Category Archives: Diary 2016

Thursday 18th August 2016

A brief butterfly feast in the Dutch desert

Although this summer has been generally bleak for me in terms of butterflies, guiding in mostly rain-sodden Scotland, I did recently make a brief trip to the Netherlands, where I was mostly engaged in admin-related activities, but I did manage to squeeze in two highly enjoyable butterfly excursions.

The first was in search of a rare and highly specialised species, one that I could not always guarantee to see as its flight season was frequently over by the time I would return to the Netherlands from my summer holidays at the start of the autumn semester, the Silver-spotted Skipper, Hesperia comma.

My early experiences with this diminutive butterfly were on the beautiful, and beautifully named, Spread-eagle Hill, near Melbury Abbas, in Dorset.  In the UK, the Silver-spotted Skipper is restricted to south-facing slopes, with short grass and anthills, which catch the sun’s warmth and allow the butterflies to bask and reach the temperature they require in order to start moving…and move they do, darting off when disturbed; they are hard to follow as they zoom away with an almost fly-like flight. The butterfly almost died out in the UK after myxomatosis hit, because there were no rabbits to keep the grass short.  Since then, however, sympathetic management with phased grazing by sheep has allowed them to recover somewhat (although last time I visited Spread-eagle Hill, it looked over-grazed to me).

The only other locality where I have seen Silver-spotted Skippers in the UK was on the North Downs, between Box Hill and Dorking, where they were to be found in some old quarries along the south-facing slopes, which formed sun-traps for this warmth-loving little butterfly.

In the Netherlands, their habitat is quite different.  Here the butterflies seem to like heathland with dry patches of bare ground between the heather clumps, where they bask with their wings held in that characteristic skipper way, the forewings half open and the hindwings splayed wide.

The locality where I managed to connect this time with the Silver-spotted Skipper, or Kommavlinder as it is called in Dutch, is an example of wonderful conservation planning, a former Royal Dutch Airforce base that was abandoned by the military in the 1990s, and was then in grave danger of being converted into housing or an industrial area.  Luckily, it was designated instead as an area dedicated to nature, and one can now enjoy the open patches between the runways, with butterflies and other insects thriving on the heathery swards.

A male Silver-spotted Skipper perching on a bramble

As I had not expected to have a chance to do any butterfly photography during this visit, I did not have my Canon SX530, whose 50X zoom would have been most welcome, and I was forced to resort to my tiny Canon A2200, which has only a 4X optical zoom, meaning that I had to approach the butterflies to almost point blank range in order to obtain reasonable shots of them, and Silver-spotted Skippers are notoriously wary and zoom off at the slightest sudden movement.  However, I did manage to obtain a few reasonable images, showing that one does not need highly sophisticated cameras in order to photograph butterflies successfully.

The silver spots on the underside of the Silver-spotted Skipper are very distinctive

A female Silver-spotted Skipper in the characteristic pose of the orange skippers, with the forewings held apart from the hindwings

The Dutch name, Kommavlinder, refers to the comma-shaped silver mark near the base of the hindwing

The other excursion I managed to fit in was to an extraordinary area of inland sand dunes, a place to which I always made an annual pilgrimage in late August while I was living in the Netherlands, the Kootwijkerzand.  My first visit to this magical place, with its drifting sand (or stuifzand, as it is known in Dutch) was in 1999, and on that occasion I was able to observe one of the very last breeding pairs of Tawny Pipits, which have since died out completely as breeding birds in the Netherlands, disturbed too much by dog-walkers and kite-flyers, who seem to love this place as much as I do.

The Kootwijkerzand is an inland dune system

My reason for visiting this place every year in late summer was to search for an extraordinarily rare butterfly, the Tree Grayling, Hipparchia statilinus. This species now only occurs in the Netherlands on this one area of drifting sand and short, dry grass, its next nearest colonies being in southern France and in eastern Germany. Unlike its close relative the Grayling, Hipparchia semele, which is quite numerous here and can be found in large numbers in the isolated patches of heather, the Tree Grayling is extremely rare. The males emerge before the females, and establish territories near isolated patches of pines that grow on elevated hummocks surrounded by dry expanses of sand.

The sandy areas near the isolated stands of pines are the favourite haunt of the Tree Grayling

In my experience, there cannot be many more than ten individual adults in any given year, the maximum I have ever seen at any one time being three. That the species manages to hold on is astonishing, given all the obstacles it faces. The main threat seems to be that the sandy areas that it requires are becoming overgrown with an alien species of blackish moss (heath star moss, Campylopus introflexus), meaning that there is less open sand.  The most recent research seems to indicate that this moss holds water in the winter, when the young larvae are hibernating, causing them to go moldy and die.  How complex environmental matters can be, when a butterfly is pushed to the brink of extinction by an alien species of moss.

