Thursday 26th September 2013

2013 list over – now for the post mortem!

Now that my online butterfly list for 2013 has almost certainly come to an end, on 77 species seen in the Netherlands, Belgium, northern France, north-western Germany and the UK (Scotland and one brief visit to northern England), it is a good moment to look back and consider those species that I did not see. I intend to go through those missing butterflies in the coming weeks, with photographs I have taken of them in previous years, and providing comments on why I failed to find them this year, as well as any other interesting facts that come to mind.

The first species, chronologically speaking, which should definitely have appeared on my list was the Large Tortoiseshell, Nymphalis polychloros. This splendid butterfly is now extinct in the UK, but it does still exist on the adjacent continent in reasonable, if fluctuating, numbers. The reasons for its demise in the UK are uncertain; its larvae normally feed on Elm, Ulmus sp., so one might think that Dutch Elm Disease would be the culprit, but in fact the decline started long before this disease struck in the 1970s. Large Tortoiseshell caterpillars can also feed on the leaves of a number of other trees, so this cannot be the main cause.

A Large Tortoiseshell I photographed in Hungary in July 2004

Parastic wasps take a heavy toll of larvae, sometimes wiping out more than 90% of a brood, but other Vanessid butterflies such as Peacocks, Inachis io, and Small Tortoiseshells, Aglais urticae, are also afflicted, and yet they seem to survive successfully nonetheless. The cause of the decline remains a mystery.

A Large Tortoiseshell in Belgium in July 2010

Large Tortoiseshells belong to the small group of butterflies that pass the winter as adults, and I tend to see my first individuals in the early spring, when they have just emerged from their long winter hibernation. In fact, their hibernation is longer than almost any other butterfly’s, as they disappear into their winter hideaways in late July or early August, whereas their relatives can be seen flying around and stocking up on nectar right through until the late autumn. My most favoured areas for locating this butterfly are along forest tracks in northern France and southern Belgium, where I often see them basking in the spring sunshine or patrolling their favourite forest rides. They never seem to visit flowers, obtaining most of their nourishment from moisture in the gravel of the woodland tracks.

A recently emerged Large Tortoiseshell found in eastern Belgium in April 2007

My normal experience is that Large Tortoiseshells are relatively solitary, but in July 2011 there seemed to be a sort of mass emergence in northern France, with up to twenty individuals frequenting a short section of track in the large forest I frequently visit in northern France. This, however, pales into insignificance when compared to a Youtube clip I found of a vast plague of the closely-related California Tortoiseshell, Nymphalis californica, filmed in Mariposa County, near the Yosemite National Park, California, on 22nd May 2009.

Although plenty of Large Tortoiseshells were reported from my regular haunts early in the year, the cold spring weather meant that there were only a few days when they were active, none of which happened to fall on a weekend when I was able to visit. I consequently missed the spring generation entirely. The cold weather also held up the development of the next generation, meaning that these butterflies emerged after I had left for Scotland in early July. By the time I returned in late August, the butterflies had already gone into hibernation. I had, and perhaps I could even still have, some slight hopes of finding a hibernating individual, but I am uncertain where to look. Unlike their close cousins the Peacock and the Small Tortoiseshell, they do not enter houses, and research seems to indicate that hollow trees, or even beneath drain covers in the road, are favoured spots. However, searching in such places would be little short of looking for a needle in a haystack.

Here are two video compilations of Large Tortoiseshells from previous years:

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Friday 13th September 2013

A truly touching blast from the past

Today, by way of a change from the butterfly list updates that I have been doing lately, I shall describe a deeply touching event that took place yesterday, but first a little background. In October 2006, my parents, cousin and I visited the delightfully situated mountain cantonment of Lansdowne, as guests of the Garhwal Rifles regiment of the Indian Army. My great-grandfather, Major-General Sir Keith Stewart KCB DSO, was stationed in Lansdowne during the early part of the 20th century, and it was there that his daughter, Julia Constance Jean Stewart, first met her future husband, F W Champion, who was Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) for Kalagarh Forest Division, whose headquarters is also in Lansdowne. They married in 1923, and it was here that my father was born on, like today, a Friday 13th, this time in July 1928, in the beautiful residence of the DFO.

