Friends, Old and New

Our first Painted Lady arrived on June 14th, six days earlier than last year. No problems with travel restrictions when you’re a migrating butterfly – if the instinct for international travel grabs you, off you go.

Like last year, our early arrival was a little worn after its journey from Africa, and thirsty, and gorged itself on Valerian nectar for quite a while, proboscis probing one tiny flower after another. Which allowed me, like last year, to take too many pictures. 

Once they’re revitalised with all that sugary fuel, they don’t hang around in one spot for long and they become a lot less tolerant of human beings with cameras. The newly hatched second brood in August-September time will be more brightly coloured and in pristine condition, but it’s still great to see these early arrivals again.

I also managed, on the same day, to take a couple of pictures of a Ringlet. I’d seen one a couple of days previously, but had only managed a smudged shot as the butterfly took off just as I pressed the shutter.

It flew off and disappeared over the horizon. Which was frustrating as I hadn’t managed to get a single shot of one last year.

I fancied another try and thought I might as well go to the same spot I’d seen the one a couple of days before. So that was where the dogs were walked. There were a few false alarms on the way: I saw what turned out to be (through the lens) a few male Meadow Browns that were all over some highly scented wild privet. But in the mile or so to the site, I didn’t see any Ringlets. When we got there I wasn’t too optimistic either. The one from a couple of days before had flown so far away, and so quickly, that it seemed as if it was just passing through rather than in its own territory.

But then there it was. Only a few yards from the previous sighting.

Simple colouring and markings, but a beautiful butterfly none the less, and with a lovely velvet finish to its wings – which probably isn’t apparent in the picture above. 

As soon as I’d taken my shot, the butterfly was up and away again, and soon out of sight. And I didn’t see any others on the rest of the walk – as had happened previously.

On our way back though, I did manage a shot of a Dark Green Fritillary that had landed – and stayed landed for more than a few seconds – on some Knapweed which is now beginning to come out everywhere. 

Butterflies love it, as can be seen with these four Marlbled Whites who lined up very neatly for the camera.

Sometimes butterflies just realise there’s a photo opportunity and produce the goods.

Elephants, Leopards, Damsels and Dragons

It’s been a bit of a quiet time in the garden for butterflies recently, but there’s been plenty of other activity: foxes, deer, stoats, and water shrews in the stream (though the site of the stoat swimming suggests water shrew life – if still present – is precarious). And we’ve seen plenty of insects other than butterflies – some visiting, some born and bred in the garden.

We were out checking for slugs on pot plants the other evening – around about 10:00 – when we noticed a swarm of Elephant Hawkmoths over the Valerian. They were illuminated in the light from the kitchen windows, and there seemed to be dozens of them. They are impressive insects, almost as good at hovering and probing the tiny flowers with their proboscises as the Hummingbird Hawkmoths that visit during the day. And bigger too, and in an unusual and striking shade of pink. Have seen them before in the garden but never in such numbers. And we see their caterpillars now and again, marching across the patio.

Elephant Hawkmoth Caterpillar, marching

Apparently it gets its name from the way its caterpillar looks like an elephant trunk. Which it does, pretty much, apart from the cartoon-like false eyes on the front. And it’s big too. Not as big as the Leopard Slug I once saw outside the back door, but big – a good three inches. Here’s a picture of our enormous Leopard Slug from Aug 2018.

Our enormous Leopard Slug

It was quite a shock. I had no idea slugs ever got that big in this country. The Leopard Slug gets its name, not unreasonably, from the spots on its back. The smaller slugs found on our pot plants get thrown into the field on the other side of the stream, but not this big fella. We learned they eat other slugs so he stayed where he was. He revisited the following evening but sadly we didn’t see him again after that and haven’t seen any others anything like that length since. We get quite a few badgers passing through and I’m guessing a six inch slug would have been quite a tempting snack for one of them. I think if a toad had had a go, it might have fought back.

