Saturday 28th June 2014

Butterfly of the Year!

Last weekend was mainly involved with socialising with friends near Bonn, but I did drop by the juniper hills of Alendorf briefly on the way, adding Meadow Brown, Maniola jurtina, Small Skipper, Thymelicus sylvestris, and Ringlet, Aphantopus hyperanthus, but it was the Purple-edged Copper, Lycaena hippothoe, that I was particularly anxious to find, and sure enough, despite the strong wind, it was not long before I found a single male, resplendent with his burnished copper and purple sheen. I had feared that I would miss this species this year, so this was a worthwhile sighting, and I savoured the experience of watching this male’s forays over the flower-filled meadow, always returning to approximately the same spot – male coppers are famously territorial, often pugnaciously seeing off much larger butterflies that venture into their domain.

The purple edges can clearly be seen on this male Purple-edged Copper

The male Purple-edged Copper

The underside of the Purple-edged Copper is also attractive

This weekend has involved a certain degree of frustration, perhaps because we are now in the kind of lull between the main flush of Spring butterflies and the first emergence of the Summer species. I did nonetheless manage to add White Admiral, Limenitis camilla, of which there were impressive numbers on the wing. This species is always a pleasure to observe, with its elegant, gliding flight, and to see so many was a real treat – at one point I had at least 15 in view at the same time!

This White Admiral has lost almost an entire hindwing

The grassland areas were awash with Marbled Whites, Melanargia galathea, another attractive species, which despite its name is not a White at all, but a Brown!

The Marbled White is in fact a Brown

Fritillaries were quite numerous, with one False Heath Fritillary, Melitaea diamina, turning up on a flower-head, despite the cold on Saturday. This attractive butterfly now seems to have disappeared entirely from the areas where I used to see it in considerable numbers in my usual haunts in the forest in northern France, but here, close to the Meuse, it seems to be holding on.

My one and only False Heath Fritillary (so far) this year

False Heath Fritillaries seem to love white flowers

Silver-washed Fritillaries, Argynnis paphia, perhaps the most impressive of all the fritillaries of this area, were already out in some considerable numbers, and it was wonderful to watch these bright tawny butterflies chasing each other over the bramble flowers.

Male Silver-washed Fritillaries are easily identified by the elongated dark marks along the veins on the forewing

Much smaller, but also attractive, Lesser Marbled Fritillaries, Brenthis ino, were also in evidence, easily identifiable by the chequered fringes to their wings.

This Lesser Marbled Fritillary was already looking rather less than fresh

One butterfly which I needed to see this weekend if I was to have it on my 2014 list was the Black Hairstreak, Satyrium pruni. Although elusive and hard to see, I know several patches of its larval foodplant, the Sloe, where it is normally to be found, but this time it took me a long while to locate this discreet little butterfly, but finally I found three individuals, feeding on Privet and Bramble flowers; I could easily have over-looked the first individual had it not been spiritedly chasing Meadow Browns away from its chosen flowers.

The elusive Black Hairstreak, its head buried in a bramble flower

But all these butterflies pale into insignificance as far as I am concerned, as today, after a determined search of potential haunts in southern Belgium and northern France, taking in Thursday afternoon, the whole of Friday, and much of today, I am able to report the sighting of perhaps the most impressive and elusive butterfly of the year so far, one that I have only seen on two occasions before, once in Sweden and once, on my birthday in 2011, here in this region, the Poplar Admiral, Limenitis populi.

This spectacular species, considered by some to be Europe’s largest butterfly, is a rare prize for me. It is seen every year in this region, but as it occurs only at very low densities in the vast forests that coat the hillsides hereabouts, and it remains almost exclusively high in the tops of trees, one’s chances of connecting with it during its remarkably short flight season are low.

I visited the exact spot where I had had the immense privilege to find a highly cooperative male Poplar Admiral on my birthday, 29th May, in 2011, but no sign of the butterfly this time. I returned on Friday, this time armed with a pungent mix of tinned mackerel juice and crème de cassis – the Poplar Admiral virtually never visits flowers, subsisting instead on honeydew exuded by aphids high in the treetops and on unsavoury items such as animal droppings and carrion. However, even this intoxicating mix had no effect, and by the end of a long Friday, I had virtually given up all hope of sighting this almost mythical species in 2014.

The male Poplar Admiral that appeared on my birthday in 2011

Nothing ventured, nothing gained, however, and one last attempt had to be made today, Sunday, and persistence indeed paid off. First, a probable male butterfly sailed over at high speed, but I was not quick enough to clinch its identity through the binoculars.

Later, while having lunch perched on a large rock close to a clearing surrounded by Aspen, Populus tremula, the foodplant of the caterpillars of the Poplar Admiral, suddenly a splendid black and white butterfly glided into view. Almost three times the size of its close relative the White Admiral, this was a brightly patterned female, complete with her broad white stripes, and I was able to follow her in my binoculars as she powered along, with typical admiral flap-flap-gliding flight, but she was not stopping, and headed right along the forest trail until she disappeared from view.

It is likely that Poplar Admirals are found, albeit at very low densities, throughout these vast forests, but due to their elusive habits, they are rarely seen. For me, however, this was almost certainly one of the highlights of my butterfly year, and a sight I shall remember for the rest of my days.

2014 total as of 22nd June: 62 species.

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Saturday 7th June 2014

Violet Copper video:

The video below is a compilation of stills and video footage shot on 30th May in eastern Belgium:

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Sunday 1st June 2014

Butterfly list reaches 51….on my 51st birthday weekend!

