Event Report: Saturday 25th May 2024 Walk in Lullymore & Lullybeg, County Kildare

A key challenge involved in organising outdoor events in Ireland is the weather. It is often said that in Ireland we don’t have a climate, we have weather. If it rains, you cannot hold a biodiversity event looking for moths and butterflies outside. You cannot have a butterfly walk without butterflies unless one can conjure them into being for the nature lovers attending the walks. The weather forecast for Saturday did not inspire confidence, only apprehension. A great suspicion arises when you see wall-to-wall sunshine and clear blue skies in Ireland at 7 am. It is typically a cruel trick to lull you into optimism.

By 9 am it had clouded over and at 9:30 am my windscreen showed a spray of rain. Amazingly, it got better after that. When I arrived at our meeting point, four people were already there and another 11 appeared before 10 am, so my confidence in the weather obliging us increased. We even saw sunshine, occasionally, and that was enough to bring butterflies, moths and the region’s legion of dragonflies into the air.

It is reassuring to see the expected species. Our outing was treated to plenty of Marsh Fritillaries, in Lullybeg, none in Lullymore. The butterfly appears to have vacated Lullymore West, although we did find a single pupa.* Before alarm bells ring, the Marsh Fritillary is famous for moving around a landscape, with colonies thriving in one area for some time and then moving elsewhere within a region. The habitat in Lullymore West remains suitable, but some attention is needed to prevent the increase in rank grass becoming a major survival challenge. That underlines the need for landscape-scale protection and management for the Marsh Fritillary.

Marsh Fritillary pupa in Lullymore. Photo J. Harding

Our walk had the benefit of sharp-eyed children, who, having keener eyes closer to the ground, are better adapted to spot insect life! That’s my excuse anyway!

Meeting children aged four to eight who know far more about nature than I did then is inspiring and reassuring; there is hope for the future. The energy the children brought to our event and their wonder helped make the hard graft of conservation work worth the effort. One child opined that the underside of the Marsh Fritillary is nicer than the upperside. She was excellent at catching the butterfly and gingerly holding it by the thorax, which avoids hurting the butterfly. At her age, many are the poor butterfly seized by whichever body part my greedy fingers grasped!

Marsh Fritillary male on Lullybeg Reserve. Photo J. Harding.
Marsh Fritillary aberrant male underside, Lullybeg corridor, Co. Kildare. Photo J. Harding.
Marsh Fritillary aberrant male upperside, Lullybeg, Co. Kildare. Photo J. Harding.

One child required caterpillars. I was glad the Brimstone larvae were available on the two buckthorn species in Lullybeg. These were all very small, smaller than they were this time last year.

Brimstone caterpillar on Alder Buckthorn, Lullybeg. Photo J. Harding.
Brimstone caterpillar on Purging Buckthorn, Lullybeg. Photo J. Harding.

Frogs were common enough to add excitement. We also encountered a couple of Song Thrush anvils, hard ground or branches on which snail shells were broken to obtain their succulent contents. We netted Four-spotted Chaser and Hairy Dragonflies. I was bitten by both species, understandably. No dragonfly wants to be handled by a human.  Plenty of blue damselflies glided about, glowing in the bright light. One of them fell victim to a Four-spotted Chaser.

Dingy Skipper, Cryptic Wood White, Green-veined White, Orange-tip, Small Copper, Common Blue, Holly Blue, Marsh Fritillary and Speckled Wood were ticked off, while Narrow-bordered Bee Hawkmoth (surely designed to impress anyone who sees it), Burnet Companion, Angle Shades and Silver Y were among the moths registered. We did not manage a Small Purple-barred moth, but it was probably not sunny for long enough to coax it to fly.

Dingy Skipper male, Lullybeg Reserve. Photo J. Harding.

Overall, it was a wonderful day out. Our three German visitors enjoyed the event, and it is always great to have a chance to showcase the best of what Ireland’s biodiverse landscapes have to offer to our overseas visitors and natives alike. Biodiversity continues to boom in the Ballydermot region. Long may it be so.

*Since this post was published, we have been informed by the Irish Peatlands Conservation Council, which owns and carefully manages the reserve in Lullymore West, that the Marsh Fritillary has been recorded on the reserve in the past two weeks while carrying out their transect walks for the Irish Butterfly Monitoring Scheme.

