Image Image Image Image Image Image Image

Frog

Finding frogspawn in a pond or ditch is one of the very early signs of spring and it can happen as early as February.

Frogs wake up from hibernation when spring comes and the first thing they do is go to the pond or ditch where they were born themselves to produce frogspawn.

The frog is a carnivore, which feeds on snails, beetles, caterpillars, woodlice and flies. As these creatures are not available in the winter, frogs hibernate during the coldest months. They wake up from hibernation when spring comes and the first thing they do is go to the pond or ditch where they were born themselves to produce frogspawn. So finding frogspawn in a pond or ditch is one of the very early signs of spring and it can happen as early as February.

  • A large number of frogs - both male and female - come to the breeding ponds and ditches at the same time.
  • Mating takes place at night.
  • The female lays eggs encased in jelly, which are fertilised in the water by the males.
  • The fertilised frogspawn is a clear jelly with black spots. It floats on the surface of the water.
  • Frogs then move away from the water and spend the rest of the year in damp fields and gardens.

What to record

This experiment is recording when frogspawn is seen for the first time. Find out where there are ponds or ditches full of water in your area. From the start of February onwards visit the area as often as you can - daily if possible. When you notice frogspawn for the first time record the date and the information requested on the Spotter´s Guide. Then register your information.

Experiments

  • English version (pdf)
  • Irish version (pdf)

Botanical Information

Frogs belong to the group of animals called amphibians. This means that they are able to breathe in two different ways. They have lungs like mammals and can take in oxygen from the air they breathe. However they spend the winter hibernating at the bottom of ponds. To get oxygen at this time they take it directly from the water through their skins.

They come out of hibernation in Spring and mate in the pond they have been hibernating in. Females produce large quantities of eggs which are fertilised by the males just as they leave the female. The resultant frog spawn floats on the surface of the water and the black egg in each glob of clear jelly develops into a tadpole.

Once the eggs are laid, the adult males and females leave the pond and spend the rest of the year until October in grassy fields and damp meadows feeding on flies, snails, slugs, caterpillars and beetles. They do not stay at the pond to look after their tadpoles. These are well able to mind themselves. They swim around in the pond breathing through the gills in their long tails. As they develop, they grow their back legs first and then their front legs, then the tail disappears and they can hop out of the water as fully developed little frogs. They can live for up to twelve year if they escape being eaten by herons, otters, rats and hedgehogs.

Folklore

Frogs have only been in Ireland since the start of the 1600´s. They were brought here from England at that time by students of Trinity College in Dublin and released by them into the ponds and ditches that were around Trinity College at that time. From there, they have spread to all parts of Ireland and are very common now in the wetter parts of Ireland.

There is no general Irish word for a frog - it is mostly called frog in Irish too. People say you can tell what the weather is going to be like by looking at the colour of a frog. Dark coloured frogs are supposed to be a sign of rain. Light brown or yellow frogs mean that dry sunny weather is forecast. Certainly wet weather makes frogs turn dark and good weather makes their colour become lighter so it is partially true.

It is supposed to be a sign of bad luck if a frog comes in to the house. Another old belief was that a cure for a toothache was to put a live frog into the mouth.

Primrose

Primroses grow wild in ditches, hedges, grassy banks and woodland edges.

From as early as February check hedges and banks, particularly south facing ones for primrose leaves. When you find them watch every day for the flowers to start growing.

  • They have beautiful pale yellow flowers with five petals and distinctive green wrinkled leaves.
  • Each flower occurs individually on its stalk.
  • They have a lovely cool scent and are impossible to mix up with any other spring wild flower.
  • They usually come into flower around the month of April.

What to record

Note the day when the flower bud opens and you can count the five primrose petals. Record the date and information requested on the Spotter´s Guide and then register your information.

Experiments

  • English version (pdf)
  • Irish version (pdf)

Botanical Information

Primroses grow on shady banks, and in woods and hedges and are common in most districts. The characteristic rosette of green crinkled leaves appears first in March. The flowers then come up on individual stalks and open in the month of April. The flowers have five pale yellow petals. All flowers contain male parts - the stamens - and female parts - the carpel and style.

However in some flowers the stamens are very long and the style in the middle is very small - these are called thrum flowers. If on the other hand you are looking at a flower with very short stamens and a long style then it is called a pin flower. Look out for the two types.

They are perennial flowers, which means that they survive from year to year and grow again every Spring without having to be planted.

