Monday 28th October 2013

The never-ending butterfly season?!

Despite the extremely stormy weather we have been experiencing over the past 24 hours or so, I still managed to find amazing numbers of butterflies this weekend, and at times it felt as if summer was still with us. I headed down to my usual haunts in northern France, and on Saturday afternoon ventured out, first into the garden, where at least ten Red Admirals, Vanessa atalanta, and two Commas, Polygonia c-album, were gorging themselves on rotting plums on the ground. In order to warm themselves, they perched on the rushes surrounding a small pond, where they were sheltered from the blustery wind and could absorb the late-autumn sunshine at their leisure.

A Red Admiral soaking up the late autumn sunshine

One of the two Commas that were also indulging in the warmth

Although Red Admirals, like their cousins the other Vanessids (Tortoiseshells, Peacocks, etc), attempt to hibernate as adult butterflies, at least in the UK, whose climate is not that different to that of northern France, few survive the winter. It is interesting to compare the strategies of these closely related species. The Large Tortoiseshell, Nymphalis polychloros, disappears into hibernation in August, and even the warmest of autumn days will be unlikely to tempt them out. Small Tortoiseshells, Aglais urticae, and Peacocks, Inachis io, seem to hide away by mid-October, although I did see two Peacocks, one of which was disturbed from the garage, the majority of Commas have settled down for the winter, Painted Ladies, Vanessa cardui, attempt to migrate south for the winter or simply die, and yet these Red Admirals were just feasting on the rotting plums, without making any apparent attempt to either head southwards or to find a secure wintering spot. Could this be the cause of so few surviving through to the following spring?

A Red Admiral feasting on rotting plums when it should be looking for a hibernation spot

The impressive showing of Red Admirals captured my attention for a while, but a trip to the Lac du Val Joly, a man-made lake not far away, was to prove far more impressive, with a walk through the grassy areas surrounding the lake revealing innumerable Clouded Yellows, Colias croceus, sheltering in the low vegetation or nectaring on the last of the flowering Knapweed, Centaurea nigra. There must have been more than 100 in just the three areas I prospected, including at least one of the pale female form var. helice. A lone Small White, Pieris rapae, was also to be seen here.

One of the more than 100 Clouded Yellows that were to be seen near the lake

Another Clouded Yellow, one of so many on this late October day

A grassy area beloved of Clouded Yellows, overlooking the Lac du Val Joly

All in all, an unexpected autumn bonus – but still my annual list remains on 77 species, with little or no prospect of any further additions….but you never know!

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Monday 21st October 2013

A fabulous week for “Tripwire for a Tiger”

This past week has seen an incredible surge of interest in my recent anthology of the writings of my pioneering wildlife photographer and early conservationist grandfather F W Champion OBE FZS IFS.

On Monday, my father Nigel Champion and I were interviewed in the exhibition of my grandfather’s astonishing wildlife photographs, which is currently attracting a lot of interest in the Dumfries Museum, by Willie Johnston, BBC news reporter for southern Scotland. Perhaps the most touching part of this session was when my 85-year-old father was filmed standing next to a photograph of himself as a small boy, firing off a tripwire set for a tiger 81 years earlier.

My father being interviewed standing next to a photograph of himself taken 81 years previously, as he fired a tripwire set for a tiger

On Tuesday evening, I gave a talk on my grandfather’s life and work to the Kirkcudbright Literary Society, held in the historic Broughton House. Around 50 people attended, including one man who arrived carrying copies of both of my grandfather’s two books, With a Camera in Tiger-land (1927) and The Jungle in Sunlight and Shadow (1934), which he asked my father, mother and me to sign for him. The level of interest was extremely high, and I sold around 30 copies of my book, Tripwire for a Tiger, as well as being invited back to tell the story of my incredible journey in my grandfather’s footsteps in India in 2006, and then again to recount the tale of my quest to find the locations where my great grandfather G C Champion did his insect collecting in Guatemala and Panama between 1879 and 1883.

My talk to the Kirkcudbright Literary Society

On Wednesday, Willie Johnston’s video and radio clips were run on the BBC, both on Reporting Scotland, the main Scottish news programme on BBC 1, and throughout the day on BBC Radio Scotland. A clip can be seen below, temporarily only showing a version I managed to capture by filming the television screen using my Samsung Galaxy smartphone – I am still hoping to receive an official copy of the programme from the BBC.

On Thursday, we returned to Dumfries to give another talk, this time to another substantial audience in the Dumfries Museum. Around 40 participants attended, with all seats taken and another 30 or so copies of Tripwire for a Tiger being sold. Special thanks go to Fiona Wilson and her team for organising this wonderful exhibition and event – she had even baked some splendid orange and black striped cakes to complete the tiger theme! The exhibition will continue until 9th November, and will move to the Annan Museum early next year.

