An Autumn Nature Story.
By Albert Nolan.
The hot thundery showers test my resolve as I squelch over The Shannon Bridge. I have given up trying to stay dry but every day has its hidden charms and I am hoping to discover some of nature’s wonders to help lift my spirits on this wet and challenging day.
At the junction with O Callaghan Strand Red valerian is still in bloom and its flowers are peeking out through the railings. On a sunny day they would be attracting moths and butterflies but all sensible creatures have stayed indoors today. This hardy plant grows in gaps in the mortar and brightens up a dull wall or building. The roots are used in herbal medicine to treat chest complaints and insomnia and I will probably be suffering from one of these by the end this rainy day.
I turn onto a near deserted O Callaghan strand and on the river wall there is a lone daisy plant. It is far from its natural garden lawn habitat and its colours are a striking pink and white. They look far brighter than the Daisies growing in my lawn but perhaps the bare stone with the river backdrop gives them an added quality.
Along the railings I find damp flies vainly trying to seek shelter from the rain. They are all black with no distinctive markings and with over 11,000 species in Ireland they are a hard group to identify. I try to come up a logical reason why they don’t take shelter in the tall trees. Spiders and other predators like birds will feed along the branches and search under leaves so these flies have made a wise decision.
The tide is out and this has exposed a wide muddy bank. This is one of the best feeding areas for birds in the city as each fistful of mud contains as much food as an equivalent area of tropical rain forest. Dozens of tiny tracks from birds feet criss-cross the mud and these will soon be washed away by the rising tide.
Across the river I can see a large group of Mute swans. They are surrounded by hundreds of Black headed gulls and I can see people throwing in bread for them. The horse chestnut trees are changing into their autumn colours and the conkers are nearly ripe. There is still a great tradition among children of gathering these up. No doubt they are introduced by an adult who fondly remembers them for their youth. Children would bring them into schools for the age-old tradition of conker fighting but this is not allowed in many schools anymore due to safety fears and insurance.
The Swan population has increased here over the last few years. No doubt this is partly due to the steady supply of food they receive for Limerick citizens each day. I watch as they gracefully dip their heads into the water and graze on the green vegetation. A Rook flies by and while people don’t feed them directly they hang around the Swans and pick up scraps of bread.
The Black headed gull is the commonest gull along here and I regularly record over 400 birds. The Herring gull is second on the list and you also get a few lesser black backed gulls. All the gulls suddenly take off and fly across the river to where some people are feeding the swans bread. At the edge of the high tide Figworth is growing. This is normally a hedgerow or garden flower and is surviving in a tough environment of continuous tides and submersion in water.
St Michaels rowing club have colourful flower containers in front of their premise. A Common carder bumblebee is searching for nectar but he will get meagre pickings among these pretty but nectar poor flowers. A Robin’s alarm call carries over the water but I cannot find it among all the lush vegetation.
At the bottom of the steps leading up to the Ennis road bridge there is a natural wild corner for wildlife and it is out of sight of the general public. Creeping thistle, Valerian, Yarrow Bramble and Dandelion are considered weeds by most people. But these provide nectar and seeds for insects and birds and are valuable part of our wild landscape.
Japanese knotweed is well established along the riverbank and is extremely hard to remove. It suppresses all plant growth underneath it and this means less diversity for nature. I pass under the bridge and the ivy is just coming into flower. This will provide nectar for late flying insects and butterflies. The narrow path along by the river is one of my favourite places to walk in the city. It is bordered by tall trees and hidden views of the docklands pop into view as you stroll along.
Alder is a common tree along river banks as it has special nodules on item roots that contain a bacteria that can filter nitrogen from the air. This is essential for leafy green growth and allows the alder to colonise very wet places. This year is looking like a good year for wild fruit and the Hawthorn trees are covered in red berries. These are eaten by Redwings and these are winter visitors to Limerick every winter. Hazel also grows along here and the nuts are eaten by mice and Squirrels. I pass through the territory of a Robin and he calls loudly till I leave.
