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Pollagh Walk May 2014

Notice Nature > Albert Nolan Essays

Sharing our experience of Nature.

The songs of the evening birds echoed throughout the trees and the hazy heat off the day was thankfully fading. My journey from Limerick was quicker than expected and with time to spare I drove up to the Pollagh to see what wildlife was around. Meeting new people is one of my favourite pastimes and soon I was chatting to a local man who cycles to the trail most evenings for his evening walk. The call of the cuckoo to the state of Limerick hurling was eagerly discussed and all too soon I had to leave to meet my group.

Soon i was standing in the car park of Birdhill Railway Station with an enthusiast group of locals are we were getting ready to explore the wonderful wildlife of The Pollagh Trail. Four young girls commandeered my net and after rounding up a few late comers we headed up on our walk. The station is only a short distance from the nature trail and after a few minuets we arrived at our destination.

At this time of the year the walk is full of bird song and flowers and the hard part is deciding what not to talk about. The first plant we looked at was Cow parsley and its flowers turn our roadside verges white during the months of May and June.
It is also known as Queens Anne's Lace as the delicate flowers reminded people of lace that was only fit for royalty. All of the flowers on the trail attract many species of insects and their predators. Nature keeps its ecological book balanced and no species is allowed to get to dominant.

Under the shade of the trees we find Harts tongue fern. This plant gets its unusual name because it reminded people of a male stag with its tongue hanging out after been chased by the hunt. A Chiffchaff is calling from deep cover. This is a summer visitor from Africa and its song is a distinctive Chiff Chaff call.

Buttercups add a splash of colour along the edge off the paths. When we were younger we used to hold the flowers under our friends chin and if their skin turned yellow they loved butter. We pause for a minuet to listen to the unique song of a Song thrush. It is a very forgetful bird and repeats most phrases and notes three times. The song is often written as
"I love you, I love you, I love you,
Take me home, take me home, take me home,
No I won't, No I won't, No I wont.

The song thrush feeds on snails and he uses a special stone called an anvil to break open their hard shells. These soon become littered with discarded shells, and even after all his work the bigger blackbird will sometimes wait and rob the snail.

Another plant associated with love is the speedwell. It has pretty blue flowers and is also called the Forget me not. The story goes that a knight was walking along a river with his lady when he fell in the water. As he was swept away he shouted "forget me not".

I am handed a plant and I cannot remember the name of it. That is part of the appeal of Nature as the learning and experience never really ends. A pair of serious walkers with arms marching by their sides flashes by our strolling group.

We take our first turn and just above our heads a Male Chaffinch is singing. The male is brightly coloured and the female is dull. She has to sit on the eggs to brood them and if she was brightly coloured predators would easily spot her.

On some of the roadside flowers we find Cuckoo spit. Traditionally people used to believe that the cuckoo spat on the plants as it appeared at the same time as the birds. I gently scrap away the froth and the girls are amazed to find a tiny yellow insect inside. This is a froghopper nymph and is an aphid like the ones in our garden. He secretes the whitish froth around him to protect his small body from harsh weather and as it tastes bad it keeps birds from eating him.

The budding naturalists are fascinated and they head off to find their own froghoppers. They also sweep the vegetation and find all sorts of interesting insects including a black weevil. A Male cock pheasant is calling from the meadow. The purple flowers of Bush vetch are scrambling up through the plants. It is a member of the pea family and is an excellent flower for bumblebees. Late in the summer it will have seed pods with little hard black peas.

Two more summer visitors are singing in the trees. The Willow warbler comes in from Africa and is found in gardens and habitats with plenty of tree cover. It has a soft melodious song and never comes to bird tables or garden feeders.

Up to ten years ago the Blackcap was a summer visitor but now many birds pass the winters in our gardens and take advantage off our generosity with seeds and nuts. Males have a black cap while the females cap is brown. A Hawthorn tree is in flower and it is also called the May blossom. It is late this year and is probably due to the very cold weather.

Red clover is another brilliant flower for insects and we find some growing by the path. Another attractive feature of the trail is the succession of wildflowers. Insects like bumblebees need a constant supply of nectar rich plants throughput the year. As one species fades another is opening to take its place.

Scattered on the path we find the catkins of sally or kitten willow. The catkins are very soft and look and feels like tiny kittens. We gently stroke them and almost expect them to meow.

Nettles are much maligned plants but in the right place are very beneficial for wildlife and people. Many of our butterflies and moths lay their eggs on the leaves of nettle. When they hatch the caterpillar closes a leaf around itself using a sticky web. Inside he is safe to develop as grazing animals won't eat his home and birds won't try and eat him. After a number of painful stings I find a caterpillar in a rolled up leaf. Also a gall on a nettle leaf that makes the shape of a caterpillar. This is caused by a fungus called Nettle rust and when its spores are released it completes its lifecycle on sedges.

We reach the half way point and scramble over the metal steps. The meadows here are very wet and have a unique range of flowers. Ragged robin is one the more interesting and its pale red flowers contrast sharply with the tall yellow flowers of the flag iris.

A pair of Stonechats is calling from a tree and they have a distinctive "clack clack call. This sounds like to stones been hit together and it carries throughout the trail. Stonechats have suffered badly during the serve winters but their numbers appear to be on the way back up. They nest in gorse bushes in rough ground.

We did not hear the Cuckoo on our walk but I am assured he is well and safe in the meadows. Cuckoos are disappearing from the wider countryside and this is due to the changing nature of farming. When the fields are cut too early the meadow pipits have no time to build their nests in the long grass. Cuckoos lay their eggs in the nests of Meadow pipits so we have to start by leaving wide margins around the edge off fields for nesting pipits. The wet land in the Pollagh prevents early cutting and this benefits birds and wildflowers. Unfortunately the character of the meadows is changing due to tree planting, drainage and improvement off the grassland. As we look out only a narrow wet strip of wildflowers remain. Olds mans beard is growing on the branches off a tree. This is lichen and is a sign of very clean air.

The drainage ditch along side the path is connected to the local river. I have seen small eels in the ditch and they are probably used as a nursery for developing eels. Sphagnum moss is growing in a damp patch and this acts like a sponge. It takes water in and slowly releases it helping to control flooding.

We reach the last path and begin our journey back to the car. Field maple with creamy white flowers is growing in the shade of the hedge. We manage to catch a bee and it is the Common Carder Bee. It buzzes loudly and as the group gathers round I explain how to tell the difference between a male and female bee. A few of the adults have worried faces but let out a sigh of relief when I explain only the female gathers the pollen so has pollen sacks on her legs. The males only appear in autumn and their only function is the mate with the new queens.

A Chiffchaff is singing loudly and is joined by a Sedge warbler. These birds are also summer visitors from Africa and nest in the brambles along the edge of the paths.
We find a large caterpillar on the path and he is very hairy. Cuckoos are able to eat hairy caterpillars and this is another vital adaptation. Black medic is growing along the grassy middle of the road and a reed bunting is singing from deep within a field.

Our last stop is by an elderberry bush. Its white flowers can be used to make a refreshing drink and is fruits a delicious wine. The leaves are also a natural insect repellent and when I crush some of the leaves they smell is quite pungent.

We arrive safely back at the car and a welcome cup off tea finishes off a very enjoyable evening.

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