Folklore

Primroses were very important to people long ago who had cows. The butter-making season began in May and in order to be sure that the cows would produce lots of milk for butter, primroses were rubbed on their udders on May eve. In other houses primroses were scattered on the thresholds of houses before dawn on May day to protect the butter from the fairies.

Primroses were also associated with hens and the laying of eggs. It was considered unlucky to bring primroses into the house if eggs were being hatched there.

Primroses are lovely flowers and were often gathered and given as a gift. However it was considered to be very unlucky to give just a single primrose, whereas a very full bunch would be a protection against evil spirits. Primroses bloomed in Tír na nÓg and people returning from there in the old Irish legends always brought primroses as proof that they had been there.

In folk medicine, rubbing a toothache with a primrose leaf for two minutes would give relief from the pain. It was also widely used as a cure for jaundice.

 

Horse Chestnut

To find a Horse Chestnut, ask the students if they remember where they collected conkers last autumn.

Every day during March you should examine the buds of your chosen horse chestnut.

  • Horse chestnut trees are usually tall spreading trees that were planted intentionally. They are not native trees but came originally from the Balkan region of south-eastern Europe.
  • They have no leaves in early spring but they have very characteristic twigs and buds.
  • The twigs have marks all along, that look like tiny horseshoe prints (these are leaf scars left by last year´s falling leaves).
  • The end bud on each twig is brown and very sticky. No other tree has such sticky buds as these.

What to record

The tree should be visited regularly during the month of March until bud burst is seen. Examine the buds of your horse chestnut tree, concentrating on the sticky terminal buds. You are waiting to see when the bud opens, so that you can definitely see the colour of the new green leaves inside. This is "bud burst" and what you are looking for. Record the date and information requested on the Spotter's Guide and then register your information.

Experiments

  • English version (pdf)
  • Irish version (pdf)

Botanical Information

The Horse Chestnut tree is native to Greece and The Balkan regions. It was brought to Ireland by people who valued it as a parkland and garden tree. It is the first deciduous tree in Ireland to open its leaves in Spring. The sticky brown buds burst in March and the large palmate leaves with 7 leaflets quickly unfold. The flowers follow very quickly and look like white candles all over the tree. The bees love them and visit them to collect nectar to make into lovely flavoured honey. These visits help with pollination.

In autumn the green prickly fruits are very obvious. Inside each one is the nut or conker. Unripe ones are white but they turn a lovely reddish brown when ripened. They are eaten by mice who nibble at the outer shell to get the kernel inside.

Horse Chestnut trees can grow up to 30 metres high and live for at least 150 years.

Folklore

There are different reasons for the word horse being included in the name. The twigs have horseshoe marks on them as if a little horse had walked all over them. These are actually the scars left behind by the falling leaves.

Horse means big and coarse when describing the nuts. The other chestnut tree, the Sweet Chestnut, has nice edible nuts but conkers are not edible for humans.

In Turkey long ago they used the nuts in cough medicine for horses.

In folk medicine an extract from horse chestnut flowers is used to improve blood circulation and reduce the size of varicose veins.

Conkers are used by children to play games in Autumn. The biggest conkers are threaded on strings and players take turns to strike the opponents conker with their conker. The winner is the one who breaks the other conker.

 

Swallow

The swallow feeds on insects, which it catches in its beak as it flies through the air. There are no insects in the air here in winter so the swallow flies off to warmer countries in Africa where there are plenty. But summer days are longer in Ireland than they are in Africa, so the swallows return here to breed. They need the longer days to have enough time to collect flying insects to feed their young.

  • Swallows build their nests inside sheds and barns.
  • Those that build outside on the walls of houses under the gutters are not swallows but house martins. This survey is looking at when the first swallows arrive in Ireland.
  • They come in small groups of two or three and fly around the sky collecting insects. They are easily recognised by their long forked tails, which are much longer than those of the house martins.

Experiments

  • English version (pdf)
  • Irish version (pdf)

What to record

Watch the sky every day for swallows from St Patrick´s day on. When you are sure you see a swallow, record the date and the information requested on the Spotter´s Guide. Then register your information.

Botanical Information

The swallow is a migratory bird that spends winter in Africa and the summers in Ireland. It comes here to breed in summer because the days are much longer here in summer than in Africa, and so there is more daytime to collect insects to feed their young.