All in all, a highly successful week, and there can be no doubt that interest in the book and in the astonishing work of my grandfather is growing by the day. To obtain your copy of the book, please e-mail me with your order.

FWC’s young son Nigel firing a tripwire set for a tiger in 1932

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Monday 7th October 2013

A final unexpected flurry of late autumn butterflies!

This weekend has seen me enjoying a splendid finale to my butterfly year (at least I assume this must be the end), and I even boosted up my total by one, raising my list to 78 species, only to then find that I had double-counted one, which disappointingly brought me back down to 77!

I headed southwards to my usual haunts in northern France, where the weather was still warm, although only partly sunny, with quite a lot of cloud and some fog. On the Friday I paid a visit to the Monts de Baives, an oasis of calcarious grassland and bushy scrubland only a couple of kilometres from the Belgian border. Here there were several Large Whites, Pieris brassicae, Small Whites, Pieris rapae, and Green-veined Whites, Pieris napi, all enjoying the autumn flowerheads of Knapweed, Centaurea nigra. There was a fine show of Autumn Crocuses, Colchicum autumnale, but these did not seem to be attractive to the butterflies at all.

A female Large White nectaring on Knapweed

Among the whites were at least six Clouded Yellows, Colias croceus, including one mating pair that allowed an extremely close approach. Clouded Yellows are migrants that are numerous in some years and virtually absent in others; this has been a good year for them in northern France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

A mating pair of Clouded Yellows

The slight chill in the air rendered these normally extremely active butterflies more confiding than usual, and I took full advantage of this in order to obtain several shots of them as they rested in the grass.

The normally wary Clouded Yellows allowed close-up photography due to the chill in the air

After a particularly long session, during which I took comparative shots with my new Sigma 17-70 Macro lens on my Nikon D70s, my Panasonic Lumix, my Samsung Galaxy smartphone and my ancient Nikon Coolpix 4500, and found that still the Coolpix is the clearest, what I had assumed to be a Clouded Yellow suddenly got up and flew off, revealing itself to be species number 78 for the year, a Pale Clouded Yellow, Colias hyale! I basked in this misconception until the evening, when I found in my notebook that I had double-counted Large White earlier in the year, so I reluctantly had to lower my score back to 77. It was nonetheless a bonus to add this species, which is also a migrant, but even less predictable in its occurrence than its darker cousin the Clouded Yellow.

The Pale Clouded Yellow, which only revealed its identity when it flew away

A close-up of the Pale Clouded Yellow’s face, showing its remarkable pink hairs

A pale sandy shape flitting around around turned out to be a late Painted Lady, Vanessa cardui, which may well have been on its southward migration. This has not been a particularly good Painted Lady year, and I have seen perhaps only ten in the whole summer. This one was looking a little the worse for wear as it stocked up on energy-giving nectar before moving on southwards. Two or three late and very tired-looking Speckled Woods, Pararge aegeria, were also to be seen here.

The Painted Lady, looking a little tattered as it stocked up on nectar

While taking a short drive along the nearby country lanes, an orangey-brown butterfly suddenly crossed the road in front of the car. Unable to stop immediately, I was actually able to see in the rear-view mirror precisely where it landed in a hedge! I jumped out, and was delighted to find that it was my third Brown Hairstreak, Thecla betulae, of the year. It posed on a drooping branch of wild rose, but by the time I had grabbed a camera, it had flown off and could not be relocated. Nonetheless, this excellent sighting spurred me to return to the same location the following afternoon, and I promptly found another, also spotted crossing the road in front of the moving car; sadly, it too disappeared before I could obtain a shot. I soured the hedges on either side of the road, and although I did not get another view of the butterfly, I was delighted to find a beautiful pearly-white Brown Hairstreak egg, placed neatly as they always are in the V of a fresh sprig of Sloe, Prunus spinosa. Counting the eggs is a more reliable method of assessing Brown Hairstreak numbers than searching for the highly mobile and often elusive adult butterflies.

The pearly-white Brown Hairstreak egg, placed as always in the V of a Sloe branch

If you click on the image to make it larger, and then once again, you will see the extraordinary pocked surface of this jewel-like egg.

Back home, rotting plums in the garden were attracting numerous Red Admirals, Vanessa atalanta, and at least two Commas, Polygonia c-album, which were delighting in the slightly fermented juicy fruit, sharing their prize with a fearsome-looking but actually rather docile Hornet, Vespa crabro, which also allowed a close approach.

A Comma and a Red Admiral gorging themselves on the rotting plums

A Comma, showing its extraordinary wing shape and the characteristic white comma mark

A Hornet was also attracted by the fallen plums

So by the end of what promises to be my last butterfly weekend of 2013, I had seen a total of ten species, and my final overall total for the year remained at 77. Is this the end? Could there be any further surprises? Highly unlikely, surely!