This year I only found one Tree Grayling, a lone male

Would it matter if the Tree Grayling disappeared from the Netherlands? To me, it would.  Not only do I lament the fact that we humans are constantly interfering with nature, causing the complex jigsaw puzzle of life to start losing pieces (the Tawny Pipit has already been lost), but I have a strong feeling that the Dutch Tree Graylings may be a distinct species, or at the very least an endemic subspecies. The transverse band that Tree Graylings elsewhere have across the underside of their hindwings is much less pronounced or even absent here, so they are unique, and for that reason alone, they should be given the maximum of assistance in their struggle to survive.  This time I only found one individual, a lone male.  I can only hope that he will find a female and that next year, if I manage to make my annual pilgrimage to the Kootwijkerzand, the Tree Grayling will still grace this wonderful place.

I was astonished when a female Tree Grayling landed on my binoculars in 2004


Saturday 28th May 2016

A visit to two deceased forefathers in the shadow of the Crimean War Memorial in Istanbul

Up till now, almost all of my posts on this website have concerned members of the Champion and Walker sides of my family, but today I had the moving experience of visiting the graves of two ancestors/relatives from my grandmother’s side. I refer to Julia (Judy) Stewart, wife of F W Champion, the tiger conservationist and photographer. Her mother, Frances Jane Hobart Hampden, wife of Major-General Sir Keith Stewart KCB DSO, was niece of an outstanding but largely, and undeservedly, forgotten character, “Augustus Charles Hobart Hampden, who was born in Leicestershire, the third son of the 6th Earl of Buckinghamshire.

In 1835 he entered the Royal Navy and served as a midshipman on the coast of Brazil in the suppression of the slave trade, displaying much gallantry in the operations. In 1855 he took part, as captain of HMS Driver, in the Baltic Expedition, and was actively engaged at Bomarsund and Åbo.

In 1862 he retired from the navy with the rank of post-captain, but his love of adventure led him, during the American Civil War, to take the command of a blockade runner. He had the good fortune to run the blockade eighteen times, conveying war material to Charleston and returning with a cargo of cotton.

In 1867 Hobart entered the Ottoman service, and was immediately nominated to the command of that fleet, with the rank of “Bahriye Livasi” (Rear-Admiral). In this capacity he performed splendid service in helping to suppress the insurrection in Crete, and was rewarded by the Sultan with the title of Pasha (1869). In 1874 Hobart, whose name had, on representations made by Greece, been removed from the British Royal Navy List, was reinstated; his restoration did not, however, last long, for on the outbreak of the Russo-Turkish war he again entered Ottoman service.

On the conclusion of peace Hobart still remained in the Ottoman service, and in 1881 was appointed Mushir, or marshal, being the first Christian to hold that high office. He died at Milan on 19 June 1886″ (Wikipedia), but his body was returned to Constantinople (Istanbul today), and he now lies in the Haydar Pasha British cemetery. The following link leads to a much more detailed description of this extraordinary man’s colourful, swashbuckling life:

Hobart Pasha

The other grave I hoped to find was that of another enterprising ancestor of my grandmother’s, Lt-Col Patrick Stewart CB, who among many other feats was Director-General of the Indo-European Telegraph, the first cable connection between Great Britain and India, but who died at the age of 32. One of the first messages sent down the newly completed line was that announcing his early death, and he now lies within fifty yards of the splendid Crimean War Memorial, erected by Queen Victoria in 1857, which also hosts the commemorative plaque to Florence Nightingale, who saved so many lives and tended so many wounded in her makeshift hospital in the nearby Selimiye Barracks.

Patrick Stewart

With such forefathers to visit, I set off by ferry across the Bosphorus, and passed by the gutted wreckage of the neoclassical Haydarpaşa Station building, a gift to the Sultan from Kaiser Wilhelm II, which was built between 1906 and 1908. Its foundation is 1100 wooden piles, each 21 metres (69 feet) long, driven into the ground by steam hammer.

Haydarpaşa was an important link in the railway chain of the Kaiser’s Berlin-to-Baghdad railway scheme, part of the German Empire’s strategic Drang nach Osten (“Drive to the East”) during the later 19th century. (ref Turkey Travel Planner). The roof and top floor were burned in an accidental fire in 2010, and it is uncertain whether it will ever be restored.

The gutted shell of the former Haydarpaşa station

I then walked from the ferry port, passing by a large closed military installation, eventually finding the rather inconspicuous entrance to the Haydar Pasha British cemetery down a side street, and almost the first grave I came upon was that of Patrick Stewart, and it was indeed close to the splendid Crimean War Memorial.

A more detailed description of Patrick Stewart’s outstandingly exciting and productive life can be found by clicking on the following link:

The grave of Patrick Stewart, my great great great uncle

How poignant that this extraordinarily talented man should have died so young

Patrick Stewart’s grave is close by the splendid memorial to the Crimean War dead

The Crimean War memorial

Hobart Pasha was more difficult to locate, as he lies in a more densely ‘populated’ section of the cemetery, and it took me perhaps half an hour to find his grave, but finally I located it, and paid my respects to the second of my two forebears who lie in that tranquil oasis of peace and greenery, tended as usual beautifully by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Hobart Pasha’s grave was more difficult to locate, surrounded as it is by other similar tombstones

The plaque commemorating the centenary of the extraordinary work of Florence Nightingale, the Lady of the Lamp

The Haydar Pasha Cemetery is beautifully tended by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission