Natural born explorers
From the beach to the bog - and even in your own back garden - there's a huge variety of wildlife to be discovered right under our noses. Here,our reporter asks the experts for their top tips in finding and identifying Ireland's most interesting plants, animals and insects, so that you can train your little ones to be budding nature explorers. This summer, even a simple city stroll can be a walk on the wild side…
The weather might be dull but you can turn a walk on the shore into a kaleidoscopic scavenger hunt simply by creating a colour checklist of things you can find. "Beautiful plants like sea pink or thrift or ragwort can often be found above the upper shore in the splash zone," says Nóirín Burke from Galway Atlantaquaria, who co-ordinates the Marine Institute Explorers Education programme (marine.ie). "Seaweeds like gutweed and sea lettuce can be spotted by their bright green colour, while brownish bladderwrack and saw wrack can be found on the mid-shore, and red seaweeds like dillisk and coral weed can be found in the pools."
Turn sleuth and search for hidden signs of life: lugworm casts form coils of sand on the surface of the shore, and baby crabs often lurk camouflaged beneath the sand, while sea snails, like cockles and clams, bury themselves deeper down.
Or play 'House of Rock Bingo' by discovering the number of creatures that call rocks and rockpools home. "Limpets and periwinkles graze on the rocks, while mussels attach themselves with thread-like hairs," says Nóirín. "Under the rocks, sea anemones can be found with their tentacles drawn in like mounds; animals like tube worms and sponges live stuck onto rocks, and porcelain crabs cling on to them to hide." Look deeper and you might find butterfish, blennies, flatfish and shrimps all lurking in pools.
But one of the best ways of adding an element of exploration to a walk by the beach is not to spot what you know, but what you don't know. "There's always something new to be found on the shore, and very few people know what everything is," says Nóirín. "Take a photo and send it onto the Explorers Education Programme if you're stuck."
She recommends linking up with local aquariums, coastal education centres, Leave No Trace Ireland, the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group, Birdwatch Ireland, The Irish Wildlife Trust and Coast Monkey. Or take a trip to Galway's wonderful Seafest (seafest.ie) event, running June 30-July 2 to find out more about the sea's hidden treasures.
Parks & woodland
Ireland has six national parks and numerous nature reserves, which boast 28 species of land mammals, 400 species of birds, 4,000 species of plants and over 12,000 species of insects - so there's plenty to get spotting! For a fresh look at even the most well-trodden path, take a mirror on your trek to use as a 'third eye' and gaze at the world above you while you walk - or play 'I spy out of the corner of my eye' to appreciate the woods like a squirrel (they've excellent peripheral vision and even a yellow pigment in their lens that acts as built-in sunglasses).
Conn Fitzgibbon (irishmountainguides.ie), who runs a meet-up group called NatureDose, reckons that changing your sensory perception is a great way to 'look' at nature with fresh eyes.
"A great game for kids in nature is to bring a blindfold, partner them up and get one person to bring their blindfolded partner to a tree," he explains. "Give them five minutes to get to know it… trunk size, smell, etc, and afterwards they bring them back and see if the partner can find the tree they were at with the blindfold off."
Guess trees' ages (they won't get offended) and bring a tape measure to check. Clare Bromley is head guide and outdoor learning specialist for the National Parks & Wildlife Service and is based at Glenveagh, Co Donegal (where there is a huge range of family events running throughout the summer). She explains, "If you measure around the trunk about one metre up from the ground, then divide that by 2.5, you get the age of the tree - have a competition to see who can find the oldest!"
Most importantly - stop. That's when you really get to see nature at work. "Ferns are an incredible sight if you can stop and examine one for five minutes; just focusing on the one plant, you see the leaves unfurling," says Conn. "And animals don't eat them because they have small traces of cyanide."
Steer clear of feasting on ferns (and munching many other plants) but, with the right know-how, your taste buds can be a fun new way to experience woodland nature. "Find some hawthorn trees - one of our loveliest native Irish trees - whose flowers blush from cream to pink this time of year in our hedgerows," suggests Clare. "The flowers can actually be used to make wine and juice, and the young leaves make a nice addition to a salad or sandwich - just watch out for the thorns!"
"Most woodland flowers have finished flowering by now," adds Jim Lawlor, chairman at Native Woodland Trust. "But there's one you can still find... by its smell! Wild garlic can be found in damp woods and parts of parks and smells like garlic or onions. If you find some, crush a leaf between your fingers and smell it. All parts are edible: leaves, stalks, bulbs and flowers! But always check with a knowledgeable adult whether something is safe to eat."
Find the brown papery seeds of an elm tree and you've a good chance of seeing a squirrel or bullfinch having its lunch. "You can also find evidence of where animals have been," says Jim. "Look for hazel trees with broken shells on the ground. Mice nibble holes in the shell, leaving smooth edges, but squirrels bite big pieces, often splitting the shell in two, leaving sharp edges."
Watch for speckled wood butterflies. They may look like they're flitting happily between the trees but they're actually very territorial animals, chasing each other in aerial battles. And listen out for the great spotted woodpecker hammering on tree trunks for insect larvae. Once absent from Ireland, it's now returned in small numbers around counties Wicklow, Dublin, Carlow, Wexford, Kilkenny and Down. Play your part by logging the woodland birds you spot on Birdwatch Ireland's birdtrack.net.
Mountains and bogs
Keep your eyes on the skies for meadow pipits (unknown to many people but actually one of Ireland's most common birds), wheatears and peregrine falcons, and listen out for the deep, croaking 'prruk, pruk' call of the raven (just one of the 30 different calls these intelligent black birds use to communicate).