While we were in Lansdowne, we showed some old photographs of the house to our military hosts, and asked them if they recognised the building, and whether it still existed. The following morning, we were driven along some twisting roads through the chir pine, deodar and rhododendron forests to the driveway of that very house, which it turned is still the official residence of the Divisional Forest Officer. The then DFO himself was already out on official business, but we were welcomed in most kindly by his wife, Mrs Renu Sonar, and their young son, Prashant Kumar Verma. We sat in the living room, with me showing our hosts the old photographs of the very house in which they were then living. Mrs Sonar said that it was one of the most emotional days of her life, and my father was deeply touched too to be in the house in which he had been born and in which he had spent the earliest years of his childhood. It was also wonderful to see how beautifully maintained this splendid old wooden structure still was, and to know that those responsible for the wonderful Himalayan forests that my grandparents loved so much are still occupying and cherishing this historic residence.

The DFO’s residence, Lansdowne, as it was in the late 1920s

The DFO’s residence, Lansdowne, in October 2006

Myself showing Mrs Sonar and Prashant the old pictures of their home, with my father sitting on the sofa behind

The young Prashant standing on the verandah of the DFO’s residence, Lansdowne, in which my father was born in 1928

Shortly afterwards, the DFO, Mr G Sonar, returned, and we took photographs of the entire family and other forest department staff, with my father sitting on a kind of “throne” in the the centre, with the young Prashant sitting on the arm of the chair. It was a moving experience for all concerned, and we were deeply touched by the warmth of the welcome extended to us by the Sonar family.

My family with the Sonars and other Forest Dept staff in front of the house in which my father was born

Well, yesterday, to my great astonishment, seven years later, that very same boy, Prashant Kumar Verma, who has now grown up somewhat, contacted me through Facebook! In fact, I then found that he had sent me a message on 28th July, but I had somehow not seen it. His message read:

“Hi, Sir, it has been a gap of nearly 7 years since we met you in Lansdowne, India. My father was DFO Kalagarh tiger reserve (where your honourable grandpa Mr F W Champion was also DFO). You and your family came to the residence where your father was born. Sir, those proud memories are still fresh in my mind.”

How I missed this touching message, I do not know, but yesterday there came another, in which he reintroduced himself and complimented me on the photographs that appear on this website. I replied, thanking him for his kind words, and telling him that I often show the pictures of him and his mother and father when I give talks here, and mentioning that I hoped very much to meet them all again when I next visit India.

To this, I received the following reply:

“Sir, it will be a huge honour for us to have you again in India. My family and I often talk about you and your photo collection….Sir, above all we all miss you and your family very much. Those memories of 16th October 2006 are still fresh in our minds. My father is currently DFO of Nainital and head of Nainital Yacht Club.”

Well, quite apart from being deeply touched by his words, this last piece of information was totally astonishing to me, and seemed to underline the extraordinary parallel lives that the Sonars and we the Champions seem to have followed. Not only did my grandfather and Mr G Sonar hold the same post and occupy the same residence in Lansdowne, but my grandparents were also keen members of the Naini Tal Yacht Club (NTYC), and my grandfather was Rear Commodore of the club in 1946 – 47.

The Naini Tal Yacht Club in 1946, with my grandfather F W Champion seated in the centre, my grandmother two places to the right (as one looks at the photograph), and their daughter Jean in the back row second from the left

Again, in 2006, we visited the club, not knowing whether it was still in operation. To our delight, we found that it was thriving, and we sat enjoying a drink in the bar, beneath a shield inscribed with the words “F W CHAMPION, REAR COMMODORE, 1946 – 1947″ on it.

