Painted lady butterfly summer arrival

THIS April day is wild and beautiful, small white clouds high in a blue sky, and waves breaking in white horses on a blue sea.

The wind is from the east. It is bitter cold and, out on the headlands, blows with the force of a gale. As I round the promontory, it catches my trouser legs and fills them so that I am like a Michelin man from the waist down.

Beating into it, head down and leaning against the tempest, I see a raven pass 30 feet above me, drifting on stiff wings straight into the blast. Its forward motion amazes me. It is not being driven by the wind, but is sailing into it — and without a wing beat. Explain to me the aerodynamics of that!

I’d watched it earlier foraging on the field above its nest on the cliff face and, leaning over edge, tried to take photos of the young. The golden gorse flowers in the foreground and the darkness of the fledglings, now fully feathered and packed into the shaded cup beneath the overhang, seemed to me to make a striking contrast and when, suddenly, they raised their heads in unison and opened their red gapes wide, I thought I had a winner of a shot.

However, a friendly cliff-walker had stopped to chat and my attention — and the camera — wobbled. And so, I have an out-of-focus picture of four pink blobs in half-darkness. Foiled again. It is extraordinary how quickly the young have grown feathers; only three weeks ago I mentioned that they were small, squirmy things, pink and naked. Soon, they will have the glossy feathers of their parents, magnificent birds as they stand on fence posts above the nest, their plumage catching the sunlight.

In woods near Timoleague I’ve counted three heron nests, and ten days ago the egrets were starting to build. Let us hope the wild gales rushing through the treetops with the sound of locomotives don’t dislodge the young.

The fledgling heron which, in Mar 2011, fell from its nest 70 foot high in a pine tree, and which we subsequently reared and which has now returned to the wild, is quite enough to cope with. The rearing, from bizarre-looking chick to the elegant bird it is today, was fascinating, amusing and endearing. I recorded our week-to-week progress in this column, and gathered the entire story under the heading of The Heron Diaries; it now comprises the last chapter of my new book, The Kindness of Place: Twenty Years in West Cork.

Although it is in full adult plumage, with two slim black feathers falling like a pigtail from its crown, ‘Ron’, as son’s girlfriend called it, still comes almost daily and knocks on my workroom window asking for fish. And, like doting parents, we feed it small rations of the by-catch we collect from the trawlers.

When we’re away from home a neighbour supplies the necessary. But while one heron is a pleasure, the annual care of heron foundlings could prove a chore.

Butterflies are now flying; I saw a painted lady yesterday — migrants from southern Europe, their arrival augers summer. This individual was especially early — a beautiful new and comprehensive book, published by the Dublin Field Naturalist Club and entitled Ireland’s Butterflies, A Review, notes that the painted lady normally arrives in May.

On Mar 18, I photographed a red admiral in our garden, and a speckled wood on Mar 31.

The review, compiled by David Nash, Trevor Boyd and Deirdre Hardiman, is a milestone volume, based on information provided by several hundred recorders over a 15-year period and noting, in detail, the distribution of Irish butterflies and when and where they may be seen. There are 350 colour photographs, drawings and maps. All 34 species regularly seen, with their eggs, pupae and larvae, are described, and rare vagrants are also illustrated.

For anyone who enjoys watching, identifying or photographing these lovely creatures, Ireland’s Butterflies is worth every cent of the €25 retail price.

A hardback, with dust jacket, high spec. paper and encyclopaedic data, it would cost very much more were it not subsidised by The Heritage Council, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, the National Museums of NI and the Dublin and Belfast Field Clubs. It is a beautiful book and every gardener and hedge scholar should have a copy to hand.

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