Year in Review 2015

Overall, 2015 has been a relatively good year for myself. The same can’t really be said for many of the things I spend my time looking for while I’m out and about. I’ve decided to write this “Year in Review” for myself to look back on and of course for any of my interested followers on Twitter and elsewhere, it’ll include the activities I’ve been taking part in, species I’ve come across and other bits of relevant natural world information.

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How I started off this year, out looking for plants in East Donegal

I’ll start where every good year (and the bad ones) starts, in January.

It didn’t take me very long to get back into the natural world in 2015, in fact it took less than an hour as I was the first person to a record a plant for the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI) in their New Year Plant Hunt (NYPH). The plant was a daisy (Bellis perennis) and the time was 00:53, not a bad way to start the year. The next few days were spent testing out my new camera (which I had just received over Christmas) and looking for plants which were in flower. On the 3rd of January I was accompanied in this mission by botanical mentor (a mentor to me in all things within the natural world) and friend Ralph Sheppard (BSBI VCR H35). We visited a number of sites, which you can read about here. On the 4th I spent the day again searching for plants, this time however with my family, even to the point that I was making notes of what was flowering in urban areas when stopped at traffic lights, in fact I really didn’t switch off looking for things in flower until the day after. Apart from the botanising early on and a small bit of birdwatching, January was relatively quiet.

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Daisy (Bellis perennis) the first plant I recorded in 2015.

February was also quite a quiet month, but a great time to get up close and personal with trees. At that time of year, when there is still relatively little about you can learn off how to identify trees by their twigs and buds. Many of the common species have quite distinctive buds which makes identification easy. Ash (Fraxinus excelsior) with its beckoning black buds, Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) with its distinct green and of course Horse Chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) with it’s large, red-brown sticky ones [All pictured below].  Mosses and lichens are also quite interesting to study in the first few months of the year and are groups which I am constantly willing myself to get into.

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Horse Chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum)

March is when things start properly kicking off again. The usual suspects start flowering and suddenly there is life and colour in a lot more places. Roadside verges and even wasteground came to life with yellow from Colts-foot and Lesser Celandine. Mosses along the woodland floor were joined by Golden Opposite Leaved Saxifrage. Queen bumblebees started to emerge in earnest with many Buff-tailed and White-tailed Bumblebee feeding and collecting provisions for their nests. I noticed a nice amount of these queens visiting the heather near my home back in Donegal.

By April I was properly back into the swing of things, the camera never leaving my side and lots of common and familiar plants coming back into flower. Butterflies, bees, wasp and ladybirds were also all seen on a regular basis. It’s quite fascinating to record all the species you observe especially noting firsts of the year, as there can be a great deal of fluctuation and it’s something I’m hoping to pay more attention to in the coming year. Willow and dandelions were still the real stars of the show when it came to finding bumblebees feeding. In fact by April we already had a county first for Waterford in the form of the Mountain Bumblebee (Bombus monticola). The bee has a restricted range in Ireland and is only found in a few counties, so finding it in Waterford (it’s most southern record to date) and away from its usual habitat was quite unusual.

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Mountain Bumblebee (Bombus monticola)

This was also the month when myself and my partner (in everything) Mairéad were asked to talk at the BSBI Irish members conference about our experiences recording in East Donegal (H34) and any challenges we had faced in the previous months. The talk appeared to be a success and we were approached by a number of people who said that we perfectly summed how they felt about the daunting task of entering the field of recording. When putting together our talk, it was nice to reflect on how much we had both progressed during the last few years. For myself this went from virtually knowing only the most basic plants to becoming way too excited about identifying orchid hybrids (August). I also got to showcase a collection of my photos at the BSBI conference, but unfortunately I didn’t think to take any photos on the day of the display, but thankfully I did take this shot before we left.

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A selection of my photos that were on display at the BSBI Irish Members Conference
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One of the real stars of April, the humble yet often maligned Dandelion (Taraxacum agg) an excellent food source for bumblebees near the start of the year when there’s not much else in flower.

