Beautiful demoiselles du Bandon River

SEPTEMBER 27 brought the advent of butterflies, the first fall or hatch we’ve seen this butterfly-less summer. 

Beautiful demoiselles du Bandon River

Butterfly Sunday, one of our walker friends insisted on calling it. On a 4km stroll in bright sunlight and temperatures of about 18C, we spotted 10 red admirals, two tortoiseshells, and a single peacock, almost all feeding on the nectar of ivy flowers, though not yet fully in bloom.

Ivy is a rich source of nectar. Hover-flies were also clients on the yellowish-green flowerheads, as well as the occasional honey bee.

Besides the brilliant vanessa species, drabber but nevertheless pretty speckled wood butterflies were flitting about in almost average numbers in woodland clearings or margins, or corridors of tall fuchsia hedges. Speckled woods are the only butterfly we have seen regularly during the cold, wet, cloudy summer. A few appeared any time a ray of sunshine broke through the grey.

Moths are in notable absence these evenings; even with the sunny days of last week, the evenings were cold. In early September, a friend brought me a caterpillar longer and fatter than my small finger, a strange-looking, but familiar, creature, with large, black “eyes”.

He phoned me before arriving and I was right in suspecting it to be an elephant hawk moth. Most years, alarmed or curious walkers or gardeners send me pictures of these or other hawk moth caterpillars. Poplar, hummingbird, eyed, and small elephant hawk-moths are all found in Ireland.

The elephant is the most dramatic and frightening, at least to a predator. It may be up to 8cm, and tapers towards the head. The body is cross-hatched in blackish-brown, with 11 segments and a “horn” protruding upright from the tail. The segments close behind the head each have a kidney-shaped, white-rimmed, lilac “eye-spot”.

When threatened, the caterpillar retracts its head into its body. This causes the front segments to swell and resemble an elephant’s head in shape, and the “eyes” bulge. It then looks like a short, thick snake and predators give it a wide berth.

The moth itself is a beautiful, pink-winged creature, feeding on the nectar of brambles, valerian or honeysuckle at dusk. The caterpillars feed on willowherb, the tall, pink-blossomed plant seen on roadsides and waste ground, or fuchsia. They certainly aren’t ugly, though I suppose we tend to naturally recoil from soft-bodied, fat, grub-like creatures.

While beauty is a matter of personal perception, nobody could fail to admire the loveliness of beautiful demoiselles, damselflies with slim blue or green bodies that shine as if they were enamelled. Early in September, I took some snaps of one that was perched on a fern overhanging the Bandon River. Like other damselflies, darters and dragonflies, they ‘hawk’ for prey on the wing, capturing smaller flying insects with their forelegs.

Damselflies flutter as opposed to rocketing back and forth over their territory like the larger dragonflies, of which they sometimes become the prey. This fluttering flight and the fact that, like butterflies, they close their wings vertically over their bodies when at rest distinguish them from dragonflies and darters, which perch with their wings open horizontally. The powerful emperor dragonfly, our largest, only became established in Ireland in 2000.

We found two bird carcasses on our driveway this summer, both fledglings, the one a song thrush and the other a wood pigeon. One less song in the air next springtime, and one less voice to join the cooing chorus mornings and evenings.

Cats were the killers, of course. Not our cats, because we don’t keep cats. Cats regularly pass through the garden and yard, and activate the automatic exterior lights at night. I sometimes see them lurking in thickets where I know there are nests. Last week, I saw a cat stalking a grey wagtail that comes to drink in our garden stream. I clapped my hands and it bolted, while the lovely, yellow-plumaged wagtail took wing, alarmed. I hope I haven’t frightened it away for good. These cats never dare come near our interloper heron.

When I sought to know if I had come upon an unlisted Irish variety of mining bee on the Great Blasket island early in September, an expert, John Breen, at UCL, kindly offered me a throve of information. It was impossible for him to make a certain identification from my photographs, but they were of the family Colletes, as I thought, probably Colletes floralis or succinctus, both solitary bees that come together in colonies at breeding time, as when I saw them.

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