Sunday 11th May

A weekend washout – almost!

Following a week of sunny but chilly and very windy weather in the Netherlands, during which I did not manage to add any butterflies other than a single Map, Araschnia levana, in Flevoland, and a male Wall, Lasiommata megera, at De Groene Jonker, a flooded area of what the Dutch refer to as “Nieuwe Natuur”, former farmland that has been returned to nature, I ventured southwards to my usual weekend butterfly haunts in northern France, full of hopes. However, these were soon to be dashed due to torrential rain, cold wind and lack of sunshine.

The spring form of the Map butterfly has an intricate pattern, hence its name

I did attempt to find some butterflies on Friday 9th May, but the inclement weather made for limited viewing. A managed to find two Wood Whites, Leptidea sinapis/reali, one Grizzled Skipper, Pyrgus malvae, and one Small Heath, Coenonympha pamphilus.

A lone Wood White braves the cold

Saturday was a complete washout, and Sunday 11th May started off looking completely unpromising. However, around lunchtime there were a few brief gleams of sun, and I decided to give my favourite forest track a try, and in spite of the gusting wind and occasional torrential showers, to my surprise I managed to locate a male Common Blue, Polyommatus icarus, a few Grizzled Skippers, Pyrgus malvae, and at least four each of extremely freshly-emerged Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries, Clossiana selene, and Marsh Fritillary, Euphydryas aurinia.

A male Common Blue nectaring to keep warm

The Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries were newly emerged

A Marsh Fritillary trying to warm up in the grass

Pleased as I was to see these latter two species, the sight of the Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries set a certain alarm bell ringing in my head – when the Small Pearl-bordereds are emerging, the Pearl-bordered Fritillaries, Clossiana euphrosyne, are usually going over…and I have not seen them yet this year. This is an illustration of just how difficult it is to combine going for the maximum butterfly list with work commitments. The butterflies’ flight periods are so short, and as I can only be in their habitats on certain weekends, AND I am completely reliant on favourable weather on those few weekends, I can easily miss a given species for the entire year.

Marsh Fritillaries often roost on flowers

Marsh Fritillaries often bask for long periods, making them excellent subjects for photography

Pleased nonetheless with my success with the butterflies, I decided to try my luck with a rare and even more difficult dragonfly, the Eurasian Basket-tail, Epitheca bimaculata. This elusive species is only known in this area from one lake, and unlike the butterflies, which may be viewable for perhaps a month or so, to find this one you really have to time your visit for a particular few days when the nymphs are climbing out of the water, ascending the bankside vegetation, and the adults are emerging. During this incredibly brief window, if you time your visit precisely correctly, you can be treated to the sight of numerous individuals drying themselves and preparing for their first flight…and such was to be my fortune this afternoon.

It was not long before I spotted my first dragonfly drying itself among the rushes along the shore, but this turned out to be a Downy Emerald, Cordulia aenea, of which I went on to see several more. But shortly afterwards, my eyes settled upon a considerably larger insect, this time with the characteristic black markings at the base of the hindwings (hence the species’ scientific name, bimaculata; the Dutch name is Tweevlek, or Two-Spot).

A Eurasian Basket-tail drying itself before its first flight

The hind-wings are now spread

A Eurasian Basket-tail shortly before its first flight

Dragonfly eyes are among the largest compared to the size of the head of any creature

I found at least eight newly emerged Eurasian Basket-tails, but the weather was so cool and intermittently rainy that I only saw one actually fly away – a sight to savour, as they tower away from the lake on their first flight, and then apparently disappear. They must return to breed, but I am not sure when, and it is very rare to see them at any time other than this brief moment when they are easily viewable as they transform themselves from the fat-bodied, spiny nymphs that have spent their entire lives until this point under water into the gossamer-winged flying dragons that soar away over the trees, perhaps never to be seen again.

Nettle patches seem to be popular spots for the dragonflies to dry their wings

Habitat of the Eurasian Basket-tail

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Monday 14th April 2014

2014 butterfly list hits 13

This is my first post detailing my 2014 butterfly list, and it is coming along apace! We have had some quite warm days already, which have brought out the butterflies in considerable numbers.

Until this weekend, I had not seen any particularly unusual species, but on Saturday I was treated to a fly-by Large Tortoiseshell, Nymphalis polychloros, which did not wait to be photographed. This was a species I inexplicably missed in 2013, so I was pleased to tick it off early this year.

