Tag Archives: Aglais urticae

Butterflies, and all that jazz

Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club isn’t where I would expect to find subjects for wildlife photography. And, along with the inside of various other hostelries around the City of London, so it proved. That’s where I found myself this weekend and consequently I didn’t manage to take any photographs. So as the weather is so dull and foggy I thought I’d try to brighten things up with some butterfly pictures which were captured at another, less crepuscular, time of year.

Last year I went to a place called Fermyn Wood near Kettering in Northamtonshire with a friend of mine, to look for purple emperors. For the more ornithological among you, particularly if you like birds of prey, this was one of the original release sites for red kites (Milvus milvus, Dansk: rød glente) , and they are still there in abundance. And sure enough one appeared very low overhead before lazily flapping off across the treetops.


This splendid creature is a white admiral (Limenitis camilla), feeding on the nectar from bramble flowers at Fermyn

We set off early to arrive around 8am because at that time of day the butterflies are sunning themsleves on the ground and taking in salts. They get salts from various sources including animal droppings, carrion, sap runs on trees, and sweat. My friend has a photograph of a purple emperor sipping sweat from his sock by inserting its proboscis through the eyehole of his trainer! We encountered a few emperors but they were all whizzing past higher up in the tree canopy. They live in deciduous woods where they spend most of their time feeding on aphid honeydew, apart from this one who sat obligingly on the path and let us take photographs:


Purple emperor (Apatura iris) taking on salts from the substrata

He was sufficiently obliging to unable us to take pictures of the underside of his wings, which are themselves spectacular, but he wasn’t willing to reveal the full irridescent splendour of the top side, which is where their name derives from.  They are big, with an average wingspan of around 8cm, and the males are the most gorgeous deep purple. Alas for the female of the species, she is a rather less dramatic brown colour. I was therefore on a mission to get pictures of the upper side of the wings in 2011 but they are only around for 1-2 weeks of the year and it wasn’t when I could get there. But that’s fine, it gives me something to look forward to next year… or the year after.

On the ground close by the purple emperor was a small tortoiseshell, which are considerable more common and can be found on buddleia bushes up and down the country, but are also amazingly colourful.


Small tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae)

I don’t usually like full on portraits of butterflies, but I like this one because set against the parched earth the flamboyant colours of the butterfly are a sight to behold, all the tiny cells of the different colours in the blue and white peripheral spots are clearly visible. It’s a stunner!


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The Butterfly Summer

Two weekends ago whilst walking through a meadow of long grass and wild flowers such as scabius, ragwort and bramble it was immediately noticeable that butterflies are now out in force. On several outings around Histon since then many species are frequenting the hedgerows and grasslands. The species which I think heralds the onset of the butterfly summer is the gatekeeper. It always seems to be the the one I see first in June/July and is rapidly followed by the other summer species:


The Gatekeeper – harbinger of sunny summer days


Holly blues were around in the spring months but have now disappeared in favour of species more associated with summer such as the common blue:

Common blue male. I think this is one of the best photographs I’ve ever taken – it’s a beautiful creature!

…and

A comma soaking up some intermittent morning sunshine perched on a cluster of oak leaves

I particularly like commas with their ragged edges and the rich colours of a young one are exquisitely juxtaposed against the green foliage of the oak leaves.

Small tortoiseshell, peacock and red admiral regularly abound on the flowers of a huge buddleia in my garden. And whilst I’m not averse to getting up really close to snap pictures there, it’s a bit like shooting fish in a barrel, it’s a tad more challenging to get good pictures out in the countryside on some of our indigenous wild flowers:


Small tortoioseshell feeding on nectar from field scabius flower, and

A red admiral

I spent 20 minutes lurking in the undergrowth waiting for this red admiral to open it’s wings and when I looked down amongt the nettles I was standing in it was festooned with caterpillars:


Peacocks before pupation – the ‘ugly duckling’

And after pupation – a spectacular metamorphosis (this one is on the buddleia in my garden, but I love the colours)

A notable absentee from the rollcall of butterflies is the painted lady which was here in good numbers last summer but I haven’t a single one yet. Despite that, lots of other species are out there too, such as speckled wood, brown argus, large and small white and small skipper. But more of those next time I post about butterflies.

Local Lepidoptera

The class of insects known as the ‘Lepidoptera‘ is the one that encompassses moths and butterflies. Many species of both have emerged from hibernation and can be seen aplenty in gardens, parks and in the countryside.

Speckled wood (Pararge aegeria) and orange tip (Anthocharis cardamines) are abundant in scrub and hedgerows.


Speckled wood butterfly warming up on a bramble leaf

The speckled wood is an interesting butterfly for a couple of reasons. It has a north/south colour variation where  more northerly individuals have  whitish spots and more southerly ones have orange spots. The other unique feature of this species is that it can overwinter as both a larva and a pupa resulting in adults emerging all the way through from Spring to Autumn.

I don’t have a good picture of an orange tip as they are very difficult to catch stationary. I watched one sat on a cow parsley flowerhead for several minutes last weekend, but of course I’d left my camera at home. The males have a 40-50mm wingspan, creamy white upper parts with big orange patches on the wingtips which alaso have a black margin. Underneath they have wonderfully intricate green lacework which makes highly effective camouflage. The females don’t have the orange tip, which is thought to be a warning to predators that they are unpalatable, but they are easier to see on food plants as they are not busy looking for mates in the same way the males are. Photographs to follow, hopefully!

A few red admirals (Vanessa atalanta) have been spotted by me in Histon so far this year, although not more than two or three, but in the last two weeks large numbers of small tortoiseshells (Aglais urticae) and holly blues (Celastrina argiolus) are flying around in the hot sunny weather.


Red admiral on a bramble stem


Small tortoiseshell butterfly looking somewhat tatterdemalion after emerging from hibernation, warming up in the early morning sunshine on an old farm machine

Holly blue butterfly

I haven’t seen many interesting moths yet this year, but late one evening last week, whilst quietly watching TV, this beauty emerged from behind the sofa, to the general consternatiion of all in the room, fluttered around very rapidly for several seconds before homing in on a lamp and alighting inside the shade:


Emperor moth female inside a lampshade

As you can imagine, her choice of resting place gave an additional challenge to the photography but I like this picture. The male is even more colourful with orange hindwings and believe it or not the emperor moth, Saturnia pavonia, is native to the UK, not an import from the rainforests! Emperor moths are big with a wingspan over 7cm, and they live on moors and in open countryside where they feed on brambles. The males are out and about in daytime looking for mates in April and May and the females are abroad at night, I guesss looking for safe places to lay eggs. It is the UK’s only resident member of the Saturnidae family.