Tuesday 11th June 2013

A mixed bag

I have just returned to the Netherlands after a long weekend in France and Belgium. High temperatures on Friday augured well for a productive butterfly weekend, and to some degree that wish was to come true, but for some glitches.

After work on Friday, I managed to reach the very southernmost area of the Netherlands, close to Maastricht, where I made my way quickly to an area which I knew was well known for its Glanville Fritillaries, Melitaea cinxia. This is not a species I had observed in the Netherlands previously, and I was anxious to find it before the evening drew in and butterflies disappeared (although Melitaea fritillaries can often be found roosting on flowerheads even at night if one has the dedication to look). Luckily, the sun was still blazing down, and I was soon approaching the beautiful, wildflower-rich slopes of what the Dutch consider a “mountain”, at around 125 metres in height! This area is a mosaic of chalk grassland, and as such is both botanically and entomologically rich.

Although approaching the slopes seemed not to be encouraged, by climbing over gates and crossing a field, I finally found myself in the natural grassland, and almost immediately I spotted my first Glanville Fritillary, soon followed by more than fifteen further individuals. Glanville Fritillaries hold a special interest for British butterfly enthusiasts, as the only place where they occur naturally today is on the broken down cliffs of the south coast of the Isle of Wight, and as such they require quite a major expedition to see them.

The Glanville Fritillary has also an interesting history, being named after Lady Eleanor Glanville, a 17th century butterfly enthusiast who discovered this species in Lincolnshire, where it then also occurred. After her death, one of her sons contested her will on the grounds of lunacy, as eloquently described by Moses Harris in “The Aurelian” in 1766: “This Fly took its Name from the ingenious Lady Glanvil, whose Memory had like to have suffered for her Curiosity. Some Relations that was disappointed by her Will, attempted to let it aside by Acts of Lunacy, for they suggested that none but those who were deprived of their Senses, would go in Pursuit of Butterflies”.

Perhaps I could also have been accused of lunacy, as I stumbled about on the extremely steep and slippery slopes, attempting to secure a respectable photograph!

A Glanville Fritillary poses against the sky

A Dutch mountain, habitat of the Glanville Fritillary

The following day, Saturday 8th June, was also bright and warm. The day’s activity involved a longish walk through a varied mix of deciduous and coniferous woodland and grassland to the south of the Viroinval, one of Belgium’s richest butterfly zones. However, rich or not rich, butterflies were astonishingly conspicuous by their absence, the only new species for my 2013 list being a single female Wall Brown, Lasiommata megera. Other than a few Brimstones, Gonepteryx rhamni, a female Orange-tip, Anthocharis cardamines, perhaps six Speckled Woods, Pararge aegeria, and a gorgeous Scarce Swallowtail, Iphiclides podalirius, nectaring in a garden, there was virtually nothing to report. Why this should be, I do not know. I even wondered whether the entire area might have been sprayed from the air against Oak Processionary Moth larvae, but this seems unlikely.

A Scarce Swallowtail nectaring in a garden

Following a total wash-out on Sunday, my last chance for this weekend came yesterday, Monday 10th June, which started with a brief visit to my favourite large forest in northern France, where despite the cold I soon found a Marsh Fritillary, Euphydryas aurinia, taking the morning sun. This species appears to be restricted in this area to just one large clearing in the centre of this forest complex, and we can only hope that it spreads into some newly felled clearings nearby.

A Marsh Fritillary warming itself in the weak sunshine

Following this initial success, and with the temperature rising slightly, it was not long before I spotted the first of perhaps fifteen Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries, Clossiana selene, some of which appeared to be newly emerged individuals.

A newly-emerged Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary, its wings not yet quite in place

From here I headed eastwards, back to the Viroinval, but this time to the north side, with its sun-warmed south-facing chalky slopes. Here I added a further species to my list, the Large Wall, Lasiommata maera, which shot past as I was admiring its rocky habitat, not stopping to allow me to obtain a shot. What did cooperate much more kindly was another new species, the Small Blue, Cupido minimus, which posed beautifully while laying its eggs in the flowerheads of its larval foodplant, the Kidney Vetch.

