Monday 11th March 2013

Butterfly list soars to 3 species!

Despite the howling wind and snow outside, my 2013 butterfly list increased over this weekend to three species. The two additions were Peacock, Inachis io, and Small Tortoiseshell, Aglais urticae. Both of these had been hibernating indoors and the mild temperatures and outside woke them from their winter slumber, and they rather sleepily flapped around the garden before disappearing in the afternoon sunshine.

I can only hope that they will have found a sheltered spot to spend that night, as we are now back in what feels like deep mid-winter, with temperatures well below zero, snow and a biting wind.

In addition to these two live butterflies, there were several dead Small Tortoiseshells on the windowsills in the house. They had obviously tried to escape when the weather was really mild last week, but as nobody was at home to open the windows, they battered themselves to death. I always find this a sad beginning to the butterfly calendar, seeing all these desiccated butterflies that make it all the way through the winter, only to succumb against the glass, unable to get out.

Observing these Vanessid butterflies, all of which hibernate as adults, reminds me of an incident that has rankled with me since around 1975, when I was a rather shy twelve-year-old. It occurred in a Biology class at Hazelwood School, Limpsfield, Surrey. We were studying the life-cycle of the butterfly, a subject about which I knew more than any other boys in the class, being a keen rearer of caterpillars, and coming from a highly entomological family! The teacher asked if anyone knew what stage butterflies passed the winter as, egg, caterpillar, chrysalis or adult. I immediately stuck up my hand, and answered (correctly) that it depended on the species, some passing the winter as eggs, some as caterpillars, others as chrysalises and even some as adults. “Wrong”, said the Biology teacher, whose name was Mr Ian Wren, so one might have expected him to know a little about wildlife than he did, “They all pass the winter as eggs.”

To my regret ever since, I did not protest and correct him. How I wish I had!

A Peacock butterfly hibernating near the boiler – a comfortable place to spend the winter

Butterfly list as of 11th March: 3 species

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Wednesday 5th March 2013

James’ butterfly year

This year, in the absence of a major overseas trip (at least for the moment), I intend to write an online diary of my butterfly sightings. As yet, despite the recent spring-like weather we have been enjoying over the last few days, I have not managed to connect with any butterflies, although the Belgian butterfly recording group I am a member of has recorded sightings of several Small Tortoiseshells, Aglais urticae, and at least one Brimstone, Gonepteryx rhamni.

However, my butterfly list for 2013 does have one species on it, and an unusual and somewhat poignant sighting it was. The species concerned was a Red Admiral, Vanessa atalanta, which I spotted feeding on the bouquets of flowers laid out on the ground at Beckenham crematorium, in South-east London, on 4th February. I was there for the cremation of my 93-year-old uncle, Derek Rowles. Red Admirals are supposed to be incapable of successfully hibernating in the British climate, but this individual had clearly survived the winter thus far, and was stocking up on nectar from the beautiful flowers laid out in memory of the deceased. It was almost as if the butterfly was attending the ceremony, the commemoration of a member of the butterfly-loving Champion clan (Derek was the nephew of F W Champion and the last person alive who knew my great grandfather G C Champion, who died in 1927).

Butterfly list as of 5th March 2013: 1 species.

A Red Admiral at the cremation of my uncle Derek Rowles, Beckenham, Kent, 4th February 2013