Updated on 29 May 2024


Event Reports: Fahee North 18th May and Clooncoose Valley 19th May 2024

When selecting sites for spring butterfly walks in the Burren one is not necessarily spoiled for choice, despite the presence of the highest quality habitats across the region. Large areas of the Burren are designated as Special Areas of Conservation, especially for orchid-rich grassland (known as Semi-natural dry grasslands and scrubland facies on calcareous substrates (Festuco-Brometalia) (important orchid sites) [6210]). This habitat is excellent for butterflies when well-managed, sheltered and south-facing. However, much of the area is exposed to the wind and contains insufficient scrub to provide the habitat conditions needed by spring butterflies and moths.

During the summer the more exposed grasslands are rich in grassland butterfly species, but spring butterflies need shelter. The east Burren is better for spring butterflies than the west, where there is less shelter. The sites we visited as part of the Burrenbeo/Butterfly Conservation Ireland Burren in Bloom Festival events, Fahee North near Carran Turlough and Clooncoose Valley west of the Burren National Park tick the required boxes.

Saturday promised us sunshine and light breezes. It gave us a grey sky and a light but chilling wind. This failed to cast a pall over our outing, well supported by enthusiastic lovers of the Burren. Moths trapped the night before were shown. The selection of spring moths was appreciated, especially the impressive Poplar Hawkmoth that loyally perched on one of the ladies where he remained for the entire walk.

Bloody Cranesbill, Fahee North. Photo J.Harding.

We walked through the open scrub on limestone immediately south of the holy well, searching carefully for signs of Lepidoptera life. The ecological needs of the Pearl-bordered Fritillary were described; its larva needs direct sunlight and shading scrub, abundant lush violets growing in dry conditions that contain fresh tender growth, dry leaf litter among the violets and nectar sources for the adult butterfly. This is a high-maintenance butterfly. Only the Burren meets its needs.

Pearl-bordered Fritillary underside, Fahee North. Photo J. Harding.

We enjoyed the Burren plants which included super fragrant Burnet Rose, deep yellow Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil and aptly named Early Purple Orchids. Toward the end of the walk, we managed to spot a couple of Dingy Skippers (the Burren holds a pale, limestone-adapted subspecies of this butterfly) and Burnet Companion moths and finally, a lovely male Pearl-bordered Fritillary, netted and placed in a jar for all to admire his underside pearls and lovely deep orange uppersides decorated with a range of black markings. Just as we exited the site a Wood White was spotted, a lovely female showing her greenish hindwing underside, a feature of Irish Wood Whites; in Britain and Europe, the green is replaced with grey.

Wood White female, Fahee North. Photo J. Harding.

The group was so kind and appreciative it is a pity the weather did not allow us to see more, but Sunday delivered.

Sunday 19 May was sunny and warm with little wind. This event was also very well attended. We began by showing moths trapped the night before at Parknabinnia, near the roadside wedge tomb. This allowed us to see strictly nocturnal species. A Shears moth Hada plebeja was shown; this was a very well-marked example clearly illustrating the shear marking on the forewing. Muslin moths Diaphora mendica and White Ermines Spilosoma lubricipeda were shown. The Irish male Muslin moth is cream with scattered black spots while in Britain the males are grey or brown, and do not look like the same species. Other species were shown too, including a ‘May Bug’, the Common Cockchafer, a large, impressive beetle that is attracted to light. They are known in Britain as doodlebugs and because of their buzzing flight, they gave their name to the V1 rockets from the Second World War.

The Shears. Photo J. Harding.
Early Purple Orchid, Clooncoose. Photo J. Harding.

Clooncoose Valley is impressive, giving wonderful views of the landscape to the south, with cliffs, rugged hills, plains and wetlands, with limestone grassland, scrub, woodland, and bare limestone pavement encountered from the Green Road that makes the vistas accessible to walkers. This Green Road is bounded by classic Burren dry stone walls and in places by hazel scrub, sheltering this wildlife corridor from the wind.

Clooncoose Valley, 19 May 2024. J. Harding
Clooncoose Valley, 16 August 2016. This photograph and the photograph above were taken from the same place in May and August, showing the changes in the light and vegetation colour as the seasons change. Photos J. Harding.

Butterflies, moths, dragonflies and other creatures use the Green Road to move through the landscape, to seek mates, food and shelter. The Green Road contains good feeding resources and breeding habitats in places, so butterflies linger here. We didn’t have long to wait before meeting Pearl-bordered Fritillary, Wood White and Dingy Skipper butterflies and several Hairy Dragonflies. These were netted, jarred and passed around so everyone got to see these lovely animals. Later, a Speckled Yellow moth, a beautiful day-flyer was caught and passed for admiration. A Small Heath butterfly was netted. He was freshly emerged, showing rich chestnut uppersides.