A Small Blue laying on its foodplant, Kidney Vetch

Other species here included a further Scarce Swallowtail, Iphiclides podalirius, Brown Argus, Aricia agestis, Green Hairstreak, Callophrys rubi, Dingy Skipper, Erynnis tages, and Red-underwing Skipper, Spialia sertorius.

As I still had a marathon drive ahead of me, I then set off back towards the Netherlands, stopping again near Maastricht, but this time on the other side of the city, close to the Sint-Pietersberg, another Dutch “mountain”. Here I was hoping to find the Mazarine Blue, Cyaniris semiargus, and it was not long before I had seen my first, fluttering through the wonderful flowery meadow of a newly-created reserve only just outside the city. The butterflies were already looking worn, so it was lucky that I visited when I did, as they will doubtless soon be over.

A Mazarine Blue poses on its foodplant, Red Clover

Like the Glanville Fritillary, the Mazarine Blue is also an almost mythical species for British butterfly-watchers, as despite being relatively widespread in southern England in the nineteenth century, it is now totally extinct in the U.K. Here, however, it appears to be thriving, and it is nice to know that people are working for its success, creating reserves and leaving the clover-filled grasslands uncut for the benefit of this attractive species.

Habitat of the Mazarine Blue

Butterfly list as of 11th June: 36 species

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Sunday 2nd June 2013

Nieuwe Natuur

Having been so impressed by the new nature area I visited on Thursday, and having been informed that it was a reliable locality for Swallowtail butterflies, Papilio machaon, I felt a return visit might be worthwhile, and indeed it was. Not only were there numerous Sooty Coppers, Lycaena tityrus, this time including at least one female, two Small Coppers, Lycaena phleas, at least ten Common Blues, Polyommatus icarus, and several Brown Arguses, Aricia agestis, all enjoying the bright sunshine which has been so rare recently, but I was also treated to my first Painted Lady, Vanessa cardui, of the year, as it shot past on its migration northwards.

Sooty Copper, Lycaena tityrus

Small Copper, Lycaena phleas

Several Small Heaths, Coenonympha pamphilus, Speckled Woods, Pararge aegeria, a rather bashed European Map, Araschnia levana, and several Brimstones, Gonepteryx rhamni, and Green-veined Whites, Pieris napi, were also in evidence.

However, it was the magnificent Swallowtail, Papilio machaon, that made the day. At least three were flying around at high speed, luckily though settling occasionally in order to lay their eggs. The first appeared to be laying on leaves of Yarrow, Achillea millefolium, but I find this hard to believe as the larvae are known to feed exclusively on members of the Umbelliferae family, and Yarrow belongs to the daisy family, Compositae. The second female I saw was indeed laying on a species of umbellifer, or Wild Carrot.

Swallowtail, Papilio machaon

It was wonderful to see these splendid butterflies, clearly having at least temporarily established themselves in this marvellous new area, converted only a short while ago from intensively farmed fields. These were my first ever Swallowtails in the Netherlands. Long live the Dutch policy of returning some farmland to wildlife areas, or Nieuwe Natuur.

The newly-created nature area

Butterfly list as of 2nd June: 29 species

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Tuesday 28th May 2013

Spring had sprung – but then Winter returned with a vengeance

The title of my previous post, on 8th May, “Spring has finally sprung” was sadly to be premature in the extreme. After that, Winter returned, with unseasonably cold, wet, windy weather predominating, and I added no butterflies at all in what should normally be one of the most exciting periods of the butterfly year, with all the Spring fliers emerging in a rush.

Finally, after all this waiting, yesterday I was able to make some progress towards catching up on some of the missing species. It was a gloriously sunny day, cold at first but rapidly warming up as the day went on. I visited several of my favourite haunts in northern France and southern Belgium, a mix of forest and chalk grassland, providing a wide range of habitat types.

