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The Turning of the Seasons

Notice Nature > Albert Nolan Essays

The turning of the Seasons.


The school holidays are in full swing and young minds, freed from the burdens of homework and study, are full of energy and eager to head out to explore the natural world. With the sun beating against our backs, we arrived at the Pollagh and parked in the cool shade of the trees. Our picnic and an ample supply of water were packed into my bag. The all important insect net was taken by the kids and before I had locked the car they were already sweeping the roadside vegetation to see what mini beasts they could find

Mid summer's eve marks a change in the countryside as the nights start to slowly creep in and fruits, seeds and berries start to ripen in preparation for the frosty days of Autumn. Many of our wildflowers are in bloom and on a good day the grassy verges can be full of insects.

We set off on our walk and the summer migrants are still along the trail and we heard the familiar songs of the Blackcap and Chiffchaff singing. Meadow sweet is in full flower and it has a beautiful fragrance. It was once gathered and brought into houses to help freshen up the air and help mask unpleasant smells.

The Mountain Ash is a native tree and it is a long way from its natural home in the hills. But it grows just as well under the shade of the tall trees. Traditionally it was associated with the "little folk" and it was considered very unlucky to damage any part of the tree. Bright red berries are produced in Autumn and these attract hungry birds. Silver Birch has beautiful bark and this provides colour during the winter months.

Once the cow parsley has finished turning our hedgerows white another member of its family takes over. Common hogweed has started to flower and its showy white flowers are a magnet for insects. Cuckoo spit is everywhere and it never seems to dry up or get washed away. The froghopper that lives inside probably renews it on a daily basis.

Overhead we hear a swallow singing and I don't see them that often hunting over the insect-rich meadows. Perhaps it is the lack of suitable nest sites that prevents them making their homes in the Pollagh.

The kids don't want to go the usual route and for a change we go straight on rather than turning. Greater Willow Herb stands as tall as a man and in a few weeks will have bright pink flowers. The caterpillars of the pink 'Elephant hawk moth' also feed on this plant.
Another fantastic plant for moths is honeysuckle as it releases its scent at night and we find it climbing through the roadside hedge.

If you are into flowers this is the time of year to be out and about. During the summer months many gardeners throw open their doors and invite the public in to admire their work. Nature too, crafts its own garden and this is free from any man-made limitations.
As we walk along we spot the yellow flowers of meadow vetchling. This can also climb and it has little tendrils that wrap around grasses and other flowers. Creeping thistle and common valerian are tall plants with sturdy stems and have no need for climbing aids. If you pause to examine their flowers you will find a whole host of interesting bugs that come to feed on the nectar. Bring a large sheet of paper or a towel and place underneath the plant. Gently shake and all of the mini beasts will fall and will stand out against the white background.

Our first butterfly of the day is a Ringlet and this is a very common butterfly of damp meadows. It even flies on wet days and is a uniformly brown colour. On its wings it has a beautiful pattern of rings and the caterpillars feed on various grasses during the night.
Adults sip nectar from the flowers of bramble and thankfully there is no shortage of this plant along the trail.

Bright colours attract butterflies and bumblebees and purple loosestrife has long spikes of mauve flowers and a delicious scent. It is often sown as part of a wildflower meadow in gardens. Spear thistle also has deep purple flowers but is not welcome by many gardeners. This is unfortunate as its flowers are brilliant for butterflies and its seeds are eaten by song birds.

High in the trees a woodpigeon is calling. They are unusual among birds in that they feed their young on milk that is more nutritious than humans or cows. Because they are not dependent on seasonal food they can have several broods during the year and sometimes they have chicks in the nest as late as October.

While the birds are interesting, the flowers really steal the show today. Cow parsley and dandelion are in seed and these will provide seeds for birds. The fluffy seed heads of the Dandelion are called clocks and children used to use them to tell the time. Each breath represented one hour and when all the seeds were gone you would know the time.

Broad leaved plantain is common by field gates as it needs low grass to grow in and can survive a certain amount of trampling. Lesser stichworth has white flowers on scrambling stems and any plant with worth at the end of its name was once a powerful medicinal herb. 'Cat's Ear' is a close relative of the dandelion and it has single yellow flowers on tall stems. It gets its unusual name from small little bracts on the stem that look like cat's ears.

Elderberry is in flower and I have seen a few adverts in the papers from people who are looking for elderberry flowers and will pay by the kilogram. We count five more Ringlets and also see a different species - the Meadow Brown. They are big brown butterflies with orange patches on their wings. They also have a prominent black false eye that stands out against the orange patches.

Hidden behind a field hedge, I hear a rook calling. Once the meadows are cut, the rooks arrive to search for soil grubs and help keep the pests under control by cleaning up the fields.

The wild dog rose grows in a few places along the trail and their flowers are very delicate and blow away with the slightest touch. Its fruit is called a rose hip and they are very high in vitamin C. During the war years, children were sent out to gather up the berries as fresh fruit was in short supply. They were also dried and sent over to Africa but I am not sure if this practice continues today.