By the time May came around I was already adding to my species list and had also visited another of Ireland’s National Parks – Glendalough.

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Glendalough National Park, Co. Wicklow

The Holly Blue butterfly which had eluded me the previous year was now a common sight and there was tonnes of activity from some of the more common species.

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Holly Blue Butterfly

I have to admit during May there aren’t too many Cuckoo Flowers/Lady’s Smocks that I don’t check for Orange-Tip eggs. The tiny orange egg is laid just beneath the flower and is an absolutely amazing sight, from there you really get the idea of nature being cyclical. On one such occasion while botanising in my home area I noticed a gathering of about 8 orange-tips, male and female fluttering together, landing on their foodplant in the wet grassland, just low enough to be obscured by the surrounding vegetation. Roughly a half hour later I noticed one just between a track and ditch in a conifer plantation.

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Orange-Tip egg on Cuckoo Flower (Cardamine pratensis)

This nosey little hoverfly (Rhingia campestris) was also there, getting his fix!

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Myself and Mairéad started filling in a few recording gaps around our home areas a mix of small town and countryside mostly dominated by agriculture.

June was a great for recording, but perhaps the highlight of the month was the BSBI Annual Summer Meeting which was based out of Coleraine this year and visited sites in counties Antrim and Derry. You can read my full account of the weekend of recording here and here . To sum it up briefly though, it was a fantastic weekend of field-outings to Garry Bog and White Park Bay in Co. Antrim and the Umbra and Binevenagh in Co. Derry. I recorded some, actually many new species that weekend and visited parts of the country I hadn’t been properly in for quite some time.

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Binevenagh

July was marked by many trips over to one of my favourite places for recording, the Raven Nature Reserve, Co. Wexford. The Raven is located along the south east coast of Ireland and is a great spot to see some nice species. It has a mix of habitats, from dunes to woodland and you’d be hard pressed not to find something interesting.

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Path through a back section of the Raven, Co. Wexford

 

 

On our first visit there it took us about 45 minutes to make it more than 200m into the reserve, as the butterfly numbers were out in force. The Raven is known for being a stronghold for some of the rarer species of butterfly found in Ireland. The site often turns up the beautiful Moss carder bee (Bombus muscorum), which feeds very happily on the large amounts of Kidney vetch (Anthyllis vulneraria) which brings me to the small blue butterfly.

The small blue really lives up to its name, being the smallest butterfly in Ireland, although I’d consider it more of a grey colour than the true blue of the holly or common blue. Perhaps my favourite find from there this year was a solitary bee (Megachile willughbiella) a group which I hope to delve further into next year.

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 Megachile willughbiella

August similarly to June was great for recording, but again a BSBI event turned out to be the highlight of the month. Similarly you can read my account of the weekend of recording in Inishowen here. Again, to sum it up briefly, we tackled a number of areas in Inishowen (which is located in North Donegal) as these were either lacking recording or had an interesting old recording attached to the sites, so our hopes were to re-find some unusual species and bulk up squares for Atlas 2020. The weekend was a great success and the highlight came on the last day when Purple Saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia) was re-found at Glengad Head. It had been last found in that area by Hart (Flora of Donegal) over 100 years ago.

The rest of my time in August was spent surveying Daubenton’s bat for Bat Conservation Ireland, between Donegal and Waterford. It was also the last trip we had to do for the Car Bat survey, which involves driving around a pre-selected route while a time expansion detector is mounted to the rear passenger window. It was great fun and now only did we find bats but also, foxes, owls and deer.

September was off to a great start as we joined VCR for Westmeath Con Breen on an outing near Streamstown.

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Potamogeton coloratus

We got to see a nice variety of habitats and some unusual species, including a paper algal area surrounding a lake which was truly fascinating.

