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


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


Saturday 22nd June 2013

Butterflies of the Bistort

Today’s target species were two veritable specialists, the Violet Copper, Lycaena helle, and the Bog Fritillary, Proclossiana eunomia. The larvae of both species feed (at least in this area) exclusively on the leaves of Bistort, Polygonum bistorta, a plant that grows in profusion in damp meadows in the region where I am currently located, in the Hautes Fagnes/Hohes Venn (or High Fens), in north-eastern Belgium. This is a wild area of peat bogs, extensive forests and open tussocky grassland, peaking at the highest point in the Benelux countries, at 694 metres. Just to the south is an extensive network of small streams, and along their valleys is where the most extensive areas of the beautiful pale pinkish blooms of Bistort can be found, along with their attendant butterflies.

A valley filled with Bistort, larval foodplant of the Bog Fritillary and the Violet Copper

Despite far-from-ideal weather conditions, it was not long before I was able to locate a single Bog Fritillary, trying to warm itself in the weak sunshine. The Bog Fritillary is superficially similar to other small fritillaries, including the Small Pearl-bordered, of which I later saw a few as well, but the black markings on the upperside are narrower, and there is a very faint suffusion of black scales across the entire upper surface, giving it a slightly dusty appearance. In addition, this species is less hyper-active than other similar fritillaries, which tend to race about, settling only rarely, whereas this species is much less flighty, and therefore easier to approach.

A male Bog Fritillary basking in the weak sunshine

After the short sunny spell that allowed me to see the Bog Fritillary, dark clouds began to move across the sun, but I just had time to locate one example of the Bog Copper, Lycaena helle, hunkering down among the vegetation, out of the strong wind that was whistling along the valley floor, stirring up the Bistort plants and making photography a challenge, to say the least.

A rather tired-looking Violet Copper

Unlike the Bog Fritillary, the Violet Copper emerges earlier in the year, and I was not sure that I would find one even disregarding the poor weather conditions, and I was pleased to do so, especially as the sun promptly disappeared and the rain began to fall, rendering butterfly observation out of the question, at least for a while.

Luckily, however, the wind was sufficiently strong as to blow the storm quickly through, and from then on the day turned into one of “pepper and salt”, with sunny spells interspersed with dark periods of drizzly rain, and always with that strong wind whisking across the valley floors.

It was not long before the sun reappeared, and with it several more Bog Fritillaries. While the upperside may be hard to distinguish from other small fritillaries, if one gets the chance to examine the underside, any lingering doubts are soon dispelled; the pattern on the underside of the hindwing is totally distinctive, with no silver spots and a row of small rings parallel with the outer margins; the Dutch name of this species, Ringoogparelmoervlinder, means ring-eyed mother-of-pearl butterfly, a highly appropriate name, except that unlike most other fritillaries, this species does not have the amazing mother-of-pearl-like silver spots so characteristic of the group.

A Bog Fritillary perched on a Bistort flowerhead, showing its characteristic row of open rings on the underside

From here the trail passed through a stretch of thicker pinewoods, where butterflies were not to be found, but just beyond was a much more open area of Bistort, interspersed with thistles, and some flower-filled fields in which I had high hopes of finding my third target species, the almost unimaginably beautiful Purple-edged Copper, Lycaena hippothoe. The flowerheads and grass were waving about vigorously in the gusting wind, making the search for butterflies even more difficult, but it was not long before I spotted a purplish shape fluttering through the grass stalks, and it turned out to be a newly-emerged, jewel-like male Purple-edged Copper. Photography was far from easy, but I did manage to obtain one passable shot before the butterfly was swept away in the wind and I lost sight of it.

A glowing male Purple-edged Copper

By now the weather was closing in again, and the return walk was marked only by around three handsome Large Skippers, Ochlodes venatus, darting along the verges of the trail through the pinewoods.

A bright, newly-emerged male Large Skipper

Skippers are known in Dutch as Dikkopjes, or fat-heads, due to their broad heads

Shortly before I reached the car, the route took me past a more sheltered, Bistort-filled clearing, where several more Bog Fritillaries were to be found, followed by one very ancient-looking Violet Copper, missing a large section from one of its hindwings, and probably not destined to last many more days.

The sheltered, Bistort-filled clearing

A Bog Fritillary, wings open to catch all the warmth it can obtain from the weak sunshine

The tired-looking Violet Copper, part of its hindwing missing

The Violet Copper, enjoying perhaps the last few days of its short spell as an adult butterfly

Many of the river valleys and Bistort areas here in eastern Belgium have been lost, partly due to agricultural “improvement”, and partly converted into intensively farmed plantations of young spruce trees, mainly for the Christmas tree market. However, in this particular area, strenuous efforts have been made to not only preserve the remaining habitat, but also to extend it. Long may these wonderful areas of marshland, dotted with the pink spikes of the Bistort flowerheads, remain intact with their Fritillaries and Coppers fluttering above them.

The butterfly habitat, resplendent with Bistort and Cranesbill

Butterfly list as of 22nd June: 43 species