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           Wildlife Newsletter for the Township of Dalkey
                   November / 2016 - Michael Ryan

Common or Viviparous Lizard on Dalkey Hill
taking a keen interest in Grasshoppers
Photo: Lucy Desierdo


  Last year we’d started seeing grasshoppers in good numbers around Dalkey Hill and since then, possibly because we’ve been actively looking for them, we’ve started seeing a lot more, especially on warm sunny days when they seem more active. They seem to be doing very well and in early autumn we spotted a few working on producing future generations, the smaller
brighter coloured males perched atop the much larger duller females. The noise made by the grasshopper, which the male uses to attract females is known as stridulation and is caused by rubbing their legs against their wing casing. They mate in autumn and the female grasshopper will conceal the eggs where they will overwinter before emerging as larvae in spring.   Someone else taking an interest in the grasshoppers was a lizard which after perching motionlessly for a while suddenly sprang into life pouncing on a grasshopper and then grabbing a fly, quickly devouring both of them.
  At home a number of my birdfeeders hang from an old apple tree which has a bumper crop
of fruit this year, the weight of apples bending the boughs down almost to the ground. As I was refilling one of the feeders a falling apple just missed me. I presumed it had fallen naturally but looking up I saw a grey squirrel with another apple held in its mouth. Little I can do to stop the greys getting the apples but in a recent issue of Birdwatch Ireland’s Wings magazine Niall Hatch gave a surprising tip to keep grey squirrels off the peanut and sunflower feeders which he kindly allowed me to pass on --

   ‘I have a very handy suggestion when it comes to deterring squirrels from bird feeders. If you get hold of some hot chilli powder in the supermarket (make sure it is just pure chilli powder, with no salt or other ingredients added) and dust peanuts, seed, etc. with it before putting them in the feeders, it can be very effective. The chemical in chilli which causes the burning sensation in the mouth only works on mammals, including squirrels, rats and mice (and, of course, humans). Birds are unable to taste it, and it has no effect on them whatsoever. If a squirrel tries to eat the food, it gets a very unpleasant surprise, though no harm is caused to it: the pain caused by chilli is due to pain receptors being tricked, not actual physical damage. They pretty quickly learn to avoid the offending feeders, while the birds are none the wiser.’

  There are periodic trappings of grey and red squirrels on Killiney Hill to remove the former and check on the latter and during October we came upon a red squirrel trapped in one of the cages. He wasn’t overly concerned at being trapped, there’s a box at the end of the trap where animals can hide if they feel exposed and we knew that the researcher and park staff would be around soon to release it after checking out it’s ear clip to identify it and then checking its health and weighing it. We kept out of his line of sight and it was fascinating watching him (we subsequently learned it was a male who’d been born in the woods last year) as he tried to figure out an escape route, at one stage walking backwards on his hind legs while earnestly inspecting the roof of the cage for a way out!. The following week we spotted another red moving through beech and scots pine, this one a female, her teats visible through the binoculars. Lucy speculated it might be pregnant but I said it was highly unlikely at this late time of the year. I was wrong, since we heard this squirrel was also trapped by William Carr the squirrel biologist who said the female red had indeed up until recently been suckling young. After seeing a family of at least three young reds in July it would seem likely there have been at least two litters of reds born on Dalkey Hill this year which is very encouraging

  Usually in the grove of pines where we saw the female squirrel I’d be keeping my eyes trained upwards to the treetops so it was lucky I spotted a beetle on the ground before I stepped on it. It moved with the rear of its long body curved upward like a tiny scorpion, shiny black apart from two tiny white tips at the end of its abdomen which on closer inspection turned out to be two tiny pincers. Afraid that somebody, probably me, would step on it I tried to move it somewhere safer. I attempted to get it to climb on to a leaf then held my hand down flat so it could climb on but it refused my entreaties and eventually dug down under some leaves and twigs, moving a fallen pine cone in the process which I thought quite impressive for a tiny creature. I had my suspicions what it was and sure enough on subsequently checking I found it was the dramatically named Devil’s Coach Horse Beetle (Ocypus olens). They are ‘voracious predators active at night, when they consume small slugs and snails, and a wide range of other invertebrates’. I also read that the scorpion’s pose was a defensive action and when threatened it can emit a foul smelling odour from the two white pincers as well as inflict a nasty bite so I was glad it had ignored my hands-on approach. This beetle has been associated with the Devil since the Middle Ages, hence its common name. Other names include Devil’s Footman or Devil’s Steed.

Devil’s Coach Horse beetle      Photo: Michael Ryan

  In Ireland the beetle is known as darbhadal (literally Devil’s Beast) and it is said that the Devil assumes the form of this beetle to eat sinners! Seasonal anomalies have become so normal it would be almost surprising if we didn’t have reports of unseasonal spectacularly early or late plant flowerings or insects and other creatures emerging early. On Dalkey Hill there were wild Cranesbill flowering in mid- October while on a Mountain Ash (Rowan) tree there were wilted dying leaves on one stem while new bright green leaves had recently appeared on a lower stem. In the garden there were new flowers opening at the same time as the berries ripened on the hypericum and berberis. In the office car park the Pyracantha bush, resplendent with a mass of orange berries, also had a little bloom of white flowers emerging, at least six months earlier than normal. Ireland has two native species of oak, the Common or Pendunculate Oak and the Sessile Oak both of which grow on Dalkey and Killiney Hills. It would be an exaggeration to say the woodland floor on Killiney Hill was carpeted by fallen acorns in early October but there was certainly a spectacular amount of them lying on the ground, denoting a bumper seed or ‘mast’ year for oaks. Apart from seasonal climatic factors, different species of trees have natural cycles of seed production so a certain number of years will pass with average or poor seed production before one year will produce a very heavy or mast crop and it certainly looks like this is going to be one of those years for oaks. The oak’s mast years are usually every three to five years when apparently a mature tree can produce up to 50,000 acorns although most of the early falling small green acorns won’t produce seed, it’s only the later brown woodier acorns that have the potential to grow into new trees . The oak is one of the last trees to lose its leaves in the autumn and the theory is when the leaves drop they will cover the already fallen acorns protecting them from frost and seed eating animals and birds. One of those seed eating birds which has become a very welcome presence around the hills is the jay, always associated with oak woods and we heard one’s raucous call then saw it foraging for acorns high up near the crown of a oak. Jays will store caches of acorns for later in the winter either stashing them in tree trunks or burying them and they are credited with helping oak woods spread since acorns don’t fall far from the parent tree but uneaten acorns the jays may have buried some distance away will often germinate.