Knapweed flowers are not open yet and they are also called hardheads. I am starting to learn about grasses and find lots of Cocks- foot grass growing on the banks. It is supposed to look like the foot of a cock but no matter what way I hold it I can't see the resemblance.

We sweep the flowers and grasses with the net and it reveals a hidden world. The net is full of tiny bugs and leafhoppers. They have very strong hind legs and when you place them on your finger they leap into the air.

A harsh guttural call draws our attention to the skies. A Raven is flying nearby and these are powerfully built birds. They are rare over the Pollagh and in recent years have continued to spread throughout Tipperary. Meadow pipits are displaying over a field and as we watched one flew high into the air and slowly descended to the ground while constantly singing. We also hear a Wren and Goldfinch singing and see a male Blackbird.

We pause by a colourful display of wildflowers and find several interesting insects. A small tortoiseshell butterfly is resting in the middle of the road. They pass the winter as adults and are often found in our homes. They can often be found feeding on the flowers of creeping thistle.

In the net we find a beautiful Green Orb Spider. The kids call it the apple spider as its body is apple shaped and bright green. We catch a hoverfly called Syrphis Ribesis and these are excellent predators. They can catch dozens of insects each day and are more agile that a modern military jet.

A ragged Green Veined White is caught in the net and they are easily identifiable by the dark veins on their wings. This one is probably a month old and this is a pensionable age for butterflies. Narrow leaved willow herb grows in damper areas and has delicate pink flowers.

We reach the crossing point and a Reed Bunting is singing from a tree. They are common along the trail and nest in low trees, shrubs and reeds. Some of the fence posts are covered in colourful lichens but I don't know what species they are and the learning never really ends.

A narrow wildflower edge has been left uncut by the edge off the path and it contains a huge range of colourful flowers. Purple loosestrife, common valerian, meadow sweet and cat's ear grow in nature's garden.

The meadow is equally as rich and cat's ear, creeping buttercup, narrow leaved willow herb, Common valerian, Anglicia, Spear thistle, Red and white clover and the large seed pods of flag iris are growing among the grasses. This diversity of flowers is rarely seen in the countryside anymore. But this is a dying natural treasure as the meadows are being drained and planted with trees. Also many of the edges of the paths have been sprayed and I find this very strange management for a wildlife habitat. I have noticed gradual erosion of the biodiversity since I first came here many years ago but we will continue to enjoy the amazing nature and try and record some of its wildlife in words for future generations.

We reach the last track and catch three caterpillars of the Peacock butterfly in the net. They are all black with spikes and a sprinkle of white dots. Lucy says they have sticky feet that cling to your hand. They look fully grown and the next time we are back we should find adult Peacocks.

Flying in the tall grasses we find a blue Damselfly. They are delicate insects and I think it was a common blue. Most of their lives are spent as an underwater larva and they are ferocious predators. After two years they crawl up along waterside vegetation and transform into a stunning adult that might only survive for a few precious days or weeks.

Angelica and knapweed are in flower in this part of the trail and I find several moths. The Straw Dot is mainly yellow with a black dot on each wing. It is a small moth with a triangular shaped body. Flame Carpets as their name suggests have an orange band that resembles a flame across their wings. The Clouded Border is as light as a cloud and is white with a dark brown border. Latticed Heaths are not that common and are found in areas of tall grasses.

My team of naturalists is getting tired and we start to potter back to the car. A skylark is singing in the meadow and they need the late cutting of the grass in order to successfully raise their chicks. Also another Wren singing in a field hedgerow.

Yellow Rattle is a semi parasitic plant of the roots of grasses and is a sign of very old grassland. The seeds' pods when full ripened are hollow inside and if you shake the flower the seeds rattle around inside.

When the kids rest for a few moments on a welcome seat, I get up close to some creeping thistle flowers. These are a magnet for insects but danger lurks in the Garden of Eden. Clever spiders build their webs on the thistle and they have a continuous supply of insects.

Solider beetles are orange with a black tip to their bodies. They are abundant on the flowers of common hogweed and are in their characteristic position of love making.

More butterflies flit by and we count Ringlets x 9, a small tortoiseshell and a Meadow Brown. A chaffinch is calling from a field hedge and in a freshly cut meadow there are ten rooks foraging for soil grubs. We find our first Common Figworth plant of the walk and I think this is the only place it grows along the trail.

Our last stop is to explore a field that has been cut. The sweet smell off the meadow lingers in the air. Three field drains run through the meadow and a narrow strip of tall flowers and grasses have been left. This contains a small plant called Marsh bedstraw. It has tiny star shaped flowers that are white. Along the hedgerow Snowberry and Hawthorn are growing. Snowberry has bright white berries in winter and they are called Billy Busters by kids. If you squeeze them the juices squirt out over your intended victim.


Comments/questions to albert.nolan@rocketmail.com or 089 4230502.

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