Pearl-bordered Fritillary male, Clooncoose Valley 19 May 2024. This butterfly’s discovery in Ireland was in Clooncoose in June 1922. Photo J. Harding.

Our turning point was the cottage (the only building in the area) adjoining the marsh where Large White, Green-veined Whites, Orange-tips and damselflies were spotted. We also saw a freshly hatched Common Blue gleaming iridescently in the glorious sunshine. Indeed, it was a day of brightness, happiness, beauty and sunshine, and I hope that everyone went home happy. I know I did.

Green-veined White subspecies Britannica from the marsh in Clooncoose. The subspecies is named for the rich cream or yellow uppersides which are usually white. Although regarded as a subspecies, it is probably a colour form rather than a subspecies. A subspecies occupies a distinct geographical region separate from other populations of the same species, and having constant and different traits. Such populations cannot overlap; in Clooncoose, however,  females with white uppersides also flew. Photo J. Harding.
Dove’s-foot Cranesbill, Geranium molle at Clooncoose. Photo J.Harding.
Cinnabar moth, Clooncoose. Photo J. Harding.

Thanks to everyone who attended and made the day special. Sharing beauty and observation enhances the aesthetic experience and the appreciation of the wonders of the Burren. Thanks to Burrenbeo which joined Butterfly Conservation Ireland to organise the weekend’s events.

During a pre-walk reconnaissance in Clooncoose, a confiding vixen came out to meet me. Photo J.Harding.



A mid-May Day at Ballydermot

The misery of our weather since late June 2023 has sharpened our desire for better. We are struggling to see a large number of any butterfly except for the Holly Blue, the only Irish butterfly that is showing abundance this spring. This stunning little butterfly is currently occupying the streets in Dublin City, so impressive is its upward trajectory.

Warmth is the Holly Blue’s friend. City centres offer this heat and the amount of holly and ivy in warm urban settings is ideal for the butterfly. Add secondary foodplants like dogwood and escallonia to the menu and the Holly Blue is happy.

Most of our butterflies need wilder places. There is nowhere better in the midlands east of the Shannon than the bogs in northwest Kildare and east Offaly, known as the Ballydermot Bog group (includes Lodge Bog, Lullymore,  Lullybeg and other bogs), an area Butterfly Conservation Ireland and other organisations propose as a national park. And a stroll in good weather tells you why.

The complex habitat conditions provide a home for a vast range of animals. The area contains dry and very wet conditions, acid, neutral and alkaline soils, climax woodland, scrub, open grassland, bog, pools, lakes, rivers, swamps, reed beds, fens, and eskers often in intimate proximity.

The diverse landscape produces enormous biodiversity. But it is not just the range of life that impresses. The mass abundance is often breathtaking. At the right time of year, the profusion of flying insects in the air can be confusing but the copiousness creates excitement. Systematic counting becomes impossible. Estimates are essential. It can be impossible to separate species when species that appear similar in flight are met in massive amounts. It is impossible to separate the dancer and the dance.

That last Yeatsian statement is especially germane regarding animal life. The massive abundance is inseparable from the landscape of scale that maintains it. Such bounty must be nurtured and defended because it is rare in today’s Ireland.  Scarcity highlights abundance. Blandness emphasises ebullience. The Ballydermot Bog Group’s biodiversity underscores the bleakness and emptiness of the general landscape. Polluted, over-farmed, modified and gardened to its fingernails, modern Ireland offers so little compared with contemporary remnants that are redolent of past glories.

Broom brightens the boggy landscape in spring. J. Harding.

Restoration can be great but preservation is much greater. Better to retain our best rather than fix what is broken. Some broken things are irreparable.

Sauntering through Lullymore and Lullybeg on 15 May, in sunny weather punctuated by occasional overcast conditions was a slice of perfection. Nature must be encountered using every sense. We overuse our eyes. Touch, taste, smell and hearing should be commandeered to apply the multi-sensory approach.

The Hairy Dragonfly, superb on the wing and beautiful when seen close up, demands we use our hearing, touch and sight to understand its characteristics.

Hairy Dragonfly male, Lullymore. J. Harding.
Hairy Dragonfly, female, Lullybeg. J.Harding.

This is the earliest of our larger dragonflies to emerge and is thriving in many areas. It is better distributed and more abundant in Ireland than in Britain. It looks magnificent in flight, zooming purposefully in linear flight, looking like an Exocet missile locking onto a target. When the weather cools, it settles but on being approached, rattles its wings loudly and perhaps disconcertingly to a predator. When it has transferred sufficient heat to its flight muscles, it vanishes.

