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.

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Saturday 31st May 2014

The annual bistort pilgrimage

Yesterday, Friday 30th May, provided yet more proof of the immense wildlife value of military training areas. This time the location was Camp Elsenborn, a large tract of heathland, forest and boggy areas in the extreme east of Belgium. Certain parts may be entered when training is not taking place, and luckily this was the case yesterday.

As with the military training areas I frequently visit in northern France, the presence of the Belgian Army here has saved the land from becoming agricultural land, and has therefore allowed the wildlife to thrive, safe from the plough and from agricultural pesticides. In addition to the butterflies I shall shortly describe, I was treated to encounters with a pair of Wrynecks, two pairs of Red-backed Shrikes, two Black Storks, a singing Woodlark, Whinchat and many Wood Warblers, all birds that survive here thanks to the camp, which has been in the possession of the military since it was set up by the Prussians in 1894.

The wild landscape of Camp Elsenborn

An isolated boggy pool in the military camp

The weather was cold and grey initially, but finally a few breaks in the cloud appeared, followed almost immediately by the first butterflies. The first to be spotted was a Grizzled Skipper, Pyrgus malvae, which was basking with its wings wide open to catch the warming rays of the weak sun.

The Grizzled Skipper, almost immobile with the cold

Shortly afterwards, the sun really began to break through, and this brought out perhaps one of my very favourite butterfly species, the diminutive and rare (but here locally abundant) Violet Copper, Lycaena helle. This beautiful species is restricted to damp areas where its larval foodplant, Bistort, Polygonum bistorta, grows. Here the pinkish spikes of bistort flowers may be seen along streams and in boggy areas, and the attendant Violet Coppers provide a beautiful spectacle as they bask on open ground or on flowerheads close by.

The male Violet Copper has a wonderful purplish sheen

Female Violet Coppers lack the purple sheen

A Violet Copper nectaring on its larval foodplant, the bistort

A mating pair of Violet Coppers

The other feature here was the delightful Chequered Skipper, Carterocephalus palaemon, which as I mentioned in my previous post, seems to be enjoying a real boom year in 2014.

A Chequered Skipper with wings fully open to catch the sun

Thus far all the butterflies seen had been tiny, but it was not long before a larger, blackish butterfly appeared, a Woodland Ringlet, Erebia medusa. This species is particularly difficult to photograph, as it always seems to bury itself in long grass as soon as it lands. Luckily I was able to find at least eight individuals this time, and one did perch with its wings open for a few moments before it too obscured itself by burrowing down among the grass stems.

A Woodland Ringlet almost unobscured by grass stems

This is how Woodland Ringlets usually pose!

Later in the afternoon, I found myself in a more sheltered valley a short distance away, and here I was delighted to find the other bistort specialist, the Bog Fritillary, Proclossiana eunomia. I had feared that I might be too early this weekend for this species, but scanning over a patch of bistort with the binoculars revealed at least one fritillary flying, and as I plunged into the boggy vegetation, I was able to find two newly emerged individuals of this wetland specialist butterfly. Within a week or so, Bog Fritillaries will be quite numerous in these bistort-filled valleys, but it was a bonus to find two of them on this occasion.

A newly emerged Bog Fritillary

By the end of the day, my 2014 butterfly list had reached: 48 species.

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Monday 26th May 2014

A case of unintended environmental vandalism!

Following my highly successful visit to the military camp in the northern Champagne region described in my post of 18th May, which provided me with many new species of butterfly for my 2014 list, I returned to the same area this last weekend….only to be almost completely unable to find any butterflies at all. This had nothing whatever to do with the weather, which was admittedly cool, but not cool enough to thwart the butterflies. To my horror, the entire broad strip of rich, varied wildflower-covered grassland between the road and the bank bordering the military training area proper had been mown, leaving only the very shortest plants still with flowers. Literally thousands of in some cases rare species with extremely restricted ranges in this region must have been killed by this operation. That the verges need to be mown is not in dispute, but to do it at the very height of the spring butterfly season is nothing short of environmental vandalism.

In the Netherlands, where mowing of verges is also a national obsession, at least I could contact the Vlinderstichting (Dutch Butterfly Conservation) if I saw such a situation, and they would then try to prevent the mowing happening again in the most sensitive areas, but in northern France no such charity exists to protect butterflies and their habitats, so I have no idea whom to contact.

The splendid verges of the military camp, uncut last year in June

Every square metre of the verges had been mown, leaving little opportunity for butterflies to survive

Luckily, the rest of the grassland of the military area remains untouched, so I can only hope that the butterflies will re-colonise these wonderful verges from over the bank, but that may take some time, and this mowing may become a more regular feature. As it was, on this occasion I saw a total of about seven butterflies, a Black-veined White, Aporia crataegi, a Dingy Skipper, Erynnis tages, a Marsh Fritillary, Euphydryas aurinia, a Glanville Fritillary, Melitaea cinxia, and two Reverdin’s Blues, Plebejus argyrognomon, and one female of a new species for my annual list, the Adonis Blue, Lysandra bellargus.

A lone female Adonis Blue that evaded the mowing

Following this great disappointment, I drove a short distance into the nearby hills, and although the weather had cooled down even further and therefore no butterflies were flying, I was able to marvel at the orchids that this tiny reserve harbours, and in particular the Violet Bird’s Nest Orchid, which seems to be thriving here.

The Violet Bird’s Nest Orchid is a spectacular species

There were several clumps of the Violet Bird’s Nest orchid growing here

Other orchid species I saw in this small area were Fragrant Orchid, Common Twayblade, Early Purple Orchid (already over), Greater Butterfly Orchid, Late Spider Orchid, Lady Orchid and the truly spectacular Lizard Orchid. A small patch of Military Orchids were nearby.

The Fragrant Orchid has rather dainty, petite flowers

The Greater Butterfly Orchid does not really resemble a butterfly

The Late Spider Orchid is not particularly spider-like

The Lizard Orchid’s flowers are quite bizarre

The following day, I headed eastwards into Belgium, and almost immediately I had crossed the border, I found a new species for my 2014 list, a rather tattered female Mazarine Blue, Cyaniris semiargus, which I did not manage to photograph.

Unlike the negative example of human interference in “natural” habitats I had witnessed the previous day, here I was able to enjoy an area that has been cleared especially for butterflies. Although the species that was supposed to benefit in this particular case, the Marsh Fritillary, Euphydryas aurinia, appeared to be absent, nonetheless the distantly related Heath Fritillary, Mellicta athalia, was clearly benefitting greatly from the newly opened up areas. I must have seen at least 20 individuals.

A sign detailing the habitat restoration project for butterflies here

Heath Fritillaries were here in good numbers

Other interesting species present here were Black-veined White, Aporia crataegi, Pearl-bordered and Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries, Clossiana euphrosyne and C. selene, and more than 20 Chequered Skippers, Carterocephalus palaemon (this charming species seems to be having a boom year). But perhaps my most spectacular find was not a butterfly at all, but rather a mating pair of Poplar Hawk Moths, Laothoe populi, which my eyes were somehow drawn to in the long grass by the track.

A real prize: a mating pair of Poplar Hawk Moths

The Poplar Hawks allowed an extremely close approach

By the end of the weekend, my 2014 list had reached 46 species.