever since I’ve been keeping an eye out for them. I’ve discovered the rock faces in my own garden hosts quite a variety, including these tiny Cladonia that look like they’re ready for a fairy party.

December – Winter Heliotrope

Introduced into Ireland by Victorian beekeepers to provide winter nectar for bees, Winter Heliotrope has become invasive, covering the ground in large kidney-shaped leaves and leaving no room for native species. Nevertheless, they do introduce a welcome note of colour and scent in the depths of winter.

I leave you with another image from the Altar Graveyard – an Early Marsh Orchid (see comments below – I had mis-identified this as a Common Spotted Orchid – thanks, Paddy for, er, ‘spotting’ my error) growing in a sea of Bog Pimpernel. Here’s to another great year of Wildflower Watching!

Lichens and Little Things in the Woods

The wonderful Ellen Hutchins Festival for 2019 has just finished – now in its fifth year and going from strength to strength in celebrating all the aspects of botany that Ellen practised. You can read about Ellen in my post Ellen Hutchins: The Short and Remarkable Life of Ireland’s First Female Botanist. We participated again in 2016 and I wrote about our fascinating walk Into the Woods with Pádraig Whelan and Howard Fox.

This year there was the same wide variety of botany-related activities, including an impressive array of events for children. We attended (above) a talk by Madeline Hutchins (Ellen’s GGG-Niece) about her life, with an emphasis on her letters and a talk on letter writing of the period by Carrie O’Flynn and then, last weekend, a Lichen Walk in beautiful Glengarriff Woods (first photograph, top).  Been there yet? If not, you’re missing a real treat.

The focus of the walk was lichen of course (apparently it is acceptable to say lyken or litchen so take your pick) with Paul Whelan (above). Paul has a website at Lichens of Ireland which seems to be down for maintenance, but there’s another one, Irish Lichens, run by Jenny Seawright, which I’ve been using and finding easy to follow, especially for a neophyte like me. But even though the subject was lichens, once you enter the woods it’s easy to get distracted by other things, so for me the day was as much about the insects and flowers that we saw (sorry, Paul) on our short, but incredibly rich, walk.

What are these people doing? This is how close you have to get, with a hand lens, to see the tiny patches of lichen on the rocks of the bridge

So what is a lichen? It’s a fungus, but one that works with another organism (usually green algae but sometimes a cyanobacteria) to produce something neither can do on their own. Since lichens can’t photosynthesise, they depend on the other organism to do that. The fungus contributes by consuming dead matter and this mutually beneficial and necessary relationship is called symbiotic.

And this is what we were seeing

The lichen body is called a thallus, and it produces spores (which is how it reproduces) through an apothecium (which looks like a tiny cup) or a perithecium (which looks like a tiny volcano). We saw mostly lichen with perithecia on our walk, some of which were just tiny black dots.

We also saw some foliose lichens – leaf like things such as the one immediately above, although you had to get very close with a hand lens to even see the leafy structures of some of them. Others were bigger and more obvious – these Usnea lichens (below) are like tiny bonsai leafless trees and attach to rocks and trees by a single contact point.

I had already written (in my post Miniature World) about the Cladonia Lichen such as the Devil’s Matchstick, and now that I know a bit more about lichens I’ve been browsing around our own garden and I found some on a rock wall (below) – not only Devil’s Matchsticks but the ones called Pixie Cups as well.

And the ‘other things’ on the walk? Clare Heardman from the National Parks and Wildlife Service, who seems to know about the whole gamut of wild organisms, was excited to see a fly land on Robert’s back. No ordinary fly, it turns out, but a Dark Giant Horse Fly (Tabanus sudeticus) – the largest and heaviest fly in Europe! We know it’s a female by the space between her eyes (males have no space) and it’s the female that bites and sucks your blood. One source I consulted says: Unlike insects which surreptitiously puncture the skin with needle-like organs, horse flies have mandibles like tiny serrated scimitars, which they use to rip and slice flesh apart. Charming, but fortunately she flew away before inflicting that on Robert.

Nearby, another fly was feeding on some Ling Heather, this time a hoverfly. Trying to identify hoverflies is a head wreck, there are so many different types, but I think this one is called parasyrphus lineola, one of the little forest hoverflies that like a conifer environment. Hoverflies are next to bees in importance as pollinators – it’s not that they carry as much pollen, but they are so busy and make so many visits to flowers that they do a sterling job. They also keep aphid populations under control.

You can see the dusting of pollen on this hoverfly

When we arrived at the pond Paul showed us the Usnea lichens – one tree over the water was entirely decorated with them, although they also like to grow on rocks as well. They belong to the Fruticose Lichens and on his website he describes them thus: Fruticose lichen appear tufted and shrubby and are usually erect or pendant and attached to the substrate at a single point. Filamentous lichen are soft and hair-like and some form felt-like mats comprised of very fine filaments.

The pond itself was alive with water striders, amazing little creatures that walk on water. A little Googling led me to this short video about how exactly they accomplish this, and what they live on (don’t watch if you’re squeamish).

As I was watching them, my eye was caught by a flash of brilliant blue and down came a damselfly to rest on one of the long reeds overhanging the pond. It was the aptly named Beautiful Demoiselle and a male, which has the striking metallic blue colour. This reed was its perch, from which it guarded its territory and kept an eye on passing edible insects, leaving it to chase them and then return. (There’s a good Wikipedia page on them.)

It was a great walk, all in all, and we can’t now go anywhere without checking out our surroundings for lichen. On a walk on Long Island yesterday I was attracted to the patches of bright orange and white lichen on the rocks. Here’s what I saw, at a distance and close up:

I was also delighted to see heather and lichen growing on one rock surface, and very attractive it looked together. The lichen might be one of the Cladonias, but please correct me if I’m wrong.

My previous feelings for lichen were all negative, since they obscure rock art and headstones, but now – have we caught the lichen bug? I hope not, since it already takes me an hour to walk around the block, stopping to look at flowers. What do you think, Dear Reader – is there any hope for us?