My first stop was a long ride in a large forest, where the weather was still cold at 10.00 AM, but after much searching, I did find one Grizzled Skipper, Pyrgus malvae, which was not new for my annual list, and just as I was about to move on, I almost stumbled across a perfect, newly-emerged Pearl-bordered Fritillary, Clossiana euphrosyne, attempting to warm itself in the icy wind. This species would normally have already been on the wing 15 days ago, but this year everything is running late.

A newly-emerged Pearl-bordered Fritillary, Clossiana euphrosyne

Leaving this large forest behind, I headed eastwards towards the Belgian border, stopping at an area of chalky grassland still just in France, where I hardly saw anything, adding only Small White, Pieris rapae, and Small Heath, Coenonympha pamphilus, to my list, until I finally found one male Duke of Burgundy, Hamearis lucina, patrolling a sheltered glade in the sunshine. This place is a stronghold of this unusual species, the only European representative of a largely South American family. Formerly known as the Duke of Burgundy Fritillary because of its slightly fritillary-like markings, this butterfly is declining rapidly, and I can only hope that this was not the only member of its kind flying here this year.

A lone male Duke of Burgundy, Hamearis lucina, soaking up all the sunshine he can get

From here my route took me across the Belgian border, first to a chalky hillside above a quarry, where again very little was to be found, until finally I was treated to the magnificent sight of a Scarce Swallowtail, Iphiclides podalirius, patrolling over bushes of its foodplant, the Sloe. I attempted to photograph this splendid species, but it was having none of it, and would not sit down. While chasing it, however, I noticed a small, dull-looking greyish butterfly scuttering along the path in front of me, another new species for the year, Dingy Skipper, Erynnis tages.

Returning to the car, I then drove a short distance to another of my favourite haunts, a large area of damp forest, where again little was to be seen at first. I walked along a trail, and finally saw one Pearl-bordered Fritillary, and a few Brimstones and Wood Whites, but just as I was about to turn back, I thought I would check a ditch just off the side of the track, and there, in precisely the same ditch as I had seen its ancestors many times before in previous years, was a beautiful male Chequered Skipper, Carterocephalus palaemon. It is extraordinary how successive generations of butterflies, who never meet their parents, can remain utterly faithful to the tiny area which their forefathers frequented.

The male Chequered Skipper, faithful to his chosen site

My next port of call was the same limestone hillside that I had visited earlier in May, and by this time the temperature had climbed to a reasonable warmth on this south-facing slope, though there was still a chill in the wind. Nonetheless, it was here that butterflies were really flying, with new species being Red-underwing Skipper, Spialia sertorius, and Brown Argus, Aricia agestis, as well as two more Scarce Swallowtails, a Swallowtail, at least ten Berger’s Clouded Yellows, a Green Hairstreak, a few Violet Fritillaries, and several Brimstones, Wood Whites, Speckled Woods and Orange-tips.

Red-underwing Skipper, Spialia sertorius

Short-cropped chalky grassland, a paradise for butterflies

Yesterday evening, following my butterfly-watching experience, I drove right across Belgium and into the Netherlands. Following my work in Nijmegen today, another bright sunny day, I stopped off at a new site near Ede, an example of what the Dutch refer to as “new nature”. Formerly farmland, this area has been returned to a semi-natural state by having most of the topsoil artificially removed, allowing wildflowers to thrive on the sandy grassland. Here I was treated to the unusual sight of at least 15 Sooty Coppers, Lycaena tityrus, as well as one Small Copper, Lycaena phleas, and four Common Blues, Polyommatus icarus, my first of the year.

A male Sooty Copper, Lycaena tityrus

Strangely enough, all the Sooty Coppers were males; males seem to outnumber females in many butterfly species. It was anyhow a cheering experience to see so many of what is by no means a common species, apparently thriving in a newly-created nature area. A pleasant conclusion to the last butterfly-watching day before I turn 50 tomorrow!

The newly created “natural” area

Butterfly list as of 28th May: 28 species