They build their nests indoors in barns from mud, which they scoop up with their beaks. They line their nests with feathers, which they pluck from their own bodies. They lay 3-6 eggs, white in colour, which hatch out after fifteen days. It takes another twenty days for the chicks to grow enough to fly and they are fed during this time by both parents.

Ringing their legs with special rings that don´t hurt them gives us information about them and we now know that the same swallows return year after year to the same nests. If the summer is good in Ireland and there are lots of flies they will raise a second brood. They leave at the end of September to return to Africa for the winter as insects are very scarce in Ireland in the winter. They line up on electric wires at the end of September all twittering together and they head off to Africa in family parties and groups.

Folklore

Swallows spend the winter in Africa and return here to breed each summer. Some arrive early but it is not until they are here in good numbers that we can say that summer has arrived - hence the expression - One swallow doesn´t make a summer. Long ago there was a belief that ailments could be cured by treating them with something that resembled the ailment. Thus because swallows twittered (rather than sang) they could be used as a treatment for stuttering and for epilepsy. This involved eating the flesh of the swallow something we wouldn´t dream of doing now as swallows are a protected species.

People also believed that there was a small stone in a swallows nest - the swallow stone and that this stone would cure blindness. Of course there is no such thing but that is what people believed because swallows were so good at flying around dark sheds and barns.

Swallows are birds of good luck. It will bring good fortune if they nest on your property. It is a sign of good weather if they are flying high in the sky. They are specially favoured by God so it is really unlucky to kill one.

Long ago people didn´t know that they migrated to Africa in winter. When they couldn´t see them flying around they were sure that they hibernated in the mud at the bottom of ponds. This of course doesn´t happen.

"One Swallow doesn't make a Summer"

This means that there are always early swallows to be seen in March but this doesn´t mean that there is an end to the cold weather. Swallows appear in greater numbers in April and of course there will be enough aerial insects to sustain them, indicating that summer has really only arrived now.

When swallows fly high in the sky it is a sign of good weather. Whereas, if they fly low, it is a sign of bad weather. Flies fly low when bad weather is approaching because of lower atmospheric pressure and the swallows follow them down and so fly low.

Swallows are birds of good omen. To have them nesting on one´s property is thought to bring good luck. And they are unlucky birds to kill as they are favoured by God.

 

Hawthorn

Many of the hedges surrounding our fields and roadsides contain hawthorn trees.

Individual hawthorn trees are also common. Examine nearby hedges for trees and bushes with thorns on the twigs from the end of March.

  • Both blackthorn and hawthorn will have thorns on their twigs. The hawthorn has grey brown twigs, and may still have the odd red haw on some of its branches. It never has a spine at the very top of its twigs and the spines along the sides are short and slender.
  • It gets its leaves before its flowers, which are called May blossom.
  • Hawthorn should not be confused with blackthorn, which has black twigs with very stout spines and gets its flowers before its leaves. The blackthorn has sloes as fruit and IS NOT BEING SURVEYED AT THIS TIME.

What to record

Examine the buds, particularly those at the end of the twigs. You are waiting to see them become green, burst and the new green leaves emerge. Record date and information requested on the Spotter´s Guide and then register your information.

Experiments

  • English version (pdf)
  • Irish version (pdf)

Botanical Information

Hawthorns are officially classified as trees because they can have a single trunk and grow up to five metres high. They are native to Ireland and were spread here after the ice age by birds, which had feasted on their berries further south. The hawthorn has sharp spines along its twigs and so is very good as a hedge in fields where cattle are. It has been planted very widely in Ireland as field boundaries.

It comes into leaf in April and the leaves are food for a great variety of insects and creepy crawlies. The white flowers come out in May and are visited by bees collecting nectar and by flies, moths and butterflies. All these insects carry the pollen from one tree to another so seed is set.

The fruits are the red haws, which appear in September. These contain the large seeds and the trees are spread from the droppings of birds such as thrushes and blackbirds, which have eaten the berries and excreted the seeds in their droppings.

Folklore

In ancient times the hawthorn tree was the symbol of fertility and marriage. It was a sacred tree, one loved by the fairies too and misfortune would befall anyone who interfered with it, particularly anyone who felled a lone hawthorn. Hawthorn trees often grow beside holy wells and are often covered with rags and other favours tied on there by people who want favours granted.

Even today it is considered unlucky to take hawthorn flowers into the house. It was considered to have been the tree from which Christ´s cross was made and the crown of thorns was also thought to have been made from the thorns of the hawthorn.