Yesterday, 31st May, involved another annual pilgrimage, this time to the gorgeous juniper-covered hillsides around the picturesque village of Alendorf, in the Eifel region of Germany.

This unique landscape, with its grassy slopes dotted with innumerable juniper bushes, so neatly spaced (this is Germany, after all!) that they almost look as though they have been planted, is one of my most favoured butterfly haunts, and yesterday was no exception; I ended up seeing 26 species in the day, and raising my 2014 total to 50!

Alendorf nestles in its valley, surrounded by the juniper-covered hillsides so beloved of butterflies

The first really interesting addition was perhaps not the most visually spectacular of all butterflies, a member of the difficult Grizzled Skipper group. I am 95% sure that it was a Large Grizzled Skipper, Pyrgus alveus, but there is a small possibility of Oberthür’s Grizzled Skipper, P. armoricanus (named by one of my great grandfather G C Champion’s greatest entomological friends, Charles Oberthür, in 1910). Further investigation is required!

The mystery butterfly – is it Large or Oberthur’s Grizzled Skipper?

Other interesting species seen in the early part of the walk included numerous Walls, Lasiommata megera (a pleasant sight as this species is apparently on the decline), Red-underwing Skipper, Spialia sertorius, Black-veined White, Aporia crataegi, Berger’s Clouded Yellow, Colias alfacariensis, Glanville Fritillary, Melitaea cinxia, and the 50th species for my 2014 list, Pearly Heath, Coenonympha arcania.

A female Berger’s Clouded Yellow takes the sun

A Glanville Fritillary getting its fill of nectar

The Pearly Heath’s white band is very distinctive

Up on the more open ground above the juniper slopes, I was delighted to find at least five Swallowtails, Papilio machaon, chasing each other vigorously over the cropped turf, only pausing occasionally to rest (and be photographed). It is rare for me to meet so many Swallowtails together, and I enjoyed the sight for quite some time.

This Swallowtail is not very artistically posed, but impressive nonetheless

It was precisely here, on 21st July 2006, that I took what is one of my favourite butterfly pictures ever, also of a Swallowtail, but posed far more beautifully on a background of ripening barley. Clearly this is a regular haunt of this, one of Europe’s largest and most spectacular butterflies.

A much more beautifully posed Swallowtail, photographed here in 2006

Not only butterflies drew my attention on these delightful slopes. Orchids too were in evidence, especially the extraordinary Fly Orchid, Ophrys insectifera, which uses pheromones to attract insects, which then try to mate with the fly-like flowers, allowing the plant to deposit its pollen on the insect during its fruitless attempt.

The extraordinarily insect-like Fly Orchid

The middle section of this hillside had just been grazed by a flock of sheep, and sadly these voracious feeders had consumed virtually every single flower, rendering the habitat at least temporarily wholly unsuitable for butterflies. The sheep themselves had now been moved to a nearby area of grassland, one where in previous years I had seen numerous orchids. Apparently this type of management is carried out specifically for wildlife, and in the longer term it is supposed to benefit the wildflowers and butterflies too, but I do hope they are not over-grazing this highly sensitive habitat.

The sheep were chomping up my favourite orchid area, but apparently this is useful for wildlife in the long term

A sign explaining the role of the sheep in protecting the wildlife

From here the walk led through woodland and then downwards into a valley with flowery meadows, where a notice proclaimed the presence of both Violet Coppers, Lycaena helle, and Purple-edged Coppers, L. hippothoe, and indeed some bistort and sorrel, their larval host-plants, were present. However, despite plunging down through the long grass towards the main bistort area, I could not find either. However, unexpectedly I did find a lone female Sooty Copper, L. tityrus, which was a bonus.

This female Sooty Copper was an unexpected find

The final section led along more juniper-covered grassland, and here a rather washed-out Duke of Burgundy, Hamearis lucina, was feeding on a flower-head. This was a good find; after having thought that I might miss this highly localised species entirely in 2014, I have now seen it in France, Belgium and Germany.

A rather faded Duke of Burgundy nectaring on a flower-head

Along the bottom of the juniper slope, quite a number of Blues were flying, mainly Small Blues, Cupido minimus, Common Blues, Polyommatus icarus, and Brown Arguses, Aricia agestis, but my eyes were drawn to a more purplish individual, which turned out to be a freshly emerged male Mazarine Blue, Cyaniris semiargus. This species is easily recognised by the small black dots on a uniformly grey underside, and the purplish upperside with black veins crossing it.

The black veins crossing the purplish upperside of this male Mazarine Blue can clearly be seen

The final sighting of the day was a tail-less Swallowtail. These splendid butterflies are frequent targets of attack by birds, which somehow believe that the tails are the butterfly’s antennae and the bluish eye-spots are its real eyes, and they therefore aim for this part, thinking it is the head. The butterfly then escapes, but minus its tails. Obviously this escape mechanism will only function once in the butterfly’s life, but once is better than not at all.

This Swallowtail escaped from a bird attack minus its tails, but with its life

Alendorf is one of the most fabulous butterfly areas I know

Today, Sunday 1st June, has seen me back in the Hautes Fagnes, in eastern Belgium, where although it has not been a particularly butterfly-filled day, a lone male Large Skipper, Ochlodes venatus, brought my 2014 butterfly list up to 51 species – an appropriate number for my 51st birthday weekend!

This male Large Skipper raised my list to 51 species

2014 total as of 1st June: 51 species.