Tag Archives: Vanessa atalanta

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!

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Cragside

Whilst exploring Northumberland in August we ventured into  Bamburgh Castle which is well worth a visit not least because it houses a museum dedicated to the Victorian engineering genius and arms manufacturer, William Armstrong. Armstrong used a portion of his colossal wealth to build a remarkable house at Cragside near Rothbury, which is also well worth a visit because it is set in some pretty amazing countryside which is teeming with wildlife. It’s also remarkable because it’s the first house on the planet to be lit by hydroelectricity. So the man who amassed wealth beyond belief by producing arms which were responsible for the deaths of an awful lot of people also set the stage for renewable energy. And that’s a dichotomy which, in my book, makes him a very interesting man.

So… on the way home from Northumberland we decided to avoid the A1 as far as we could which involved going close to Rothbury, and when, completely serendipitously,  we passed a road sign for Cragside (and having joined the National Trust whilst on the Farne Islands) we rapidly decided a visit there was on the days agenda.

And that was a good decision. The house itself would take a long time to explore so we stuck our heads in the front door and decided to explore the surroundings instead. It was a cold and windy day threatening rain, but despite that the gardens were full of flowers attracting bumble bees and butterflies, particularly red admirals. The wooded slopes were full of birds, particularly tits, and most particularly coal tits (Periparus ater, Dansk: sortmejse).

My son spotted a baby toad in the long grass but I didn’t want to disturb it too much so I didn’t get a photograph, but I was rewarded shortly after when I found this little chap walking along the woodwork of a bridge over a stream:


This nascent toad, Bufo bufo, was smaller than a 50p piece and slipped  into the water whilst crossing the bridge, but he sat still for just long enough

And as we were chasing toads a handsome cock pheasant appeared in the adjacent field,


Pheasant male, Phasianus colchicus (Dansk: fasan) showing off his magnificent plumage

The pheasant was introduced to the UK from Asia, where it’s native range extends from the Caucasus to China, around 1000 years ago. It is extensively hunted, which probably explains why it has been introduced to so many countries!

But the ornithological highlight of the visit to Cragside was the dipper (Cinclus cinclus, Dansk: vandstær). It flew past me at high speed low over the stream before landing on a rock which it used as a springboard to hunt insects underwater. I thought it is called a ‘dipper’ because of it’s diving prowess, but while it was perched on terra firma it flexed its legs resulting in a dipping motion of it’s head – so maybe it’s this action that gives it its name. I was wondering why it did the dipping and thought it may enable it to see small prey items underwater more easily.


Dipper perched on a rock contemplating a snack…


Hunting in the stream…


And with a catch – I think it has landed a damselfly

Dippers are unique in that they can swim underwater and even walk on the bottom as a result of having solid bones.

Photographically the dipper posed some interesting problems. It’s mostly a dark coloured bird and was in a dark coloured stream under tall trees on a cloudy morning so there was very little spare light, and it didn’t stay still for very long. Consequently I had to use ISO 800, f5.6 and 160th sec exposure and cross my fingers! Fortunately I was able to focus on the white breast and managed to get a few good shots. It’s a charming little bird and I was very pleased to be able to share some pictures with you.

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.

Insectivora

The hedgerows and the edges of country paths are home to an immense variety of small creatures, especially those which aren’t in the firing line for agricultural chemical spraying, and it can be easy to overlook them.

Last weekend I spent a morning chasing insects around and I followed a red admiral butterfly into a thicket of nettles where it sat tight with it’s wings closed. Over the next twenty minutes it very briefly opened its wings, but only partially, but enough to enable me to see that its colours were pristine:

And then it opened them fully, and the colours really were sumptuous:


…well worth half an hour stood in a nettle bed!

But I thought the half hour definitely wasn’t wasted when I looked down at my feet and saw this cluster of peacock caterpillars eating nettle leaves:

I moved to one side to get some pictures of the caterpillars, and fortunately after I’d spent some time doing that the red admiral was still in situ.

Peacocks are hardy butterflies which can be found over most of the UK including the Shetland Isles and can be found hibernating in garden sheds. They emerge from hibernation at any time of year if the weather is warm enough, they mate in March and lay eggs then the caterpillars can be seen from the middle of May into July.

Not only are they hardy, they are quit beautiful too. A close look at their wings reveals a fabulous array of brightly coloured detail:

Male peacocks hold fort in their territory and wait for passing females to pass by when they fly up to greet them and attempt to mate. Male and female peacocks are very difficult to tell apart and watching the males performing this courtship behaviour is one way to differentiate the genders.

And close to the same spot I was looking at the flowers and I spotted this hoverfly cleaning his eyes:

…and this beetle wandering over a convulvulus flower, I don’t know what it is but it has gorgeous colours:

The brambles in the hedgerows were also full of bees in the sunshine, many species of honey bees and bumble bees were harvesting nectar from the flowers:


White tailed bumble bee flying from flower to flower feeding on bramble nectar

And than this marvellous creature was hunting in my kitchen last week:


Violet ground beetle, isn’t he magnificent!

Violet ground beetles are carnivorous, as are their larvae. They hunt at night and hide up during the day under log piles or other cool dark places. They eat a variety of insects, including a number of species that gardeners would be glad to be rid of. They’re big beetles, around 3cm long, and they have irridescent blue or violet edges to the thorax and wing cases. So don’t use chemicals in your garden – let these guys get rid of your pests!

