Tag Archives: Big Butterfly Count

Brampton Wood

Again, harping back to last July, I took a stroll around a piece of woodland called Brampton Wood with a good friend of mine who is a bit of an expert on butterflies. Which is why we went to Brampton, which is ancient woodland made up primarily of oak, ash and maple and is famed for it’s exotic and scarce Lepidopterans such as black hairstreak, white admiral and silver washed fritillary.

Large skipper – Ochlodes sylvanus

We didn’t see any of the rare species, mainly because the weather was generally unsuitable, but probably also because we were talking too much and not paying sufficient attention, but the species we did see gave some lovely photographs.

The large skipper is part of a big family of butterflies called the Hesperiidae or the ‘skippers‘, so called because they dash around from flower to flower in a skipping motion. They are also easily distinguished as a skipper because of the way they fold there wings at different angles when they are perched (for those of you with an aeronautical interest they remind me of the US Navy plane the F18 Hornet).

Gatekeeper, Pyronia tithonus, patrolling a leafy ride

The gatekeeper is a common hedgerow butterfly, but as with all the other wildlife in this part of the world, it suffers at the hands of intensive agriculture particularly when that involves grubbing out hedgerows. In 2010 my daighter and I did the annual ‘Big Butterfly Count’ in a scrubby field at the end of our road and we counted 11 species in the allotted 15 minute window, including the gatekeeper. A few weeks ago the tenant farmer, obviously a public spirited soul, grubbed out all the scrub and brambles which were home to all the butteflies, so I suspect numbers of all Lepidoptera, and the resident dragonflies, will be severely depleted this year. Which is a real shame as the field is fallow and not doused with chemicals so was a particularly good site for insects. The dark patches adjacent to the black spots on the forewings of the butterfly here are called the ‘sex brand‘ and mark this one out as a male, the same markings being absent in the female. The gatekeeper is also known as the ‘hedge brown’ which gives you a clue as to its preferred habitat.

The splendid creatrure below isn’t a butterfly, it’s a six spot burnet moth:

Six spot burnet – Zygaena filipendulae – adding some additional colour to a thistle head

The burnet moths consist of the burnets and forester families, they are day flying creatures and all have club shaped antennae. The six spot burnet is found in grassland feeding on thistles, scabius and and knapweeds, and its flight season is from late June to August. Apparently the red spots can sometimes be yellow, but I’ve never seen a yellow one.

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Unseasonal Lepidoptera

I was walking in the countryside last Saturday morning around 8am and the weather was bright and sunny. It was also freezing and the grass was glistening  with the first frost of the Autumn. Despite the temperature it was a beautiful morning, enhanced by a deep blue, cloudless, sky and a three quarter moon, and as I wandered along a hedgerow a red admiral butterfly fluttered past.


Red admiral – not the one that fluttered by on Saturday, this one is from earlier in the year.

The colours of the red admiral are gorgeous. It was only when I studied a photograph of one that I really noticed the electric blue spots at the back of the wings and lining the tip of the forewings, and I wonder if the red circle is meant to resemble a fearsome Cyclopean eye to deter potential predators. Whatever the biological rationale they look stunning against the green foliage.

The appearance of the red admiral surprised me for two reasons, firstly because it was so cold, and secondly because in my part of the world all butterfly numbers seem to have been massively reduced compared to last year.

Last year was a really good year for butterflies and in early August, on a hot summer day, myself and my daughter went to a close-by fallow field and did the Big Butterfly Count organised by Butterfly Conservation (http://butterfly-conservation.org). We counted 9 species in our 15 minute survey window, including painted ladies which migrate to the UK for the summer from as far afield as Africa.

Painted lady

I think intercontinental migration is an astonishing feat of endurance for any creature, but for one as delicate and ephemeral as a butterfly it’s totally awe-inspiring. The odds stacked against any individual surviving such a journey must be mightily slim!