Naini Tal Yacht Club shield commemorating my grandfather’s tenure as Rear Commodore

I had long known that my grandparents’ favourite boat was Number 7, named Stella. These wooden vessels, built I believe in Maidenhead, UK, in 1911 and shipped to India, were the pride of the club, and local NTYC members would take pleasure in holding regattas in which they competed against visiting sailors of the Royal Navy who came up from Bombay, and invariably winning, as they knew the strange tricks that the wind can play on the lake, which is situated in a deep valley, ringed by high hills.

My grandparents’ favourite yacht, Number 7, Stella, in the 1940s

While we were sitting in the bar of the club, we took a look out onto the water, and we were astonished to see that Stella and her sister vessels still exist, and were moored to the jetty just as if my grandparents and their colleagues had tied them up only a few days before. That these wooden boats should have survived so long, and be cherished as much today as they were in those far-off days, was deeply touching.

My grandparents’ favourite yacht, Number 7, Stella, in 2006

Well, in my correspondence yesterday with Prashant Kumar Verma, I naturally asked how my grandparents’ favourite boat was doing, now that she is 102 years old. His reply came:

“Your boat Stella is under great care of my father and it is a beautiful boat, I must say. We were already aware that it was your boat, so it was our responsibility to take care of it….Next time you are here the two of us will surely have a ride in Stella.”

Well, what could be more touching than that, a totally unexpected blast from the past? My thanks go to the Sonar family, not only for their kind hospitality in 2006, but also for taking care of Stella and the DFO’s residence in Lansdowne, but more than anything, for nurturing India’s priceless forests, upon which so much of the country’s water resources, air quality and wonderful wildlife depend.

A supremely beautiful shot of the boats on the Naini Tal lake in the 1940s, by F W Champion

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Sunday 8th September 2013

Another successful weekend – but is this the end?

Friday 6th September was my last major excursion of the season in search of potential new species for my annual butterfly list – and it did not disappoint.

I headed southwards to the military training area at Sissonne, an island of wild nature in a sea of intensive agriculture. I was slightly nervous, as I normally visit this location at the weekend, when there is less likelihood of being challenged by military personnel, but as the weather forecast for the weekend was less than promising, and I was free on the Friday, I thought I had better go for it while the going was good.

My arrival coincided with a cloudy period, although the temperature was in the mid-twenties, but the lack of strong sunlight meant that little was flying. My usual strategy here is to drive along the one public road that crosses the military zone, and to stop at various points, checking the wide flowery verges without actually entering the closed area. I am always somewhat nervous of doing this, and I certainly would not want to be arrested or have my cameras confiscated. The approach of a military vehicle signaled that my fears were well-founded: two young soldiers asked me what I was doing, and whether anything was wrong. When I said “Je cherche des papillons”, they clearly thought I was totally mad, and drove off with a cheery wave!

The flowery road verge where I was questioned by the French military

My first sightings were all of common species, mainly Common Blue, Polyommatus icarus, of which there were many, Brown Argus, Aricia agestis, Meadow Brown, Maniola jurtina, Small Heath, Coenonympha pamphilus, and three worn-looking Gatekeepers, Pyronia tithonus. Numerous Small and Green-veined Whites, Pieris rapae and Pieris napi, were to be seen nectaring on the many flowers, but of more interest were several Clouded Yellows, Colias croceus, and Berger’s Clouded Yellows, Colias alfacariensis, some females of which were laying their eggs on the leaves of Horseshoe Vetch, Hippocrepis comosa. Separating this butterfly from the similar Pale Clouded Yellow, Colias hyale, is not an easy task, but as the Pale lays its eggs on Clover, Trifolium sp, these were clearly Berger’s.

A tired-looking Berger’s Clouded Yellow, with several rips in its wings

I checked the blues carefully, and it was not long before I had spotted two female Silver-studded Blues, Plebejus argus; interestingly, all the Silver-studded Blues I saw here earlier in the year were females too – where are the males?

A female Silver-studded Blue – but where are the males?

Another female, this one much larger, turned out to be a lone, late Reverdin’s Blue, Plebejus argyrognomon, which posed cooperatively close to its foodplant, Crown Vetch, Coronilla varia, although I was unable to obtain a decent shot of its characteristic underside. Reverdin’s Blue is a butterfly which I have only ever seen here in this area, and I normally find it in the spring, so this late individual was a bonus.

