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.

A smiling Holly Blue

More of an impish grin really. Unless of course she’s popping out an egg or two and it’s a grimace.

Not sure.

Holly seems like a tough food plant for such a delicate creature, but apparently the caterpillars prefer the flowers to the leaves which, judging by the number of buds on the holly right now, they won’t be short of.

Unusually for butterflies, Holly Blues lay their eggs on a different food plant, in their case ivy, for the second brood in the autumn. Conveniently, ivy flowers at that time of year so the caterpillars can nibble away on flowers in the autumn as well.

This particular Holly Blue female was flitting around a tall Holly Bush at the end of the garden and being pretty indecisive about where or when to land. When she eventually did, she was good enough to find a sunny spot which illuminated her against the shadows. Here’s another shot, this time face on.

You can see from the size of those holly leaves just how tiny these butterflies are.

Perhaps it wasn’t a Wall after all.

I was walking the dogs along a sheltered track a couple of days ago – mostly in shade, with pools of sunlight here and there – when I came across a succession of Speckled Woods, darting about and chasing each other at the edges of their territories. I was struck by how orangey their colouring was and how crisp and clear the markings were generally – compared, that is, to the individuals I’d seen and photographed last September. And I hadn’t previously noticed the wavy white fringe to their wings which gives them a neater, more defined appearance.

Speckled Wood, mid April
Speckled Wood, early September

It made me wonder if the butterfly I’d glimpsed briefly when it came to rest in the garden about a week ago, and which I’d thought was a Wall Brown at the time (no camera to hand for a more definite ID) was actually an orangey and freshly emerged Speckled Wood. The timing suggests it probably was: Speckled Woods can appear as early as late March, whereas the Wall Brown doesn’t normally emerge before May.

Wall, Mid August

I’d thought it was a Speckled Wood initially, as it flew past, and it was only when it landed at the back of a flower bed and I caught a glimpse of how orange it was that I thought it was a Wall. Their marking are superficially similar, and the sunlight can of course make everything appear more orange at times. And freshly emerged butterflies are always more vivid. So I’m pretty convinced now it was a Speckled Wood.

I won’t be adding the Wall to my geek list of species we’ve seen in the garden just yet.

Hungry Orange Tip

Looks like the tubular base of the Lungwort flower is just too long for this male Orange Tip to access its nectar without jamming his head inside. I noticed, when looking again at the picture, that his antennae are bent right back behind his head. Looks a touch uncomfortable, but maybe there’s something especially delicious about the Lungwort’s nectar. I know our dogs love its leaves. They have to have their daily fix and stand in the flower beds solemnly munching away for a good five minutes every morning.

Quite a few Orange Tips around at the moment. Looks like a good year for them, as it already has been for Peacocks, Commas and Brimstones – in this garden anyway. Feel lucky to have one right now.

Here are another couple of shots of Orange Tips, this time on more conventional Aubretia flowers where the nectar is easier to get at with a straight forward uncoiled proboscis.

So that’s it, first post of 2020. What a strange year it’s turning out to be. Posts and pictures on this site will be confined to the garden for the foreseeable. Though I might sneak in one or two from dog walks if I get lucky.

Curious Late Flowering

I noticed at the weekend that there were some unexpected plants still flowering up on the plain: small splashes of colour in amongst the old seed heads and the general brown of autumn. The sun was out the day before yesterday – now and again – so I thought I’d take the camera with me when I walked the dogs, to see what I could find.

These are the flower species I came across on an approximately three mile dog walk. Pretty much in order of appearance:

Red Clover, about ten flowers seen during the length of the walk. Some yellow flowers that look a bit like a small Dandelion – Cat’s Ear or Hawkbit? – maybe twenty of these along the way and none of them fully open. A single Dandelion, scrunched up and hiding in the grass. One clump of ragwort. Ten or more small Umbellifers (this is the family that has white, clustered-together flowers in the shape of an umbrella, which includes parsley, carrots, Ground Elder, Watercress [as I’ve just learned], and more than 3,500 other species around the world including the one here which I failed to identify).

I saw five or six Knapweed flowers, one or two on exposed ground as well as a couple in a sheltered spot. What were any of them doing in flower in the second half of November? The last time I remember seeing them was in mid or maybe late summer and they were covered in butterflies.

Then there was one single yellow Vetch of some kind, two tiny Harebells and a single Buttercup. A Buttercup in November?

The Oxe Eye Daisy was another surprise – just one of them seen. And then another type of Umbellifer – Yarrow, I think – two or three of these in a sheltered lane. And a couple of Scabius flowers, in the same sheltered lane – another flower popular with butterflies and normally seen from June to September.

It was a surprising variety to find on November 19th, I thought.

Why would any of these species be flowering so late in the year? There are no bees or butterflies around to pollinate them. There was a fly on the Scabius flower (above right) but it didn’t look like it would be much use.

Perhaps the late flowering is a kind of natural selection insurance policy against the possibility of a changing climate, one of the natural variations that might prove successful as the environment changes. But for the seasons to change that much the planet would probably have to shift on its axis. Maybe they’re just mutations, genetic mistakes that are unlikely to reproduce. Perhaps a bit of both. Whatever, if the amount each species was in flower over the season was represented by a bell curve, these late flowering examples would be at the flat-lining stage at the end: they have to be the very last flowers of the year.

It’s intriguing to see the different species still in flower, but their presence in the landscape doesn’t really raise the spirits and their generally stunted appearance doesn’t dampen them either. The main feeling is of being a bit mystified as to why, at this time of year, they’re flowering at all.

Another entrant for Hairiest Back of the Year Award

Who knew a Red Admiral could be that hirsute.

The first frosts have happened, the leaves are off the trees, the days are getting damper and drearier and it looks like the pictures I took of a Comma and Red Admiral on a beautifully sunny day in late October will be the last butterfly pics of the year for me. 

With its jagged wings this Comma looks like some kind of sinister valkyrie. I like it.

The butterflies were enjoying the blossom on the same bush that attracted the Holly Blues all the way back in early April.

Here is my very last butterfly image of the year. For some reason I like the image blurry (it’s the first time this year I’ve felt that way, and there’ve been quite a few blurry ones). For a last image of the season, it just works for me: Red Admiral, flying off into the sunset.