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Paper Algae

As with all the BSBI trips I’ve been on, I usually come across a few new species and this was no different. These were some of the highlights of the trip.

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Zigzag Clover (Trifolium medium)
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Small Toadflax (Chaenorhinum minus)

The BSBI AGM was also this month and had some very interesting talks from a number of records and botanists, topics included Praegar and Alien Species to look out for when recording for Atlas 2020. Perhaps the highlight of this month was partaking for the second year running in the Intervarsity BioBlitz and recording for NUI Galway. The BioBlitz was a success for NUIG again and they retained their title thanks to a great effort by all recorders. These events are a great chance to branch into other fields natural history and I ended recording plants/inverts/birds/rusts and galls/mammals and basically anything else I could see that didn’t take more than 24hrs to identify.

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Menlo Castle, across the River Corrib from the NUIG campus

By October things were starting to cool down, in terms of recording anyway! A number of hardy plants continued to flower even though the temperatures were well below double figures. Myself and Mairéad continued to teach the next generation about plants and animals and everything in between. This was also the last month that I recorded any bumblebees, generally I’ve been lucky with finding them feeding during the winter in more urban areas, but not no avail this year! I was however pleasantly surprised as one day I finally got a chance to properly photograph a butterfly species which had escaped by camera for quite a while, the Comma. Spending time down at Woodstown Strand with Mairéad and the Comma was definitely the highlight of that month

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Comma Butterfly
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Comma Butterfly

There’s nothing quite as relaxing and good for the health as losing yourself in Nature.

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The Comma and I

November was a relatively quiet, botanical recording at this time of year can be quite fun, just to observe what is in flower, but it generally gets low yields, compared to earlier in the year. This month was spent mainly birdwatching, assisting in counts in Donegal and carrying out vantage point surveys.

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Birdwatching in Donegal

I’m still relatively new to birdwatching but have thoroughly enjoyed it every time I’ve been out. It can be quite a relaxing experience to sit on the top of a hill while keeping watch for any and all birds, of course it’s much more of a positive experience when there’s not hail, sleet and snow coming at you from every direction, which is exactly what happened to me on a few occasions.

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Every layer of clothing and waterproofing was needed during the surveys!

The highlight of this month though had to be the release of the latest identification guide by the National Biodiversity Data Centre on the Trees and Shrubs of Ireland. I had been working on this project throughout the year gathering photographs and developing keys and so I was delighted to see my name listed as “Photographer and Co-Author”. The finished product looks amazing and if you want to see for yourself why not check it out here

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December is always an odd time, there’s a slow feel to the month, as the days are so short, but there’s also a busy atmosphere as people are trying to get projects finished before the end of the year. As I’m writing this, we’re into mid-December and I’m starting to look forward to a few events which are already marked in my calendar for the coming year. First thing on the agenda is the BSBI New Year Plant Hunt and this year I’ll even be leaving the confines of my home county to lead a walk with Mairéad and new BSBI President John Faulker in his county of Armagh. More information about this can be found here  it’s promising to be a great few hours of recording so please do come along if you’re interested, hopefully the weather will behave itself!

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View from Slieve Gullion: Overlooking the Ring of Gullion AONB

If the weather is acting nicely at the start of the year then I may also take a trip into West Donegal, Derry and Tyrone! There’s BSBI workshops/conferences and field outings all to look forward to also and I’m particularly looking forward to hosting a trip to south Donegal with Mairéad in August of 2016!

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Murvagh, Co. Donegal should be one of the highlights of our botanical outing in 2016

Other highlights for next year include the return of Ireland’s BioBlitz which for 2016 is focusing its efforts on islands off the coast of mainland Ireland. There’s also a number of recording schemes which will obviously be starting back up again in Spring, along with I imagine a great selection of workshops by the National Biodiversity Data Centre. December may be a dark month, but the future is look very bright and I for one am looking forward to another year spent in nature!

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Myself on the top of Slieve Gullion
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