Back to the Elephant Hawkmoths. I went out to see if I could get a picture of them the night before last, but after all the rain we’d had, and with the lower temperatures, there were far fewer about. Maybe three or four at any one time. I’d noticed, on the warm night when we’d seen so many, that they didn’t seem to like the light from the torch, but I thought that if I used the camera flash the shot would be in the can before they dispersed. I’d forgotten that the camera uses a light beam – in low light – to get the autofocus to work before the flash picture is taken, and the focusing light beam seemed to scare the moths away before that was possible. Which was frustrating. Having said that, I think I might have read somewhere that they are attracted to light so maybe it’s just that I was too close for their comfort when moving in for the shot. Anyway, there were one or two that seemed less sensitive than others and I did get some reasonably crisp shots that show off their hovering skills.

Other insects seen in the garden recently include three species of Damselflies: the Banded Demoiselle, the Large Red Damsel and the Beautiful Demeoiselle.

I was initially confused over the identification of the ‘Beautiful Demoiselles’ as I hadn’t realised that the males start off their adult lives with brown wings and finish them with bright blue ones, once they’ve matured. Now I know who’s who, it looks like the Beautiful Demoiselles have taken up the majority of territories along our length of stream. The Banded Demoiselles we see seem to be passing through and haven’t settled – at least not when I’ve had a camera to hand. And the same goes for the darters and Emperor Dragonflies that we’ve occasionally seen.

Here’s a small red damselfly which I identified from the book as a Large Red Damselfly (the small ones must be tiny).

Spent some time watching a mature male Beautiful Demoiselle who was doing some hunting of tiny insects that I could hardly see. I noticed he was using the same perch between sorties, so I thought I’d try freeze-framing him with a fast shutter speed as he came back in to land (there was no chance my reactions would be quick enough to get him taking off). His sorties were pretty quick, so I thought that if I kept taking pictures at five frames a second (or whatever it is) after I’d registered him taking off while keeping the focus on the flower head, there was a decent chance I’d get some sharp pictures of him coming back in to land.

Here’s the resulting slideshow: coming into land; undercarriage out; touch-down; fold back wings; manoeuvre into alert position for next take off.

Haven’t managed any pictures of dragonflies in the garden, but took a few at a near-by lake. Here’s one of what I think is a Four-Spotted Libellula. Have been surprised, since I first became interested in close up photography, how hairy some insects, especially butterflies, are. But the hairiness of this darter dragonfly – which they don’t show in the books – was was even more unexpected. And very different from the metallic, tubular bodies of Damselflies and some of the Hawker Dragonflies.

Wonder how it affects their aerodynamics. Maybe it gives them more traction in the air, allowing them to stop and change direction more quickly, darting this way and that – as their name describes.

Before Life’s Rough and Tumble

We were out walking the dogs yesterday on the plain, when I started seeing a few large orange butterflies zooming about this way and that. I thought they’d be Dark Green Fritillaries, which I’d seen not far away in previous years, and I thought I’d try getting a picture to confirm it. 

They were not being cooperative. 

Dark Green Fritillaries are large butterflies and strong fliers, and they were going at quite a lick across the downland in search of whatever it was they were in search of. When they did land, it was always a distance away and even though there were not that many butterflies about, another fritillary always seemed to appear and fly past just before I got there, tempting the first one to take off and follow. Very frustrating. You have to move pretty quickly to keep up with them, and it was a bit windy too, which seemed to make everything speed up a little more. And then there was the issue that if you’re going to follow their erratic flight, you have to keep watching the butterfly ahead of you – at least some of the time – rather than where you’re putting your feet.  With grazing cattle having been there through the wet winter, the ground was uneven underfoot, to put it mildly, on the really quite steep escarpment slope where the butterflies had been steadily leading me.

I decided that if I was going to avoid injury, it might be an idea to try to get a shot of the butterfly in flight rather than continue charging about this way and that, up and down the escarpment like a lunatic. As my wife put it.

