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The megera

Wall butterfly, male, polygonia egea

Polygonia egea – male

In an earlier post I mentioned my early morning walks in Kefalonia. I often get up really early when on holiday as the light is less harsh and as it is marginally cooler, insects can be more settled and easier to photograph. Although, that said, in Kefalonia even at first light it was still way into the twenties. So on quite a few mornings dawn saw me make the steep climb up through the pine trees to the ancient hill fortress overlooking the pretty fishing village of Assos.

It was always worth getting out of bed though as the castle was ‘the place’ for butterflies and one of the ruined bastions proved to be a real hot spot for the Wall Lasiommata megera which loves to bask on walls, rocks, stones and bare ground. This is a butterfly we get here in Wiltshire, see my earlier post here but it’s not one I’ve seen so far this year. The Wall, or Wall Brown as it is sometimes known, is fairly widely distributed in England, I’ve seen it way up in Northumbria for example but it rarely occurs in large numbers. In the last decade or so it has declined substantially due to a continuing loss of habitat and it is now a priority species for conservation. So it was a blessing to see so many and have the time to study them in detail.

Often it was just me and the Megera, these mythical daughters of Creon, king of Thebes. Under the shade of an obliging olive tree I spent many peaceful hours watching these orange and brown furies flit in and out of the sunlight. The only sounds the over excited squeals of alpine swifts above my head and the distant crashing of waves on the rocks far below.

The lesser of two weevils

Hazel-leaf roller weevil, apoderus coryli,

Apoderus coryli

Whilst looking for Adonis Blue butterflies on West Yatton Down I discovered this little chap standing on a Hazel leaf. Further investigation revealed it to be a Hazel-leaf roller weevil Apoderus coryli.

It’s a beetle belonging to the family Attelabidae subfamily Attelaninae which are sometimes called giraffe weevils for rather obvious reasons. These primitive insects have a bell-shaped thorax (pronotum) and rather protruding eyes.

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Old World Swallowtail

Swallowtail butterfly, papilio machaon

Papilio machaon

The slight gap in posts is due to the fact that I had to jet off to the Greek island of Kefalonia to fix my good friend Captain Corelli’s mandolin. Whilst staying in the charming harbour village of Assos I was lucky enough to get a photo of this fabulous Old World Swallowtail Papilio machaon and its equally stunning caterpillar, see photo at end of post. All it took was an early morning trek up a mountain to a small fortress built in 1593 by the Venetians.

It may surprise some readers to learn that that this spectacular insect can be seen here in England. Although the British species, Papilio machaon britannicus is restricted to the Norfolk Broads and is now one of our rarest butterflies, partly due to the distribution of the sole larval foodplant, Milk-parsley Peucedanum palustre.

In comparison britannicus is slightly smaller, darker and more strongly marked.

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The lovers

Hamearis lucina – Male and female

Hamearis lucina – Male and female

Inching along the crest of the hillside I approached ‘the hole’ with some trepidation. A somewhat optimistic visit a few weeks earlier had revealed that someone had used a tractor with a rotary cutter to flail the bramble and blackthorn to the ground and deep into the boundary hedge. To say I was a tadge cross would be to put it mildly, I may have even said a naughty word. This after all is ‘the hidden place’ that I’ve sworn to secrecy and as it is one of the few remaining spots in Wiltshire where it is possible to see good numbers of Duke of Burgundy Hamearis lucina and no people, other than the occasional dog walker, it is my entirely selfish intention to keep it so.

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Blood spewers

Bloody-nosed beetles, Timarcha tenebricosa

Timarcha tenebricosa, male and female

The bloody-nosed beetle Timarcha tenebricosa or blood spewer as it is sometimes known from its defensive habit of exuding a bright red-orange fluid from its mouth. This fluid is foul-tasting to predators, seriously irritating the mouth of birds and mammals. Subsequently it can sometimes be seen wandering around in daylight largely unmolested. Read more

Juniper green

Green Hairstreak butterfly, Callophrys rubi, Male

Callophrys rubi – Male

I came across this easily overlooked green and gold-edged beauty while out on a 9 mile river amphibia walk on Salisbury Plain. It’s unusual I guess to see a Green Hairstreak Callophrys rubi sitting amongst nationally threatened Juniper Juniperus communis famous for its aromatic berries used to flavour Gin.