Meanwhile underfoot, "watch out for the bright green star-shaped leaves of butterwort (pictured) on bogs and wet rocks", says Helen Lawless, access and conservation officer for Mountaineering Ireland. "This plant is a killing machine! It traps insects on its sticky leaf surface and digests them for the nutrients it can't get from the boggy ground where it grows." The leaves are about 2-8cm wide, with the biggest species in West Cork and Kerry.
Mountains often have plenty of wet areas, ideal for frog spotting. Nothing exotic about that, you may say, but just one in every 50 of the 1,000-5,000 eggs laid by female frogs actually makes it to adulthood; the rest croak. For more information, download Mountaineering Ireland's 'Walking with Wildlife' leaflet at mountaineering.ie/accessandenvironment/downloads
"A large percentage of Ireland's wildlife has adapted to live in and around urban areas," says Rob Gandola from the Herpetological Society of Ireland, and presenter of RTÉ's Wild Cities. "You'll find everything from lizards to bats, badgers, frogs, otters, kingfishers, fish, dragonflies and butterflies in our cities."
Finding proof that animals are active in the area can be easier than actually spotting them, especially stealthy larger animals who are mostly out and about at dawn or dusk. It's not always pretty, but Rob reckons poo can be the biggest clue. "Otters leave a tar-like splat on rocks and around rivers or under bridges," he reveals. "Badger poo can look similar but normally found near an active sett in a scrape in the ground. Both animals are known for leaving 'fragrant' faeces, so smell can help too! Fox poo looks like a smaller version of dog poo but is usually twisted at one end and a grey brown colour."
"Ireland's cities are havens for wildlife and home to a great many birds," adds Niall Hatch from Birdwatch Ireland. Keep an eye out for swifts: summer migrants from Africa who return each year to Irish cities to breed. "They're the most aerial birds in the world, spending most of their lives on the wing and only ever landing to nest here in human buildings," Niall continues. Listen out for their characteristic screaming call as the dark birds with long sickle-shaped winds wheel around in search of insects high over city rooftops. On a warm evening, bats will come out to feed as the sun goes down and, if you look closely at hanging baskets during the day, you might spot hummingbird hawk-moths: "moths that fly during the day and look like hummingbirds hovering around flowers", explains Jim Lawlor from the Native Woodland Trust.
"Go to overgrown graveyards," says biologist and TV presenter Simon Watt of readysteadyscience.com. "They are, if nothing else, morbidly well-fertilised gardens - green oases where I've seen foxes, shrews, deer, field mice and a tonne of different birds."
The back garden
Even if all you have is a tree and a few flowers, your own back garden is rife with opportunities to play nature detective. This is the time of year for flying insects but you need to look closely to see who's who, explains wildlife expert Éanna Ní Lamhna. "In the city, most bees will be bumblebees, unless you've someone nearby keeping bees. The small brown fellas are honey bees but if they've got their fur coat on, then they're bumblebees." Hoverflies look like they're "wearing wasp pyjamas" and feed on troublesome greenfly.
There's also a misperception that you can tell the age of a ladybird from its spots. "That's nonsense," says Éanna. "We've a two-spotted ladybird and a seven- spotted one and they're two totally different species." But gardens this time of year will also play home to blue, yellow and pink ladybirds.
If you've holly bushes or nettles, then you might be able to spot holly blue butterflies, tortoiseshell and teacup butterflies, as well as painted ladies and red admirals later in the summer. Or see birdwatchireland.ie for a list of garden birds to watch out for.
Peer under flower pots to find woodlice, millipedes, centipedes, spiders and earwigs. "They're all doing their part, breaking down plant matter and forming part of the food chain," says Éanna. "It's total prejudice that we like the look of red beetles like ladybirds but run away from black beetles!"
"If you carefully turn a woodlouse over, you'll find one with a white or yellow pouch between its front legs," reveals National Parks & Wildlife Service outdoor learning specialist Clare Bromley. "That's either full of a clutch of eggs or a brood of babies, so be sure to put it back carefully afterwards."
Smell something like burning rubber in your garden in the morning? That's a sign that a fox might have been round in the night. Is your lavender covered in what looks like saliva? "That's cuckoo spit," explains Éanna. "It's nothing to do with cuckoos but, if you look closely, there's a lovely green insect inside who makes that juice to protect it against being eaten by birds."
If you want to be really crafty, Éanna reckons leaving sand on the ground (to reveal tracks in the morning) or a sunken jam jar are good ways to see which big and small visitors are in your garden after dark.
Should you feed the ducks?
Feeding the ducks is a beloved family activity, but Birdwatch Ireland's advice is to avoid feeding them bread. "Bread is very poor for ducks nutritionally and can lead to ducklings failing to develop properly or even dying of starvation," explains Niall Hatch of Birdwatch Ireland.
It's much better to feed ducks household scraps like potato peelings, top leaves of celery and carrots, and the outer leaves of cabbages cut up finely. "These are much closer to the foods that ducklings eat in the wild and much better for them than bread," says Niall.
Have you tried 'forest bathing'?
The Japanese have such belief in the health benefits of getting close to nature that they've created a practice of Shinrin-yoku or 'forest bathing', simply immersing yourself in the woods and soaking up the benefits. "It's believed that walking in woods can lower your risk of many diseases and help recovery from illness," says Jim Lawlor, director of the Native Woodland Trust. "Woodland walks have been shown to improve brain function, reduce depression, improve your mood, boost the immune system and even reduce ADHD in children." But don't get obsessed with the 'walk' part. If you're only focused on getting from A to B, you miss the wonder of the wildlife that surrounds you - it's only when you slow down that you can spot all the activity taking place all around you.