I increased the shutter speed, opened the aperture a bit, zoomed out to give myself a better chance of catching the butterfly in frame, and went for it.

Named ‘Dark Green’ after the colouring on the underwing

I managed to get a couple of shots fairly quickly which were sharp enough to confirm that they were indeed Dark Green Fritillaries, this one recently emerged and in beautiful condition. And good to see it in the midst of its natural habitat too.

Job done, I put my camera settings back to those suited to stationary subjects. And that was the point at which a fast moving subject in the form of a sprightly Roe Deer at the bottom of the escarpment, appeared. It looked amazingly elegant as it ran along. There was no time to change the setting again, so I took a couple of shots – with nothing to lose – and the pictures, though not pin sharp, didn’t turn out too badly.

At 1/400 and at 300mm her movement was surprisingly well frozen, I thought. The  young Roe deer was in great condition too which is always lovely to see. Many of the deer we get in the field next to our garden look as if they’ve had a pretty tough time of it, sometimes with scars all over their bodies.

This one was a beauty. It’s a delight to see creatures in peak condition before the rough and tumble of life has taken too much of its toll. Whether butterflies or deer.

It was a Common Spotted

Turns out our mystery plant in the Bay Tree pot was a Common Spotted Orchid – a couple of them, side by side. 

In retrospect, it was the most likely outcome: they’re the most common species of orchid in the UK, they like a variety of habitats, and the leaves of the plant in our pot were, well, spotted. The white of the buds made us initially unsure but they became more of a delicate pink as they opened.

Two Common Spotted Orchids that decided to set up shop in our garden.

They have started to appear in numbers up on the plain now as well – no surprises there. So too, the Pyramid Orchids – as astonishingly pink as ever. Saw the first Marbled White of the year this morning as well. Summer’s here!

Managed one shot before he flew up and a gust of wind took him over the hawthorns and far away. No others seen.

Also spotted one or two Meadow Browns – first I’ve seen on the plain this year – and some Large Skippers (picture of one below).

Have been seeing Small Heaths for about a month now and there are still plenty about. It’s been a good year for them. A little surprising to me that they have a high priority conservation status as we see them pretty much along all the paths we walk the dogs. They’re not confined to one or two sites like other uncommon butterflies on the plain. And we’ve had a few in the garden as well. They must just like it round here.

Recent Garden Arrivals

Great dog-walking weather this morning: bright blue skies and a cooling breeze. Still a bit warm for some inhabitants of the plain though.

Cattle enjoying the shade at 09.38, 1/6/20

Marsh Fritillaries Still Going Strong

The Marsh Fritillaries that have been around for a while now seem to have faired better in the strong winds than the Adonis Blues. Some do look pretty battered, but others look fresh still.

Here’s one I caught just as it was taking off, presenting an almost 3D effect against the dotted yellow background of Horseshoe Vetch. 

There are flowers on the downland everywhere at the moment, including a little white five-petalled species with yellow stamens which I hadn’t noticed before, and which I think is called Fairy Flax (you can see them at the bottom of the picture of the Fragrant Orchid below). The various plants all seem to have their different strategies for survival and reproduction on the plain. The tiny Fairy Flax seem to keep their heads right down – maybe for protection for when the winds blow hard, or maybe to avoid the teeth of the munching cattle which graze here from time to time. The burnt Tip Orchids, that have been around for about three weeks now, keep fairly low as well – perhaps, coming out earlier in the year, they’re more likely to experience high winds. The Fragrant Orchids, which have only just started to appear, stand taller. Could it be that for them, blooming a little later, they’re less likely to be damaged by storms? Maybe being fragrant, they need to get up there to catch the evening breeze, advertising their presence to pollinators. Or maybe they just have more flexible, stronger stems. Whatever the reasons behind the various strategies, it all seems to work pretty well. The slopes are full of life and colour right now – without doubt, my favourite time of year.

