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.
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.
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.
The thick overwintering egg case of Thecla betulae
Apologies for my absence. Some of you may be aware that England has been getting a bit of a battering weather-wise. Storm after storm has hit southern Britain giving us almost biblical amounts of rain. It’s felt like it has poured virtually non-stop since December. We’ve had the wettest January since records began. February has been much the same leaving most of Somerset under water.
This wet and cold weather will soon kill off the remainder of our summer insects, but quite a few of our butterflies will survive by hibernating. These include the Brimstone, Comma, Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell and to a lesser extent the Red Admiral (as the majority of these will migrate south back to the continent).
However, the business of finding a suitable spot and settling down for winter is a gradual process. So it is still possible to see a few butterflies on a sunny autumn day, particularly if you scan a good patch of bramble. My current favourites are the pristine, late-emerged specimens of the Comma Polygonia c-album. Basking in the sun with their wings wide-open these raggedy-edged, spiced-orange beauties really do stand out against the dark green leaves. But when, as in the photo below, they have their wings folded, they can be slightly harder to spot.
But that’s a good thing as it is this dark cryptic camouflage and irregular outline that will help keep them safe amongst the dry leaves of winter. Hiding them from the prying eyes of hungry birds and spiders.
Note the characteristic white mark or ‘comma’ on its rear underwing which gives this butterfly its common name. Personally I think it looks more like a squashed ‘v’ but let’s not get into an argument over aurelian typography.
If it survives the winter then it can be one of the first butterflies on the wing next year with sightings as early as January. And I for one will be glad to see it.
Pholidoptera griseoaptera – Female
On Saturday I attended a course on Grasshoppers, Crickets and Allied Insects. Allied insects covers groundhoppers, our native cockroaches and the earwigs. So what did I learn? In the UK there appear to be eleven grasshoppers, about fourteen crickets, four true crickets and three groundhoppers, all of which can be identified in the field or from photographs and then keyed out. So for once there isn’t really any need to collect specimens, particularly as most will lose their colour after death anyway. Three of the crickets, the Field Cricket, the Mole Cricket and the fabulously named Wartbiter are protected under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act and so cannot even be handled without a licence from Natural England. Apparently even taking photographs of them is discouraged as this could be interpreted as interference.
Colias croceus – Male
The Clouded Yellow Colias croceus isn’t a butterfly most of us get to see every year. It’s a summer migrant from southern Europe. If you live near the coast in Devon or Dorset and you’re the type of person that looks then you might get to see one or two each year. But further north you can go for years without seeing one at all. In nine out of ten years it is scarce. Then for reasons that we don’t fully understand we get an invasion. A glorious ‘Clouded Yellow year’ where numbers can be exceptional and individuals can be seen throughout the country and if we are truly blessed as far as southern Scotland.
Sadly the year after, again for reasons we don’t fully understand, numbers can be extremely poor.
So having spotted a dozen or so on Saturday afternoon at Martin Down NNR in Hampshire, I did the only sensible thing and went back again on Sunday morning. Well, that and the fact that my photos from Saturday were truly shocking. In my defence they’re tricky to photograph in as much as when they land they immediately fold their wings, plus they are all too easily spooked.
As you can see the underside is attractive enough but you really need to get out there and see them flying to see the upperside which is rather stunning – something not lost on the Victorian collectors. Both upper wings are a warm sulphur yellow with black margins. The upper with a single black eye-spot, the lower with a double dark orange, yellow-edged eye-spot. For a change the female has the edge in colouration in that the black margin is sprinkled with bright yellow dots. These are absent in the male. The French have a good name for this butterfly ‘Le Souci’ (The Marigold) which is very descriptive of the upper wing colour.
I saw plenty of Clouded Yellows in Cyprus earlier in the year so it was great to see them here in good old blighty.
This is the Gatekeeper Pyronia tithonus formerly and perhaps more appropriately known as the Hedge Brown or ‘Hedge Eye’. This butterfly can only be confused with a female Meadow Brown Maniola jurtina. However, in comparison it is much smaller and overall a much brighter orange. Where the Meadow Brown has one white spot in the centre of the black eye-spot on the upper wing, the Gatekeeper, as you can see, almost always has two. Also, with wings folded the Gatekeeper has a row of small white dots on its lower underwing, whereas the latter, if it has any, not all do, will have small dark dots. Plus, you are much more likely to find it like this, wings wide-open, basking on a leaf in a hedgerow soaking up the sun.
But beware, both species are subject to variation. I’ve seen Meadow Brown’s with two white spots and Gatekeeper’s with one. So it’s worth keeping a look out for aberrations. If you are lucky you may even find one of the heavily spotted multiocellata variations which can be very pretty indeed. Just remember to carry your camera, because of course I didn’t.
This is a butterfly we’ve taken for granted. The Small Tortoiseshell Aglais urticae was once one of our most familiar and numerous garden visitors. Sadly it is no longer as common as it once was. In recent years, particularly in the south it has declined, possibly due to predation by the parasitic fly Sturmia bella. Somehow our buddleia bushes just don’t look quite the same without these butterflies nectaring on every other mauve, orange-centred flower head. But, let’s not get overly maudlin. Instead let’s reflect on what a stunning little insect this still is. Gorgeous orange set off with deft little touches of black, dabs of yellow and white, ringed with a necklace of brilliant turquoise. What’s not to like?