Harbinger of high summer was missing until now

OUR freeloading heron is obviously finding it more fun to go catching sand eels now that the water is thick with them, rather than hanging around the Enright courtyard trying to scrounge a meal of old dragonet or sand dab taken from the freezer.

Visits had become rarer in recent weeks, and all the better, too. It is high time he stopped relying on us or the goodwill of our neighbours.

Herons can live to be 35 or more, in which case he could see us all out. Then, our children would be duty-bound to feed him. The same children may not even live here and I doubt they’d be overjoyed with the task of taking him to London, Madrid, Tokyo, or New York, or wherever they live and work in the future.

We first rescued him as a fledgling fallen from the nest in March 2011, and cared for him until he could take wing and rejoin his kin. However, he has been visiting us ever since, and enjoying free lunches of bycatch from the local trawlers.

Now, when the bay is full of sand eel and sprat, is an ideal time for him to become fully self-sufficient. One can see the shoals from the cliffs above, swimming sinuously over the sand between the kelp and bladderwrack. A heron would only have to stand knee-high in the water and snatch them as they pass. Anyway, it is said that a heron’s legs exude an oil that attracts fish. I wonder if the feet of the little egrets do the same; the bright yellow colour might be enough to woo fish nearer.

Honeysuckle, valerian, Enchanters Nightshade, knapweed and loosestrife are in robust bloom along the lanes and road verges of Ireland, legions of insects browsing on them in the sun. Closer inspection reveals them to be fantastic constructions of gleaming wing-cases, bug eyes, delicate legs, and tremulous antennae. They are, as is often said, like creatures from outer space (not that we know what extra-terrestrials would look like)

The Vanessa genus of butterflies is still absent. I still see only speckled woods, meadow browns, ringlets, and the usual whites. No fritillaries, blues, gatekeepers, tortoiseshells, peacocks, admirals, or painted ladys. < A pity, because the buddleia would present a feast; the flower heads of the buddleia, aka the Butterfly Bush, are especially fat this year.

The flowering of the buddleia and the arrival of the Vanessas can coincide; I have numerous photos illustrating this. But for the last few years, this hasn’t happened. The buddleia had gone brown and turned to seed before the arrival of the butterflies that most frequent it.

Red admirals or painted ladys are, of course, migrants from Europe and North Africa and the blocking high which has brought us such glorious weather may have, so far, blocked any winds which might have carried them our way.

But the tortoiseshells should, by now, surely be stirring themselves awake behind the cupboards and curtains where they have been hibernating since October, fluttering at the windows and looking for an open pane through which to escape into the garden, there to bask on verbena or seedum, or to the meadow to seek out knapweed and red clover. They shouldn’t tarry. As Shakespeare put it, “summer’s lease hath all too short a date”.

Year in, year out, flowers come and go; that is the wonder of it. Nature splashes the countryside with every conceivable hue from early spring to late autumn. In weeks past, buttercups dusted the fields in gold, bluebells dyed the woods deep purple, wild garlic painted the verges white. They are all gone now but the elegant flower spikes of wall pennywort, the tresses of blue toadflax, the flowers of briar blossom and bindweed festoons walls and hedges, orange montbretia is spectacular, and tutsan thrives in the damp woods.

Tutsan — from the French toutsaine meaning ‘all healthy’, it was used as a cure for wounds and overweening teaspaí (drinking regular infusions was supposed to induce chastity; libidinous women put sprigs beneath their beds) — is a lovely, interesting, and useful plant, first forming bright yellow flowers, then fleshy red berries turning black when ripe. Overweening teaspaí or not, it is worth looking out for.

* Late news: as I finish this column, a red admiral butterfly alights on the creeper outside my workroom. Welcome, Vanessas! It is the harbinger of the gorgeous host to come.


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