Talking of orchids, we now have a mystery plant – possibly an orchid – that has appeared in the soil of our bay tree pot plant just outside my office window. It has spotted leaves with flower buds that, at this stage, look white. How it got there, we have no idea. There are no orchids in the field that I’m aware of. What kind of an orchid turns up in a potted plant in our garden? Could it really be an orchid? We will find out shortly.

Mystery plant in our bay tree pot.

Photography’s Reality Distortion Field

Looks like the Adonis Blues took a bit of a hammering in the high winds we had recently. I was at our local Site of Special Scientific Interest yesterday and there were, as I’d heard, numerous Adonis Blues on the wing.

I took a few pictures but came across none that were in really mint condition. The wing edges of even the shiny, fresh ones looked frayed. No surprises really as winds here gusted to 40 MPH for a couple of days. In the sheltered valley where we live, the blustery wind managed to break a substantial branch – ten or twelve foot long – off a willow tree next to our garage. The wind must have been quite violent on the exposed downland. 

Edges frayed so that the usual checkered fringe is no longer visible.
Lovely pale blue fur though.

But of course the animals and plants that live there have adapted to the conditions. I noticed this time that the Buttercups on the site really do hug the ground – just a couple of inches or so off it – whereas in the field next to us, in the valley, there are Buttercup plants two to three foot tall. Don’t know if they’re the same or similar species (must check it out), but they have very different dimensions. Of course, individual plants adapt to the particular environment in which they find themselves. Plants that are cropped by grazing animals (or lawn mowers) produce shorter flowering stalks at their next attempt – but I wonder whether there is also some local selective pressure that favours the genes of plants with shorter flower stems. A question of balancing the advantages of attracting pollinators with higher more visible flowers against the likelihood of being snapped off in a strong wind – a kind of evolutionary Tall Poppy Syndrome.

There’s another aspect of flower heights that occurred to me, which is probably not quite as academic as questions of Survival of the Fittest. It’s to do with how accurately photographers represent their subjects’ environment.

At this time of year, during their first emergence, Adonis Blues spend much of their time sipping the nectar of the Horseshoe Vetch (which is their caterpillar food plant and which, not surprisingly, there are plenty of where you find the Adonis). They seem to me to spend more time on these bright yellow flowers, which grow close the ground, than on any other. The problem for the photographer is that when the flower they’re attracted to most is so close to the ground, it’s difficult to achieve a nicely thrown-out-of-focus background. And their being in amongst the matt of ground foliage, you often get other plants obscuring your view and throwing shadows on to your subject. As a result you tend to spend most of your time looking, and waiting, for butterflies that have perched on something taller – grass seed heads, or taller flowers.

You can see that the image on the right with the Adonis perched on a Horseshoe Vetch flower is a bit muddled with the in-focus grass stems all around, one of which is casting a shadow over the butterfly itself. Not ideal. But perhaps it’s a truer image of the butterfly in its habitat than the one at the top of the blog which is a better picture. There is also a heavy shadow on the central image of a mating pair, which isn’t great either, but I’ve included it here because you can see how vividly orange the underside of their antennae tips are – it came as a surprise to me.

Does it matter that the pictures you end up with are not particular representative of the butterfly’s habits and habitat or their flower nectar preferences? Not sure. Probably not. But that was certainly the case for the selection I took yesterday. Aesthetic considerations distorting reality? Nothing particularly new there: don’t let facts get in the way of a good story; don’t let Nature get in the way of a good image.

Battered male Adonis, perched on a grass seed head

In the above image of an Adonis on a grass seed head, we can see evidence of all the Horseshoe Vetch plants in the background – maybe the best of both worlds.

Tiny and Delicate

Britain’s smallest butterfly.

 

Sipping nectar in a daisy cup

I didn’t manage to get a picture of a Small Blue last year. Got close a couple of times, I think. But the “ones that got away” meant getting an identifiable photo of the Small Blue was on my Geek-To-Do list for this year. And a couple of days ago I ticked it off. 