Delicious Blackberries are nearly ripe and this is one seasonal tradition that is still very popular. Sheltered from the worst of the weather there is still a rich covering of wildflowers. Sow thistle, the scrambling flowers of hedge bindweed, Nettles, Ribwort plantain, Purple loosestrife, Reed mace and the sweet-smelling Meadow sweet.
The Elderberry tree is covered in purple berries and these will soon attract the attentions of hungry Woodpigeons and Starlings. The leaves can be crushed and made into a natural insecticide while the fruits can made into wine, tarts and a ketchup for meat. A Hoverfly is sipping on the juices of the berries but this tree marks the end of the path. A fence blocks access as the river bank where the path was damaged during the recent storms and it has yet to be reopened. I hope it will fixed soon so that we can enjoy our walk along by the mighty Shannon. I peer through the railings and see a Mute Swan resting on the pond. There is always a pair here and they raise a large family of cygnets each spring.
A shaded path leads back onto the main road. A Robin is singing from a prominent spot on the branch of a tree and he is soon joined by another Robin who sings from another tree. Robins are territorial throughout the year and only during very cold weather when food is scarce and their survival is at stake do they tolerate other birds in their area.
The Ash tree are heavy with its fruit called keys. They are eaten by woodpigeons and their shape is designed so that the seeds can travel large distances. They can turn up in the gutters of houses and on the roofs of the tallest buildings.
I cross the road and into Westfield’s nature Reserve. A Large Garden touches the walkway and it has a massive Horsechestnut tree growing in one conker. A heavy shower forces me to seek shelter under an ivy covered tree. As the rain gets stronger I retreat deeper into the green canopy. As I stand there I get the chance to see a world of nature that I don’t normally notice.
On the underside of the ivy leaves are tiny white cocoons that contain spider eggs. Some of these have been ripped open by birds and it was probably the work of acrobatic tits. A large Harvestman is resting on a branch. His body is pressed tight against the bark is superbly camouflaged. These creatures are not insects as if you look closely their bodies are not divided up into three parts. A few feet away the white flowers of Enchanters nightshade are growing and this is a typical woodland flower. A couple walks past and my fine weather comment gets a good laugh.
The rain starts to lighten and I continue on my walk. The tall reeds are starting to close in the pond and if left unchecked will eventually take over the reserve. But they are also used by the nesting birds, a safe hiding place for young birds and as shelter during the freezing winter days so balancing ecological needs takes careful consideration. The tall spikes of Purple Loosestrife break up the long lines of green reeds.
This is one of the best locations in the city to experience wildlife as the birds are very used to people and you can get very close to them. A pair of Mute swans breed here each year and this season has been very successful from them as they have eight cygnets. There are dull brown but over the coming months will transform is to their stunning white adult plumage. I also count Coots x 3, Mallards x 21, Moorhen x 2 and Coot x 4. A young Moorhen is out feeding on his own and pulling at some water vegetation.
Down by the viewing platform the Mountain ash tree is full of berries and nearby the Blackberries are nearly ready to eat. These will be an important source of food for birds in the coming months.
Daisy, Common dock and Figwort are all in flower and I can hear a Dunnocks singing from deep within the reed beds. Colourful lichens adorn the trees and this is an indication of really clean air. I break of the leaves of Wild mint and it has divine scent. While the flowers of Himalayan balsam are very pretty and excellent for insects this plant if left to its own devices will rapidly colonise large parks of Westfield’s. Time slips away and soon it is time to head back. I walk through swarms of midges that are being drive bombed by Swallows.
I follow the path that skims along the road. A large Beech tree is just starting to change colour from summer green to autumn browns. The lawn has been well cut but someone as left a patch of Birds foot trefoil and red clover alone and this will provide nectar and pollen for bumblebees. I hope that this enlightened policy will spread throughout the city. The hardy pink flowers of Common century are peeking up on the drier parts of the walk.
I stop at an Oak tree that is covered in Knopper Galls. These are caused by a tiny wasp and inside the gall the larva of the wasp can develop safe from predators. To the alarm calls of Robin I pass back under the bridge feeling refreshed and ready to tackle the stresses of modern living again.
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Read more stories by Albert Nolan here.