Tuesday 9th July 2013

Scorching temperatures, but few butterflies

This weekend saw dramatically increased temperatures compared with those of recent weeks, and I was out in my favourite areas in northern France and southern Belgium, full of hopes of finding large numbers of high summer butterflies, but still there were far fewer in evidence than I would have expected. Perhaps they are still to emerge, but it seems that the cold spring has knocked many species back quite severely.

Saturday 6th July saw temperatures of around 30 degrees Centigrade, and a thundery feeling in the air. Such conditions often cause butterflies to be reluctant to fly, and a long walk through my favourite forest produced very little, other than four Silver-washed Fritillaries, Argynnis paphia. These magnificent insects, with their bright gingery uppersides and beautiful sailing flight, are truly the kings of the summer forests.

A male Silver-washed Fritillary, easily recognised by the dark streaks along the veins on the forewing

The following day, Sunday 7th July, I headed eastwards into Belgium in the hope of more sightings. Whilst still in the car, two large purplish butterflies shot past, showing a slight yellowish tinge. These were almost certainly Lesser Purple Emperors, Apatura ilia, but I did not see them well enough to add to my list, and I did not see more. Here again the forest was lacking many of the species I would have expected, although White Admirals, Limenitis camilla, were out in some force, gliding with their splendid flight around the forest glades.

A White Admiral sipping moisture from the ground

Several Black-veined Whites, Aporia crataegi, were also to be seen, but other than more common species such as Large Skipper, Ochlodes venatus, and Lesser Marbled Fritillaries, Brenthis ino, Comma, Polygonia c-album, and Brimstone, Gonepteryx rhamni, little was showing.

One encouraging sign was that much work is being done in order to make the forests in southern Belgium more butterfly-friendly, with clearings being created, allowing the sun to reach the forest floor and wild flowers to flourish. We can only hope that these efforts will bear fruit in more favourable years to come.

A sign indicating a newly cleared area, in this case for Marsh Fritillaries, among other species

In the afternoon, I moved on to examine the chalky grassland areas nearby, but here again there was remarkably little flying, other than one Brown Argus, Aricia agestis. However, just as I was driving away, the gliding flight of a large, dark butterfly caught my attention, and I jumped out of the car. Finally, I had found at least one example of one of my target species, the Purple Emperor, Apatura iris. Unlike many butterflies, Purple Emperors never visit flowers, preferring instead mud, dung, decaying animals and other unsavoury items. This individual, a freshly emerged male, with his glistening purple sheen changing colour as it caught the sun, was highly cooperative, settling and probing the mud with his bright yellow proboscis as I photographed and filmed him for several minutes. I normally see many of both species of Purple Emperor in this area, and hopefully this was the first of many more that will emerge in the coming days.

A freshly emerged male Purple Emperor, showing how the purple sheen often appears on only one side, depending on the angle of the light

A video of this male Purple Emperor can be viewed below.

On my way back to the Netherlands on Monday 8th July, I stopped at a reserve on the Belgian/Dutch border, where I had some hopes of finding Alcon Blues, Maculinea alcon, but none were to be seen. However, there were numerous Silver-studded Blue, Plebejus argus, which are a kind of symbol of the Dutch heathlands (indeed in Dutch they are known as Heideblauwtjes, or Heath Blues). It was encouraging to see so many of these little jewels flying over the heather.

A female Silver-studded Blue perched briefly on a grass stem

2013 list total as at 9th July: 61 species

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Tuesday 2nd July 2013

No defence cuts please – for the sake of the butterflies!

This weekend has seen me out in the field, working hard to catch up on some missing Spring butterfly species, for which it was my last chance of the year. Again I was busy in northern France and southern Belgium. Saturday was dull and gloomy until the late afternoon, when the weather cleared a little, and I paid a quick visit to my favourite forest track, where I added four species to my list, namely Meadow Brown, Maniola jurtina, Ringlet, Aphantopus hyperanthus, several Pearly Heaths, Coenonympha arcania, and numerous Lesser Marbled Fritillaries, Brenthis ino. The last tired-looking Marsh Fritillaries, Euphydryas aurinia, and Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries, Clossiana selene, were also in evidence, and I also spotted a small, dark butterfly flitting around the trees high above a patch of Sloe bushes, almost certainly a Black Hairstreak, Satyrium pruni, but I was unable to gain a satisfactory look at it before the sun disappeared again.

