Wednesday 10th July 2013

Good news all round – well, almost!

Yesterday, Tuesday 9th July, I spent the afternoon in the beautiful Hoge Veluwe national park, in the centre of the Netherlands. This wonderful area of heathland, pine and deciduous forest is one of the last bastions of some Dutch butterflies, one of which I was particularly on the lookout for, the Alcon Blue, Maculinea alcon.

This butterfly, with its incredible relationship with ants and its requirement of the rare Marsh Gentian, Gentiana pneumonanthe, is extremely restricted in its localities, and individual colonies can number as few as ten individuals in a given year. In past years, I have observed this species, in a tiny patch of damp grass with a few Marsh Gentian plants (which are difficult to see now as they are not yet flowering) and Cross-leaved Heath, which the adults use as a nectar source. However, this time, there was not a sign of this enigmatic butterfly. Perhaps I was too early, and they have not yet emerged, or perhaps this tiny colony has succumbed – I did not manage to find any here last year either.

The (former?) habitat of the Alcon Blue

Not all was gloom, however. Not only did I see at least 20 Heath Fritillaries, Mellicta athalia, even in areas of the park where I had not seen them before, but I also saw at the very least 30 Dark Green Fritillaries, Argynnis aglaja. One of the factors holding butterflies back in this dry heathland is the lack of nectar-bearing flowers. In recent years, at least two patches of mixed wild flowers have been sown specifically for butterflies, protected with an electric fence against the predations of Wild Boar. The mix included the wonderful Corn Cockle, once common in cornfields, but now virtually extirpated in the wild. The patch in the southern part of the park was alive with Dark Green Fritillaries, whereas the other, further north, attracted several Heath Fritillaries. If only more such patches could be planted!

A patch of wildflowers sown specifically for butterflies

Other butterflies I saw were two fresh-looking Green Hairstreaks, Callophrys rubi, a perhaps surprisingly late record as this is a truly spring-flying species, but I have frequently observed them in July in this park. Numerous Large Skippers, Ochlodes venatus, and at least a few Small Skippers, Thymelicus sylvestris, were in evidence, as well as several Small Heaths, Coenonympha pamphilus.

A late Green Hairstreak

A Heath Fritillary that landed on my bike!

Today, Wednesday 10th July, turned out to be one of the highlights of my butterfly year so far. I was due to leave Ijmuiden on the ferry to Newcastle (I am writing this post on board), and I had ideas of visiting some butterfly areas on my way to the port. However, the day dawned cold and damp, with a strong wind and some slight drizzle. I decided to turn my attention to birds, and managed to see a Marsh Sandpiper, Tringa stagnatilis, close to Amsterdam, which was a new species for the Netherlands for me.

Despite the cold, I was surprised to see several Red Admirals, Vanessa atalanta, and a couple of Small Tortoiseshells, Aglais urticae. Spurred on by these sightings, I decided I would return to my original plan, just in case a clearance might occur – and it did, with some slight gleams of sun just as I arrived at my first butterfly destination, close to Castricum, in the dunes that run parallel with the North Sea along much of the Dutch coast. These dunes, mostly covered with woodland and scrub, form one of the great butterfly areas in the Netherlands, and the sheltered valleys with their swathes of wild flowers host strong populations of several species that are hard, if not impossible, to see elsewhere.

My first target was the Niobe Fritillary, Argynnis niobe. I had only occasionally observed this species in the Netherlands before, once indeed in the Veluwe, where it is now extinct. As I approached the area where they had been reported, the weather looked far from promising, but almost immediately I left the track, a Niobe flew up from just in front of me, and I then went on to find at the very least 30 individuals, some looking quite fresh, and others not, including one that was so faded that it appeared almost white. They were sheltering among some low brambles, but when disturbed, they flew off vigorously, and were hard to approach when they settled again, making photography difficult.

A Niobe Fritillary – why is there a grass stem whenever one does not want one?

A Niobe showing its distinctive underside – this time with 2 grass stems across the image!

Why the Niobe has disappeared from its former strongholds in the centre of the country is a mystery. As few as 15 years ago, it outnumbered the Dark Green Fritillary, which still survives in reasonable numbers. Perhaps the lack of flowering plants affected it. One particular part of the park used to harbour large numbers of Ragwort plants, which attracted numerous fritillaries, but I observed park officials removing these plants en masse by the roots a few years ago. When I protested, they informed me that if this were not done, large animals would be poisoned. Perhaps the Niobe that I photographed here in 2006 was one of the very last individuals of this population. Luckily, in the dunes they seem to be doing relatively well.

The Niobe I photographed in 2006 – was this the last individual to grace the Veluwe?

Flushed with this success, but slightly conscious of the clock ticking towards the time when I needed to check in for the ferry, I decided to head north to hunt for another butterfly for which the dunes forms one of its last Dutch bulwarks, the Ilex Hairstreak, Satyrium ilicis. Contrary to what its name might suggest (Ilex is the Latin name of Holly), this species requires low-growing oaks. I had hoped to see it in France and Belgium last weekend, but did not succeed.

Having passed through some much taller oakwoods, I came out into an area of low oaks, and almost immediately I spotted a small, dark shape fluttering round a young tree, and it proved indeed to be a fresh-looking Ilex Hairstreak. I went on to see at least six, two of which were highly cooperative and allowed me to photograph them at extremely close range.

The Ilex Hairstreak, which posed so cooperatively

On my way back to the car, I spotted a small, gingery-coloured butterfly low in the grass, and as soon as it landed, I needed to carefully approach it from the front, always difficult as they normally see one and fly off. Luckily this one did not, and sure enough, I was able to clearly observe the jet black underside of the tips of its antennae, clinching this butterfly’s identity as another new species for my 2013 list, the Essex Skipper, Thymelicus lineola. Virtually the only reliable way of separating Essex from Small Skippers is by examining this feature, the Small Skipper’s antennae being orangey-red.

The Essex Skipper, showing the black tips to its antennae

By now the time was really running short, but I felt I had to check a locality only a few yards off my route to Ijmuiden, specifically for yet another potential new species, the Queen of Spain Fritillary, Issoria lathonia. This species is also most easily found in the dunes, and it only took me perhaps ten minutes of searching to find one individual, which sadly did not allow me to photograph it. This was a pity as it is a supremely beautiful species, particularly the underside, which bears almost unbelievable silver spots (hence its name). I did manage to photograph a bright Emperor Dragonfly, Anax imperator, which landed in the grass for a few seconds.

Emperor Dragonfly

I then had to make my way rapidly to the ferry port – and now I am engaged in what could be described as a butterfly-lover’s suicide: returning to Scotland at the height of the butterfly season. Other than Iceland, one could hardly choose anywhere with a more impoverished butterfly fauna than Scotland, situated as it is far from the continental landmass, and suffering from a butterfly-unfriendly climate. I will be hard pushed to find 15 species in total during the coming five weeks, but I shall try to make the best of it. What it does mean is that I shall miss some key species in the Netherlands, Belgium and northern France, which will have finished their flight period by the time I return towards the end of August. Still, c’est la vie, I suppose – and who knows what surprises I may find?

Butterfly list as of 10th July 2013: 65 species

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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