The Hairy Dragonfly packs a punch or rather a bite. Catch one and you will soon be bitten. While this is quite a shock and uncomfortable rather than painful to a human, its jaws slice through its prey. In one location in Lullymore, this dragonfly killed five Brimstone butterflies in a few minutes, catching them in the air and slicing their heads off. Decapitation is a clinical and effective way to dispatch a large butterfly. This quarry is then brought to a tree for dining.

The Hairy Dragonfly is joined en masse by the Four-spotted Chaser, a smaller but more robust-looking dragonfly. This dragonfly takes two years to develop and although it flies every year it is far more numerous in some years. At Lullybeg there are years when there are swarms of this insect. It becomes so numerous that male territories collapse. It flies from April to August and must be a great source of food for birds.

Attune your vision to miniature neon lights and you will pick out the blue damselflies: Azure, Common Blue, Variable and Blue-tailed Damselflies. They were marked present yesterday, gleaming around low shrubs and tall grasses, evoking a blue light district. There were hundreds; I didn’t try to count.

Variable Damselfly, Lullybeg. J.Harding.

And so to the Lepidoptera. The area is one of only three Important Butterfly Areas (IBAs) in Ireland. The other two are the Burren and the headquarters of the River Suck.

Yesterday (15 May) it was the moths that dominated numerically. Silver Y is a resident and migrant moth, and it was everywhere, darting in and out of grass clumps, like a cyclist weaving around stationary cars on a busy highway. Despite the conspicuous buzzing flight it vanishes on landing, blending with rather than burying itself in the bleached tussocks of last year’s grass growth.

Silver Y, Lullymore. J.Harding.

The Silver Y moths I saw were pale grey, indicating overseas origin. The paler form, seen here, typically originates in a hot climate. We could be looking at an African moth here.

Another moth that is both a resident and migrant, Angle Shades, was also buzzing around Ballydermot on 15 May. This moth is mainly nocturnal but can be seen in daylight resting on vegetation. Like the Silver Y, it breeds on a wide range of plants including Common Nettle and birches. There is plenty of food for it in the area.

Angle Shades, Lullymore. J.Harding.

By contrast, the Silver Hook is a localised, resident moth. This beautifully marked moth occurs in fens, marshes and boggy heathland so it finds good ground in Ballydermot. It is mainly nocturnal but flies by day when disturbed. It breeds on grasses and sedges.

Silver-Hook-Lullybeg. J.Harding.

An intriguing day-flying moth is the bee mimic, the Narrow-bordered Bee Hawkmoth. Another resident, this occurs only locally in wet grassland, on dry calcareous grassland and boggy places containing its breeding plant, Devil’s-bit Scabious. This buzzes like a bee, flies like a bee, feeds like a bee, looks like a bee… but has no sting. It is a moth, and the adult loves louseworts and milkworts.

Narrow-bordered-Bee-Hawkmoth-Lullymore. This one is basking. J. Harding.

Butterflies that are locally distributed in Ireland have a stronghold here. The Brimstone, which is absent from most of Ireland (absent from 80%) is common and often abundant in the Ballydermot region. I saw 14 Brimstones on 15 May, looking daffodil yellow (male) and pale greenish-white (female) in the pure spring sunlight. After spending nine months in hibernation, they do not look their best but still flung their brightness on the still brightening habitat.

Brimstone, male, Lullybeg. The upperside of his wings is deep yellow. J. Harding.

Another local butterfly, absent from 84% of Ireland’s 10 km squares is the Dingy Skipper. Small and unglamorous, it has a cultish charm for butterfly lovers, looking like a childhood teddy bear recovered from an attic years later. It has a cuddly appearance, and needs care, being found only in small patches of suitable habitat in most of its recorded distribution. While it breeds on a widespread foodplant, its habitat requirements are quite precise, and it is common in Ireland only in the Burren.

Dingy Skipper, Lullybeg. J.Harding.

To complete this post, I am showing you the Cryptic Wood White butterfly. It looks delicate and fragile on the wing, flying with what looks like a tremendous effort but it can stay airborne for prolonged periods, flapping along wood and scrub edges. Absent from Britain, its discovery, using genetic analysis, was announced in 2011. Until then it was believed to be a different species, the Wood White, a butterfly confined in Ireland mainly to the Burren and a few outlying limestone areas in south Clare and Galway.

Cryptic Wood White, Lullymore. J. Harding.

This dainty creature is quite widespread in Ireland but breeds only in wilder places. Long live the wild and wilderness!

Fen and woodland, Lullybeg, County Kildare.