The lone female Reverdin’s Blue

Crown Vetch, foodplant of the Reverdin’s Blue

Suddenly, among the numerous, but rather faded-looking Common Blues, a much brighter and larger, almost celestial blue butterfly shot past. Luckily it landed not far away, and I was able to make a stealthy approach – it was, as I hoped, my target species for the day, the splendid Adonis Blue, Lysandra bellargus. This supremely beautiful butterfly, with its glistening, almost indescribable, powdery blue upperside, set off by the white fringes crossed by black veins (the key identification mark), is my father’s favourite butterfly. We used to observe them on the white chalk cliffs at Beachy Head, and at Dover, but although they do occur on the downland of southern England, they are curiously absent from my regular haunts in northern France and southern Belgium, and this is the only area where I see them regularly over here. I had missed the spring generation, so this one was most welcome, raising my annual list to 76 species.

The celestial male Adonis Blue

Can the male Adonis Blue be considered Europe’s most beautiful butterfly?

While following this gem as it moved from flower to flower, I spotted a tiny, dark shape fluttering weakly through the vegetation – a tired and ancient-looking Small Blue, Cupido minimus. In fact, I went on to see perhaps four of these, the smallest butterfly of the region, and was able to obtain some shots, but none were particularly photogenic and will probably not survive more than a few days more.

The diminutive Small Blue, now nearly over for this year

An orangey, almost fly-like shape darting past me turned out to be a female Silver-spotted Skipper, Hesperia comma, a species which I had seen but failed to obtain a decent photograph of a couple of weeks ago in the Netherlands, but here I was in with more luck, as this and two others assisted me rather more cooperatively, settling frequently on the flower-heads of yellow hawkweeds. When they flew off, their wings actually made a buzzing sound, adding to their fly-like character.

A female Silver-spotted Skipper stocking up on nectar

The Silver-spotted Skipper must be one of the most streamlined of butterflies

Another small, brownish butterfly turned out to be a lone male Sooty Copper, Lycaena tityrus, which posed briefly on the dead flower-heads of plantain.

The Sooty Copper, also one of the last of the season

While I was busy photographing this individual, I caught a glimpse of the characteristic flight of a fritillary out of the corner of my eye. What could this be, so late in the year? A short chase ensued, and when it landed I found to my delight that it was a female of species number 77, a totally unexpected Spotted Fritillary, Melitaea didyma. Although I had seen this species here several years ago, it had somehow slipped my mind as a possibility, and I certainly would not have expected it in September – but here it was, a total bonus.

The female Spotted Fritillary, an unexpected bonus, and perhaps my last new species for the year (??)

By now the temperature had reached around 30 degrees, and I decided to retreat to a more wooded area, but other than several Brimstones, Gonepteryx rhamni, a few Speckled Woods, Pararge aegeria, and perhaps four Commas, Polygonia c-album, there was little to be found here, so I headed to another chalky area of grassland, an orchid reserve that I visit quite regularly. The orchids were over for the year, but there were impressive numbers of Chalkhill Blues, Lysandra coridon, fluttering not only in the low grassland but also over the bushes and low trees. There must have been several hundred individuals in this small area, an impressive sight.

A female Chalkhill Blue, one of hundreds at this site

A female Chalkhill Blue waggling its hindwings up and down – what is the purpose of this movement, which most blues indulge in?

The rest of the weekend yielded little, other than another female Brown Hairstreak, Thecla betulae, which unlike last weekend’s cooperative individual only posed briefly, and did not allow me to obtain a photograph, but it was nonetheless a pleasant sight as I see this species only rarely.

So, has my 2013 butterfly list come to an end on 77 species? There is virtually nothing else I could go for – but I had not expected the Spotted Fritillary, so will there be any more unexpected bonuses? Only time will tell.

2013 total as of 7th September: 77 species

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