Conversely, it was very noticeable that the weather in 2011 was alot colder (it was the coldest summer since 1993 apparently) and butterfly numbers were significantly down compared to last year, in particular the common blue:

The aptly and, this year, inaptly named common blue. This one, with his wings wide open, is a male…

…and with his wings closed


Bizarrely, the female common blue is actually brown

She is looking ragged after a hard summer of mating and egg laying necessary to secure next years population. Common blues and brown argus butterflies can commonly be seen together, they are closely related and the brown argus and female common blue can be tricky to tell apart. She is distinguishable from the brown argus by her overall shape which is very similar to the male above, the white around the orange spots on the hindwing, the blue along the wingroots and the lack of a black cell spot on the forewing, all of which are not observed on the brown argus:


Brown argus sipping nectar from ragwort flowers above. And below revealing the slight differences in the spot pattern compared to the common blue female:


The brown argus can have a blue irridescent sheen when it catches sunlight at the right angle and the wing veins extend through the white wing border, which they don’t in the female common blue.

During a walk through our field at the start of August last year I would see tens of common blue, both male and female, but on the same walk at the same time this year I was lucky to see more than 2 or 3. The results from this years Big Butterfly Count corroborated my unscientific observations and it reports that common blue numbers were down by 61% in this years survey. I’m hoping we get a milder winter this year and a warmer summer next year so the numbers of these beautiful creatures can recover.

I took lots of cool butterfly pictures last year, but as it was before I started writing the Naturephile I was hoping to post them this year. But it didn’t quite come to pass so I’ll try to sneak some of them out under spurious pretexts to brighten up this winter!

Favourite wildlife moments of 2010

As we rush pell mell towards 2011 I thought I’d compile a list of my top 10 wildlife moments of 2010. I decided a little over a year ago that I was going to start a blog but it took until September of this year to actually get on the case and do it. But now it is up and running I’ve realised it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. I’ve always derived a huge amount of pleasure from watching wildlife wherever I’ve travelled, in the UK and to more exotic locations. From snorkelling with green turtles over the coral reefs of the Seychelles to kayaking with orcas in the Canadian Pacific Ocean… and sitting in my dining room in Histon watching numerous species of small songbird frequenting my garden in the freezing winter weather.

But in 2010 these have been my favourite wildlife events (mostly within around 2 miles of where I live!):

10. Starting ‘The Naturephile’ and realising there are people out there who want to read it.

9. Garden spider: my garden was full of these little predators in September and October, filling my garden with webs such that negotiating the gauntlet to put the bins out became my job. Non-negotiable. I posted on them in October (post entitled ‘Araneus diadematus‘) when I got a great series of pictures of Shelob consuming a much smaller male just outside my back door:

That’s him wrapped up in the parcel of silk. Lunch.

8. Swifts in Histon: My photographic skills aren’t up to capturing good photographs of swifts but there were numerous individuals in the air all over the village in 2010. They were screeching up Station Road in Impington as I cycled home from work and 20-30 were regularly hunting insects over the fields north of Histon. There was a period in mid summer when every time a window or door was opened at home they could be heard overhead.  I hope they return here in the same numbers next year when I’ll try harder to get some pictures to share with you.

7. Marsh harrier in Histon: It’s very exciting to see big, rare birds of prey, particularly when they’re not expected. After the harvest this year there was a spell of several weeks where virtually all the birds seemed to have disappeared from my normal walking route. And one morning whilst mooching across the field lamenting the fact, a BIG bird hoved into view, low and approximately a quarter of a mile away. So calling the dog to heel, we sat down and waited. It flew to the opposite side of the field and quartered the long grass the full length of the field right in front of me – around 150-200m away – it was an immature male marsh harrier:

Marsh harrier hunting on the edge of Histon


After failing to find prey he ascended to approximately treetop height and disappeared over Histon to the south heading towards Cambridge.