A Ringlet lurking in the long grass

A Pearly Heath, lying on its side to catch the evening sunlight

A Lesser Marbled Fritillary showing its characteristic black and white chequered fringes

On the Sunday, which looked more promising weather-wise, I drove an hour and a half or so southwards to a truly wonderful wildlife area, the military camp and training area at Sissonne, in the northern Champagne region of France. This 5,500 hectare oasis of wilderness amid a sea of intensive agriculture is an absolute haven for birds, butterflies and wild flowers, never having been ploughed up and retaining the original flora and fauna of this region as it was before the vast fields of maize, rapeseed and wheat took over the landscape. Montagu’s Harrier, Woodlark, Black Woodpecker and Bee-eater are among the bird species that thrive in these military zones. It was not long before I had parked up beside the one public road that crosses the closed area (officially stopping is not permitted, and I have been challenged here in the past for brandishing my cameras, but Sundays are a good bet as most military personnel are having a day off). The sea of wild flowers was a sight to behold, and I was soon ticking off such southern species as Nickerl’s Fritillary, Mellicta aurelia, Knapweed Fritillary, Melitaea phoebe, and Glanville Fritillary, Melitaea cinxia.

Nickerl’s Fritillary, showings its distinctive reddish palps – the appendages projecting out from the front of its head below the antennae

A Knapweed Fritillary, with the more angular wing shape and both pale and dark orange lighter patches

Other new species here were Dark Green Fritillary, Argynnis aglaja, and Clouded Yellow, Colias croceus, but it was the “Blues” that were the most impressive, among which the Silver-studded Blue, Plebejus argus, Small Blue, Cupido minimus and Common Blue, Polyommatus icarus were out in force. But it was the beautiful Reverdin’s Blue, Plebejus argyrognomon, that stole the show. This butterfly has an isolated colony in the this area, and can be found only where its larval foodplant, the Crown Vetch, Coronilla varia, grows, as it does here in large pinkish-purple patches.

A pristine newly-emerged male Reverdin’s Blue

From time to time, rumours circulate that cuts to the defence budget may necessitate the closure of this or one of the other two large military training areas in the Champagne region, but so far this has not come about – and long may it continue not to happen, as the intensive cereal producers would no doubt be rubbing their hands with glee at the thought of bringing such a vast area of potentially prime agricultural land under the plough. Misguided campaigners in the UK would also like to see the Ministry of Defence surrender large areas of military training ground, but there again, jewels such as Salisbury Plain and the Lulworth coast exist only thanks to their restricted status, harbouring as they do some of the country’s most pristine and unspoiled habitats.

From here, I headed a short distance to the south-west, entering an area of low limestone hills, holding a mix of picturesque villages, extensive woodlands and natural grasslands. Here I walked along a forest ride, but apart from a single White Admiral, Limenitis camilla, remarkably few butterflies were to be seen. A highlight, however, was a small group of the extraordinary Lizard Orchid, Himantoglossum hircinum, growing in an area specially managed for orchids, where I was able to observe five different species on this occasion.

The magnificent Lizard Orchid

Monday morning saw me conducting a last, desperate search for the Black Hairstreak, Satyrium pruni, which should by now be virtually over for the year. I returned to the same patch of Sloes where I thought I had seen it on the Saturday, and after numerous brief sightings of a small dark butterfly skittering over the Sloes and up some Aspens behind, I finally clinched it when it landed briefly to warm up in the morning sunshine. I even managed to obtain a poor photograph of it as it aligned itself with the sun to catch the maximum heat, leaning over on its side as both hairstreaks and some Satyrid butterflies do.