And now I’m looking forward to some warm sunny July days when the surrounding fields are full of butterflies. I’ll share some more insect photographs with you then.

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.

Guns Lane bird walk 2nd April 2011

I acquired a voice recorder last week. It’s tiny – not much bigger than a  cigarette lighter – and it means I can record what I see alot more accurately as I don’t need to rely on memory. Which is a good thing as my memory is not brilliant. The weather was glorious on Saturday and Sunday morning so the timing of my acquisition was pretty good because there was an awful lot to record when I was out and about.  The birds are very busy right now building nests and in the last couple of weeks blackbirds have been collecting strands of hay ejected from the rabbit hutch in my garden and I’ve seen various other species with beaks full of grass, twigs and moss.

Apart from enjoying the sunshine I saw two species of bird for the first time this year – blackcap and linnet. A pair of linnet appeared to be in residence in a bramble at the southeastern end of Rowleys Meadow, Histon. (On the map, Rowleys Meadow is the area of green scrub in the middle.)

Linnet perched on top of a bramble

The blackcap were in the northwestern hedge row at the opposite end of the field to the linnet and perched, tantalisingly, directly over my head, so my photographs are all of the underside. I saw one pair together and two individuals on this walk which is almost as many as I’ve seen in Histon in total in the last three years.

Also in the same hedge along the northwest periphery were several yellowhammer and in the bright sunshine the colours were amazing:


Yellowhammer male sitting atop a branch beautifully lit by the early morning sun

Yellowhammer are a species of bunting that are resident in the UK so can be seen all year round and breed here. They feed predominantly on seeds but also on insects which they harvest from the ground. I often see them perched on top of hedgerows and they fly to the ground when flushed where, despite their colour, are often next to impossible to see. The female has similar markings to the male but  is much less yellow.

Pair of yellowhammer, male  on the left and female to the right – I was very pleased to get this picture as they’re normally so difficult to see on the ground

Yellowhammer are currently on the red list due to the decline in numbers over recent years, although there seem to be good numbers in my locality and I’ve even had one feeding in my garden!

Many species of birds were busy this weekend, including a buzzard, a pair of sparrowhawk wheeling around way up high, and a pair of kestrel. Closer to the ground, blacdbird, chaffinch, greenfinch, long tailed tit and songthrush were all very much in evidence.


The unmistakably speckled underside of a songthrush

Butterflies are also starting to emerge in the warm weather and a couple of red admirals and two others which I couldn’t see close enough to identify were floating along the brambles.

A good photograaph of a blackcap eluded me this weekend as I only managed to shoot it from directly underneath so the cap wasn’t visible, but I shall have another look this weekend and hopefully post a ;picture next time.

Springtime song

The weather this  Saturday was glorious – no wind, blue sky and warm sunshine. Perfect for a stroll around the countryside. So I set off around 8am and apart from the warmth, the first thing I noticed was the air laden with the  fragrances of spring blossom.

In the last week the spring weather has caused trees and flowers including the willow to blossom…


Pussy willow – the furry catkin of the willow tree against a gorgeous blue sky, and a lone honeybee

Butterflies are waking up after hibernation. A red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) flew through my garden last week and a friend told me he saw a brimstone in his garden and another wended its way gently past a window at work today.

Red admiral on a bindweed flower
Red admiral feeding on a convulvulus flower

Red admiral are resident and can be seen all year round when weather permits. Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni) are also resident and hibernate over the winter but they are now out and about aroused by the warm weather. Bumble bees have also become more abundant in the last few weeks and I now see them on most days.

The birds are all singing and a walk through parks and fields is accompanied by the song of greenfinch, blue tit, great tit, dunnock and robin, most noticeably. And on my hike across the fields abundant yellowhammer, reed bunting and corn bunting, three Emberiza species, were all in full voice:


E.citrinella – one of many yellowhammer, this one is a male, patrolling the hedgerows

E.schoeniclus – reed bunting male

E.calandra – corn bunting making its very distinctive call

Yellowhammer, reed bunting and corn bunting perch in hedgerows and  make feeding forays to the ground in the neighbouring fields where they feast on seeds and during the breeding season and  summer will eat invertebrates. I pass one location where there has been a mixed group of 20-30 reed bunting and yellowhammer present regularly over the last month. Corn bunting have made a recent comeback to the fields around Histon, they disappear at harvest time, middle to end of August, and reappear in the Spring when they can be seen perched on top of brambles, bushes and short trees making their very characteristic song.

Skylark were also singing constantly. Farmland species such as these have seen their habitat severely depleted in recent times, consequently their numbers are reduced as a result.

A red fox and a small group of roe deer put in appearances, the fox was heading a cross the fields to Landbeach heading away from a place I photographed cubs last year, so I hope they are breeding here again this year.


Roe deer – Capreolus capreolus – the leader on the right is sporting native antlers

A pair of crows chased off a buzzard which thermalled over the fields before disappearing into the haze towards Waterbeach and a flock of several hundred black headed gulls squawked noisily over the fields. I observed them for several minutes with binoculars and I think they were all black heads, but there could have been a few individuals of other species mixed in. A sparrowhawk flew at very high speed from the Linnet Hedge across South Bean Field before rising up and passing through a gap in the treeline, causing mayhem with the birdlife in the gardens beyond and a female kestrel was looking for rodents in the South Fallow Field. It was the first time I’d seen birds of prey here for several months so it was great to see three species on one walk.