A neighbour who’d promised last autumn to take me this year to a Small Blue site he knew, phoned to tip me off that he’d seen them on the wing the previous day. He mentioned that the butterflies seemed to stop flying after about three in the afternoon, so I’d have my best chance of seeing them if I got there with a bit of time to spare.  Grid reference and directions received, I set off. 

I found the site without any trouble, parked and after a walk of less than a hundred yards, there they were. Once you know where to look, it makes it a whole lot easier to find what you’re looking for.

I was surprised by how relatively easy they were to spot. Tiny though they are, their dark upperwing makes them easier to see than other small butterflies like the smaller skippers with their more neutral, dappled tones.

I saw twenty or more while I was there. Not too many of them were resting with their wings open – I’m guessing they’d done most of their warming up for the day by then – but one or two were. I noticed that the steeply sloping bank of the site was facing East, so it would have warmed up and cooled down a bit earlier in the day than on the flat. Maybe that’s why they were going to roost mid afternoon-ish.

So a good trip. And one that was not just a first for me in getting a positive ID on a Small Blue. I haven’t travelled specifically to see butterflies at a particular site before now either. My interest in the subject has come about as a result of dog-walking locally and happening to live on the edge of Salisbury Plain with its unusually rich variety of wild life. So could this be the start of something new? I can’t really imagine myself being drawn into the world of amateur enthusiast Lepidopterists. On the other hand I know there are Purple Emperors in Savernake Forest which is only about half an hour away…

It’s a Chill Wind…

Turns out there’s an upside to this chilly North Easterly wind: butterflies are landing in the garden again.

Landing, that is, rather than flitting endlessly about, as if they’re thinking “here? Or maybe on that flower, or perhaps there, on that nice blade of grass?”. They do it for just long enough that you’re sometimes tempted to get after them with a camera for the moment when they do finally alight. Only to see them go flitting off again, up and over the hedges and houses and far away. Which is pretty much exactly what they’ve been doing in the warm sunny weather we’ve been having here in the South of England for the past few weeks.

There are exceptions: the Peacocks and the Commas seem quite happy to chill out and bask in the sun. The Whites and Brimstones and the Holly Blues, though, hardly ever seem to come to rest in the warm sunny weather.

But now, with the drop in temperatures, and the patchy sunshine, they’re offering photo opportunities again.

A green Veined White enjoying our Forget-Me-Not bed.

Quite a few more Large Whites about than this time last year. They seem as likely to land on foliage as a flower.

Large White in amongst freshly in-bloom Irises

Haven’t seen a Small White yet. But there are quite a few female Orange Tips about. And they have a useful habit of landing on the tips of foliage or on isolated flower heads, which means the backgrounds are nicely thrown out of focus.

Female Orange Tip (with small fly) on budding Cow Parsley

So, lesson learned about warm sunny weather and some butterflies rarely coming to rest. And the silver lining of a change in the weather to “cooler temperatures, cloudy with some sunny intervals”.

Green Hairstreaks – Take Two

Amazing what a couple of degrees centigrade can do. There were more clouds breaking up the sunshine yesterday than the day before, but the Green Hairstreaks seemed to appreciate the small rise in temperature. Quite a few of them flitting around the hawthorn bushes on the dog walk this time, and they were all more amenable, in terms of their positioning at rest, than previously. A few of them even landing on low down branches close by. I noticed that you could get up really quite close to some before scaring them off – a few inches even. Was wishing I’d had a macro lens with me. Anyway, it was delightful to see them in their full vivid glory for the first time.

Was surprised by how creased the wings look in this next shot.

Was it that the butterfly had only recently emerged and its wings were still a bit crinkled from being crammed up inside the chrysalis? Or was it just the angle to the sun that’s exaggerating the effect? Or maybe both and the young butterfly hadn’t quite got the hang of the positioning itself at right angles to the sun yet (for maximum warm-up effect).