In folk medicine the flowers, leaves and fruit of the hawthorn were said to be able to reduce blood pressure and stimulate the heart. They were also said to act as a mild sedative and were used as a treatment for insomnia.

The flowers are always considered to be a sign of summer hence the saying - Cast no clout till May is out - means do not take off your winter clothes until the May Blossom is in bloom.

The hawthorn is a native Irish tree and many place names are called after it. Sceach is the Irish name for Hawthorn and places such as Skeheenarinky in Co. Tipperary mean the hawthorn of the dancing place and Skenarget in Co. Tyrone means the silver hawthorn.

There was never much value placed on the fruit of the hawthorn tree - the haw. You would only eat it if you were really stuck. Hence the old saying - When all fruit fails welcome haw.

It has always been considered to be very unlucky to bring the flowers of the hawthorn into the house. There are various reasons put forward for this. One is that they have a very sickly smell which would be too strong in the small rooms of houses long ago.

Another reason put forward was that you were bringing it in to the May altar and so were proclaiming that you were a Catholic, which might be dangerous in Penal times. But the real reason for this is that it was thought unlucky to bring the flowers indoors for fear of offending the fairy folk, whose good side people wanted to keep on.

We all know the expression - Cast no clout till May is out. This does not mean wait until June before taking off your heavy winter clothes. What it really means is wait until the May Blossom is out on the hedges before taking off the winter woollies. This makes much more sense of course, because if the weather is warm enough for the blossoms to open on the Hawthorn or May bush, then it is warm enough to put on light summer clothes.

 

Ash

Ash trees are very common in hedges, parks and gardens. It is usually well into May before the ash buds burst.

  • They have grey twigs with black buds - the only Irish tree to have black buds.
  • The big bud at the end of each twig contains leaves.
  • Some of the smaller buds down along the twig can be flower buds. These open before the leaf buds and they are easy to see. The experiment is recording when the leaf buds open (not the flower buds).

What to record

The chosen tree should be visited regularly from the last week in April. Examine the big black bud at the end of each twig. Bud burst is when the black scales part and you can see the green leaves coming through underneath.

Young ash trees get their leaves before mature grown trees. Make sure to look at ash trees that are at least 5 metres high to be sure that you are getting a result from a mature tree rather than a young sapling.

Record the date and information requested on the Spotter´s Guide and then register your information.

Experiments

  • English version (pdf)
  • Irish version (pdf)

Botanical Information

Ash is a native canopy tree. This means that it was the main tree in the ash woodlands long ago, which grew on the good soil. The ash trees in our hedgerows today are the descendants of those early native trees. As a result of their adaptation to life in Ireland, the ash don't come into leaf until May when all danger of damaging frost has passed.

Ash trees have grey bark and black tight buds. Some of these buds are flower buds and these open before the leaf buds open. The flower buds open in April and the flowers have no petals or sepals. The pollen from these flowers is blown from flower to flower by the wind. When this is over the leaf buds open and the compound pinnate leaves with up to 15 leaflets, emerge. In autumn the seeds appear in bunches called keys. These are scattered by the wind from October onwards.

Folklore

It was with an ash stick that St. Patrick is said to have driven all the serpents out of Ireland. Ash was considered to be a magic tree and so was well equal to this task. If your spear handle was made of ash then you had a very lucky spear indeed. Hurleys are made of ash today so for some counties at least, the magic lives on.

The ash tree is the last native Irish tree to get its leaves. They don´t arrive until May - just after the oak tree. The saying - "The oak before the ash we´ll get a dash, The ash before the oak we´ll get a soak."

Refers to what the summer will be like from a point of view of wet weather depending on which tree comes into leaf first.

It was also considered to be a tree, which would be the first to be hit by lightening hence the saying - "Avoid an ash, It courts the flash."

Ash trees were greatly respected in Ireland long ago. The ash was considered to be one of the Noble trees of the wood on account of its fine timber, which was used for chairs and stools. Horse whips and spears were also made from ash in the old days.

Ash trees were considered to protect places from witches and were also associated with childbirth. Sap from an ash twig would protect a new born baby against evil spirits and would give it the strength of an ash tree.

The Irish for the ash is fuinnse or fuinnseóg. Places called after this tree include Funshin, Unshinagh, Hinchoge and indeed Ashford.