Much more cooperative, however, were the extremely early Violet Coppers, Lycaena helle, which were already on the wing in their (and my) favourite valley in eastern Belgium, where they were posing on the beautiful wild daffodils, for which the region is justly renowned.

The first Violet Copper of the year.

A male Violet Copper on a wild daffodil.

The band of white chevrons is characteristic of the Violet Copper.

The list so far (in order of seeing) is as follows:

1. Small Tortoiseshell, Aglais urticae.
2. Brimstone, Gonepteryx rhamni.
3. Comma, Polygonia c-album.
4. Peacock, Inachis io.
5. Red Admiral, Vanessa atalanta.
6. Green-veined White, Pieris napi.
7. Orange-tip, Anthocharis cardamines.
8. Small White, Pieris rapae.
9. Holly Blue, Celastrina argiolus.
10. LARGE TORTOISESHELL, Nymphalis polychloros.
11. VIOLET COPPER, Lycaena helle.
12. Speckled Wood, Pararge aegeria.
13. Large White, Pieris brassicae.

A Comma just emerged from hibernation in northern France.

A female Orange-tip poses briefly.

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Sunday 13th April 2014

Finishing off the hypothetical 2013 butterfly list, just as the 2014 real list hits 11 species!

During the dark and gloomy winter months, I tried to keep myself in a cheerful, sunny, summery mood by “adding” extra species of butterfly that I should have seen in 2013 to those that I really did see. In reality, my list came to 77 species in my usual areas in the Netherlands, Belgium, northern France, a small area of western Germany and northern England/southern Scotland, and at the time of my last blog-post, I had “reached” 86 species.

Now that Spring is truly here, and my 2014 list has already reached 11 species, I must now finish off that hypothetical 2013 list in order to concentrate on and leave space for 2014!

Further butterflies that I could/should have found in 2013 were as follows:

Poplar Admiral, Limenitis populi. This butterfly is very rare in the region I normally frequent, but I did have the amazing experience of finding one magnificent individual in southern Belgium on my birthday, 29th May, in 2011. I visited the location twice in 2013, but to no avail, although some individuals were seen later.

Limenitis populi form tremulae

Poplar Admiral, Belgium, May 2011

High Brown Fritillary, Argynnis adippe. This species has declined drastically in my regular haunts in northern France and southern Belgium, for reasons that are unclear. I could have seen it when I visited the limestone hills around Arnside, just south of the English Lake District, and in fact I may well have done so, but the weather was poor and it was already late in the year by the time I got there in 2013.

High Brown Fritillary, Argynnis adippe

High Brown Fritillary, Sweden, July 2009

Alcon Blue, Maculinea alcon. This and the following three species have an extraordinary life-cycle, the adult females laying their eggs on particular food-plants, as other butterflies do, but the larvae eventually end up in the nests of particular types of ant, which then host them throughout the autumn, winter and following spring, feeding their own young to the imposters, which “pay” for the ants’ hospitality with drops of honeydew. The Alcon Blue is restricted to heathland habitats where the beautiful Marsh Gentian, Gentiana pneumonanthe, grows, and where its host ant can also be found. I know several habitats of the Alcon Blue in the Netherlands, but unfortunately I left the country too early in July, and consequently missed it in 2013.

Alcon Blue, Maculinea alcon

Alcon Blue, the Netherlands, July 2006

Dusky Large Blue, Maculinea nausithous. This and the following species had been extinct for many years in the Netherlands, but were reintroduced to a restored site near s’Hertogenbosch. I have looked for them once here in the past, but access is difficult and I had already left the country for my summer visit to Scotland in 2013 before the butterflies were on the wing.

Dusky Large Blue, Maculinea nausithous

Dusky Large Blue, Germany, July 2010

Scarce Large Blue, Maculinea teleius. See above. I have never succeeded in photographing this species.

Large Blue, Maculinea arion. Within my usual region, I have only ever once seen a Large Blue. I found it on the beautiful juniper-covered slopes near Alendorf, in the Eifel region of Germany. Whether it was a wanderer I do not know, but I have not found one since.

Large Blue, Maculinea arion

Large Blue, Sweden, July 2009

So, had I added all these extra species, my final 2013 total would have been 92 species. Theoretically it could be possible to reach 100, but it would be a struggle.