A poor shot of the Black Hairstreak as it was soaking up the morning sunshine

In the afternoon I headed over the border into Belgium, to another of my most favoured haunts, where little was to be seen in this strange summer we are experiencing, even though this area normally hosts numerous butterflies. After a lengthy search I did manage to locate about five Heath Fritillaries, Mellicta athalia, and just one False Heath Fritillary, Melitaea diamina, where in previous years I have seen many. I can only hope this is not an indication of a long-term decline, and that perhaps more individuals will emerge later – though this seems unlikely as those individuals that were flying were already looking as though they had been out for some time.

A Heath Fritillary, already looking rather worn, though it should be freshly on the wing

Butterfly list as of 2 July: 59 species

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Monday 24th June 2013

An orgy of orchids

Following the surprisingly successful butterfly day on Saturday, when despite unseasonably low temperatures and intermittent rain, I managed to add a further three species to my 2013 butterfly list, bringing the total up to 43, yesterday and today could be described as nothing less than a total washout.

Never one to easily give up on the possibility of finding butterflies, I drove back from Belgium via one of my very favourite butterfly areas, in the Eifel region of Germany, to the south-west of Cologne. This plateau harbours a rich mix of chalk grassland, damp river valleys and extensive forests, and it is the extraordinary juniper-covered hillsides around the village of Alendorf that I find particularly attractive. Wild juniper bushes have become rare in recent decades (in fact, in the Netherlands the old juniper bushes are failing to produce any young saplings), but here in the Eifel there are extensive stands of these bushes, and in the shelter they provide, a wide range of chalky grassland plants flourish.

These slopes would, given more favourable conditions, have yielded up several extra species for my butterfly list, but with threatening low cloud, drizzle and incredibly low temperatures, there was no chance whatsoever. I often pride myself on being able to find at least one butterfly roosting either on a grass stem or on a flowerhead, but today even that was out of the question.

Amid this disappointment, there was one redeeming factor: the Eifel provides an almost unrivalled habitat for orchids, and within less than one hour, I had found six species. The most prolific was the Fragrant Orchid, Gymnadenia conopsea, which was growing in profusion on all the natural grassland areas I visited. I even managed to locate one example of the rare white form among the much more frequent purple flower spikes.

Fragrant Orchids on the chalky slopes

A rare white individual of the Fragrant Orchid

The second commonest species was the Common Twayblade, Neottia ovata, with its two very prominent rounded leaves at the base of the stem.

The Common Twayblade, with its two prominent rounded leaves near the base

Far more striking than the Twayblade was another species of orchid growing with it, the Fly Orchid, Ophrys insectifera. The flowers of this species engage in a form of sexual deception, both visually resembling a fly and releasing a scent that mimics that released by certain female insects. When male insects pick up this scent, they “pseudo-copulate” with the flower, during which act the pollen of the orchid is deposited on the insect, which then flies on to attempt to mate with another flower, unwittingly passing on the pollen as it does so. Apparently they give up after several attempts, but by then the pollinating has already been completed.

A Fly Orchid awaiting an unsuspecting randy fly

The next species I located was the Greater Butterfly Orchid, Platanthera chlorantha, three examples of which were growing together between the junipers. Separating this from the Lesser Butterfly Orchid, P. bifolia, is difficult, and I cannot guarantee that my identification is correct.

A Butterfly Orchid, most probably Greater

Is this a Greater or a Lesser Butterfly Orchid?

Nearby were a few Spotted Orchids, Dactylorhiza maculata, which I was a little surprised to see growing here on this chalky grassland as I tend to associate them more with acid bogs, but there can be little doubt as to their identity.

The Spotted Orchid, Dactylorhiza maculata

All of the orchids so far recorded were open country species, but it should not be forgotten that some species inhabit dark, shady areas, and just before leaving, I noticed a number of whitish flower spikes in a ticket near the road, a small colony of another species of orchid, the White Helleborine, Cephalanthera damasonium.

The ghostly flowers of the White Helleborine

In the absence of butterflies, thank God for Orchids!

The juniper-covered slopes surrounding the village of Alendorf