It does look to be in mint condition, showing off its pristine colouring and with pretty much all its wing scales in tact, so it looks as if it may have only recently emerged.

Unlike the older butterfly in the next shot, which seems to have been around long enough to have mastered the 90 degree positioning to the sun thing, but become a little worn-looking with it. A few scales missing there.

The Hawthorne fly on the neighboring Hawthorne leaf gives an idea of just how small these beautiful little butterflies are. 

The next shot here shows a butterfly who is older still and seems to have lost most of its scales. This one too, orientating its wings towards the sun. The wings of this and the previous butterfly do look distinctly flat, which makes me think that the first one (two pictures of) was likely to be recently emerged.

Unusual to see one of these butterflies on a flower, I’ve learned. Zooming in I can see that its proboscis is partially uncurled – perhaps to suck up some nectar? Maybe, having been around for a while, it needs the sustenance of some sugary nectar to keep going.

A delightful walk today. A treat to see these special butterflies in amongst all the fresh green of Spring.

Hairstreak Tip-Off

Last Sunday I was tipped off by a neighbour that the Green Hairstreaks were out and about at our local SSSI. I didn’t manage to get a decent picture of one last year – just a couple of blurry shots of two of them messing about with some hawthorn flies. And actually I hadn’t even been too conscious of their existence as a species before then, so I was just excited that I’d seen them. Didn’t see any more, despite going back to the same area a couple of times, so I put the idea of photographing them again as a project for next year – now, this year.

It was a sunny day and the dogs needed walking, so  I went up onto the plain to see what I could find. The forecasters had predicted a change in the weather – to rain and cloud – from the next day, and there wouldn’t be many opportunities in the coming week.

I came across three or four Green Hairstreaks on the walk, but they only ever seemed to land between me and the sun. So instead of seeing their glorious metallic green scales glinting in the sunlight that I’d read about, all I saw was their tiny dark silhouettes – almost black against the bright blue sky.

Green Hairstreak Silhouette

The above picture was taken without any adjustments to the camera (or after, in post) and is pretty much what I saw with the naked eye.

I’ve since discovered from my Readers Digest butterfly field guide, that Green Hairstreaks always rest with their wings closed, and they orientate themselves at right angles to the sun (presumably to warm up more quickly). So when they are perched in bushes and their position is higher than your head height, it’s pretty much impossible – certainly in the middle of the day when the sun is high – to get a picture of their wings lit up by the sun. I did my best by going for the wing in shadow shot, upping the exposure compensation and then later, when processing the images on the computer, increasing the shadow levels. And the resultant pictures weren’t too bad. The colours of the sky and fresh foliage helped.

Here’s another that shows off the white eyeliner effect. It looks to me like the kind of butterfly Walt Disney would have invented: the Princess Butterfly.

Fast forward to yesterday at around about 4.30 PM. The sun was out and there were longish periods of blue sky for the first time in a week. The dogs needed a walk, again, so I thought it would be worth trying for the Hairstreaks. With the sun lower in the sky, I might have a better chance of finding one showing a sunlit wing at an angle where I could get a shot. There was a bit of a chilly breeze that was keeping down temperatures, but it was worth a try. 

Well, I think I saw one, which whizzed past very quickly on the other side of a barbed wire fence, so there was no chance of a picture.

But I did see four other species of butterfly which were the first of them I’d seen this year. So not a wasted trip. Good to see the Skippers and Small Heaths, and especially the picture of one with wings open, which I only realised I’d captured when I got home and saw the picture on the computer screen. And it’s always good to see the beautiful Marsh Fritillary. This one perched on a dandelion seed ball without collapsing it – that’s a delicate butterfly for you.

Hopefully at some stage next week there’ll be a bit more sun and the Green Hairstreaks will still be around and I’ll be able to get a picture of one that’s not a shadowy silhouette. We’ll see.