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Rosemary, lavender, sage and thyme

Rosemary Beetle, Chrysolina americana

Chrysolina americana

Twenty years ago you would be lucky to see this attractive metallic green and purple-striped beetle outside a greenhouse. The Rosemary Beetle Chrysolina americana was first discovered living outdoors in Surrey in 1994. Since then it has become widespread throughout southern England. They are commonly found on aromatic herbs, mainly rosemary but also on lavender, sage and thyme.

This one was found on rosemary whilst I was attending a course on bumblebees in Winchester, Hampshire.

A flock of Dodos

Detail of lego dodo

Detail of Lego Dodo

On Saturday I attended another insect identification course, this time on Solitary Bees and Wasps. These informative courses are run the Hampshire Arts and Museum Service at Chilcomb House. One of the real treats for me is that the keeper, Christine, allows us a lunchtime peak at the natural science collections. This time she let me handle a femur (thigh bone) from a Dodo Raphus Cucullatus a flightless bird which although only ‘discovered’ in 1598 was extinct by 1662, just over 60 years later. This particular bone was probably recovered from the the Mare aux Songes swamp in Mauritius around 1860. I must say I did feel rather melancholy holding it in my hand.

Sadly many more beautiful creatures continue to join it or find themselves on the ever expanding critically endangered list. Despite the losses we really haven’t learnt much as a species.

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Stamped to pieces

Male Brimstone butterfly, Gonepteryx rhamni

Gonepteryx rhamni – Male

The Brimstone Gonepteryx rhamni is one of our longest-lived butterflies. Adults emerging in July that have successfully over-wintered can still be on the wing the following July, 12 months later. Males like the one pictured above usually awake from hibernation first, typically in the first warm, sunny days of March, a couple of weeks before the females. So if you spot a yellow butterfly at the moment, it’ll be a Brimstone.

The sulphur yellow males are thought to be the original ‘butter-coloured fly’ and thus the source of the word ‘butter-fly’. The less conspicuous female is a much paler greenish-white in comparison. On the upperside, both sexes carry a distinctive single orange spot in the centre of each upper and lower wing, but these are tricky to see in flight. And this is a butterfly that never settles or feeds with its wings open. In fact on a dull day when perched amongst foliage, the veined and leaf-like scalloped wings blend with the leaves so convincingly that this can be an extremely hard insect to spot. Until that is it suddenly materialises in front of you like a splash of sunshine.

This butterfly was the subject of one of the earliest hoaxes. Shortly before his death in 1702, an English butterfly collector, William Charlton, sent a male Brimstone, hand-painted with additional black spots and blue moons on the lower wings, to the esteemed entomologist James Petiver. In 1763, none other than the great Carl Linnaeus declared it a new species Papilio eclipses and included it in the 12th edition (1767) of his Systema Naturae. Thirty years later, in 1793, the Danish entomologist, John Christian Fabricius, examined it more closely and realised it was a fake.

Allegedly, when the hoax was uncovered, the Keeper of National Curiosities at the British Museum was so annoyed he ‘indignantly stamped the specimen to pieces’. So the two specimens in the collection of the Linnean Society in London may actually be later replicas. Fake fakes if you will.

This one’s for you

Steve carefully checking the wing feathers to see if the Treecreeper, Certhia familiaris is an adult or juvenile

Stephen checking the wing feathers to see if the Treecreeper, Certhia familiaris, is an adult or juvenile

One of my school friends has been on my mind a lot recently. Horribly I found out via Facebook that he passed away last August and of course I regret I haven’t spent more time with him in recent years.

Last week was all early mornings. So it was a challenge to get out of bed again at 6.00am on Saturday to meet up with the aptly named John Swallow of the Berkshire Downs Ringing Group who’d I’d got in touch with via the excellent (BTO) British Trust for Ornithology website. John had very kindly invited me to join him in the Kennet valley for an early morning bird ringing session. Something I’ve wanted to get involved with for ages. I’ve always been interested in birds, in fact they were my first love. I spent many happy hours watching and sketching them when I was a nipper.

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