6. Bullfinch: unlike fruit farmers I love bullfinch – they’re exquisite. When I was a child at home they were regular winter visitors but since then they have become exceedingly uncommon. I saw two in a tree near Girton a couple of months ago whilst walking with my ornithologist friend, David, and since then have seen them in and around Guns Lane in Histon several times. On one ocasion there were four, so I’ve gone from seeing on average one every 3-4 years to seeing 3-4 individuals at one time. A cock bullfinch flying over low against a royal blue sky is a sight to behold! Alas, I’ve no photographs yet, but hopefully this time next year…

5. Waxwing: My encounter with waxwing was described in a recent post simply entitled ‘The Waxwing‘. Myself and my friend Joe spent a freezing cold hour lurking under rowan trees on Brimley Road in north Cambridge and were very adequately rewarded with the presence of seven waxwing, which as well as being wonderfully photogenic were also highly amenable to being photographed. Consequently I managed to get a few nice pictures despite the filthy weather and low light:


Waxwing – Bombycilla garrulus – what a beauty!

There have since seen reports that there are waxwing in Histon. And this week I saw two starling-sized birds with crests amongst a flock of 20 redwing which were flying around near Cottenham Road which could have been waxwing. So far unconfirmed, but will keep looking.

4. Dragonflies: Dragonflies are amazing creatures, and this year I have discovered that a fallow field on the edge of Histon is alive with them from May through to September/October and they offer excellent photographic opportunities. If at rest they seem to be relatively fearless unless I make any sudden or threatening movements:


The blue body of the male broad bodied chaser (Libellula depressa) in my garden, above and the yellow body of the female in a hedgerow, below:


On a sunny day in the countryside, especially near a river or lake, it’s difficult to avoid dragonflies and damselflies. And they’re very entertaining to watch.


Common blue damselfly at Milton Country Park, Cambridge

My Dad told me he was once sitting in the sun in my Grandmothers fruit garden in Denmark when a dragonfly landed on his thumb. He managed not to flinch as it landed so it remained in situ for a couple of minutes before flying off. It returned a short time later carrying a fly and sat on the Old Mans’ thumb and completely devoured its meal.

3. Histon Heron: The shenanigans with the heron were described in my post from last week – ‘Hungry Heron‘ so you can read the story and see the photographs there,  or follow the link to the video clip from here.

The Histon heron – a finely honed fishing machine

The story has moved on a tad since I posted. My friend Chris, whose garden is hosting the heron, emailed to say he had a second bird visiting which managed to negotiate the intricate system of wires comprising the anti-heron device around the pond and steal some fish. And more alarmingly was caught fighting with heron number one who is obviously keen to protect his interest in the supply of fresh fish available in Chris’s garden. I shall report developments as they occur.

2. Butterflies in Histon: this one came about after reading about the Big Butterfly Count in August. There were numerous butterfly species in and around Histon so my daughter, Sophie, and myself went into the fields and counted numbers of species for the requisite 15 minutes. The number of species and the number of individuals was amazing. We saw peacock, red admiral, painted lady, gatekeeper, large white, small white, green veined white, small copper, brown argus, common blue, and ringlet!

Brown argus

Common blue

Gatekeeper

There were also small heath, comma, speckled wood and holly blue in the vicinity which we didn’t count during our 15 minute slot. We’ll continue to do the survey in future years and report the findings here.

1. Seeing a wild badger with Sophie: no photographs from this trip, alas, but it was a great moment. We ventured into Knapwell Wood in Cambridgeshire with my friend, Woody, late in the evening, just before dusk, and staying downwind and as quiet as possible all the way, we managed to get very close to the badger set. We then waited… and waited, and we heard the badgers crashing around in the undergrowth. No animals appeared in view so Sophie crouched down and fell asleep squatting on her haunches…, to be woken up after 20 minutes or so as a young badger ambled up the path towards us. He must have caught our smell as he suddenly stopped 6-7m away and sniffed the air for a minute or two before turning tail and disappearing back down the track. Sophie was very excited but managed to keep quiet until we had emerged from the wood. Listening to an ancient wood prepare for the night with some creatures bedding down whilst others are waking up is a magical way to spend an evening. And Sophie seeing wild badgers for the first time in the middle of the wood made this my favourite moment of 2010.

Have a great Christmas and I’m really looking forward to sharing my posts with you in 2011.

Best wishes

Finn