Browns can be Beautiful too

Above, a Meadow Brown taking time out in a privet hedge.

The Meadow Brown doesn’t seem, initially, to be a very promising subject for photography. The most distinctive aspect of its colouring is a black and white eye dot in an orange smudge on a dullish brown forewing. And when the butterfly is at rest you often can’t even see the eye, or the orange, because it’s obscured (as in the picture above) by the hind wing, which is also a dullish brown.

In mid summer they seem to be everywhere. There’s one particular spot near us, a glade on the edge of escarpment woodland, where there can be clouds of Meadow Browns around the brambles that grow there. But then they’re all over the plain as well, fluttering about, clambering mob-handed over the Knapweed and Scabius. And in gardens too. There frequently seem to be more Meadow Browns on the wing than all other butterflies combined. So they can seem like a rather dull, commonplace species. They did to me until June this summer.

It was dog-walking, again, that got me out and about in conditions which would result in me seeing the species in a different light – quite literally. The weathermen were saying it was going to be hot, so the dogs needed to be walked early. We got onto the plain at about 6.00 am and the light, as we made our way out onto the downland, felt special, “the golden hour”.

The plain was still waking up. There were no butterflies on the wing as we made our way along an escarpment ridge, but the air was warming nicely and the fresh Knapweed (particularly good this year) would soon be covered in Meadow Browns and Marbled Whites.

As we approached a more Easterly-facing slope, I saw a Meadow Brown from some distance away warming itself in the morning sun, its forewings strikingly illuminated. I managed to get off a few shots which, through the lens, looked good. When I saw them on the computer screen later I could see two strange things hanging from the butterfly’s mouth (mentioned on the home page), almost like a little moustache. It also reminded me of someone trying to be funny (and sometimes succeeding) by sticking chips up their nose. A strange-looking creature in close up. I loved the perky antennae and the effect of the back lighting from the sun. Butterfly wings, I was learning, are often at their most beautiful when back-lit and made translucent by the sun.

I took a picture of another Meadow Brown which, when I saw it later on the computer screen, I could see had two white pupils in its wing eye rather than the usual one. I also noticed that the shadows from its curled proboscis and two antennae were thrown onto the the clover leaf it was perched on, giving more of a 3D effect. The low, warm golden hour light showed the butterfly at its best. Maybe this species wasn’t as dull as I’d previously thought.

That morning was a Meadow Brown turning point for me. I’ve since taken far too many pictures of them.

This last one (above) I’m including even though I managed to clip one of her tattered wings at the frame’s edge as I like the composition and particularly like the little stray aphid with the shiny bottom.

The other Browns

I haven’t managed to photograph a Ringlet this year, though I’ve seen them out and about: another challenge for another year. The Browns I did manage to photograph were the Marbled White (a lot of them about) the Small Heath (seen quite a few despite their having a high priority conservation status), the Gatekeeper, the Wall and the Speckled Wood.

The Marbled White is a species which, in the tradition of Butterfly Classification (there seems to be at least one in each group) doesn’t have the colouring of its classification colour. Okay, the underwing of the females is a liverish brown (above right), but the males (above left and below) are about as un-brown as you can get (antennae tips excepted).

Yes, the female upper wings can take on a brownish tinge.

But watching them fly by, out in the countryside, you’d never say to yourself “Oh there goes another Brown”: it’s a white butterfly with a black pattern, or, as the books say (a little pedantically), a black butterfly with a white pattern. But not brown.

Okay, I’ll let it go now.

From the striking and very noticeable Marbled White to the inconspicuous Small Heath (below). This butterfly is like a miniature Meadow Brown but more yellow-orange in flight. It, too, can look more interesting with the sun illuminating its wings which, unlike the Meadow Brown are always closed at rest.

The unfortunately un-sharp picture of the Small Heath in flight (above) shows the yellow-orange colour of the upper wings which give it its yellow colouring in flight. Will hope for a sharper image next time.

The Wall Brown (below) is a butterfly I’ve only discovered recently. It seems more obviously territorial than a lot of other butterflies out there. It typically patrols up and down tracks and paths. It also seems to be a bit more wary of people with cameras than other butterflies. Their wing patterns are noticeably varied with striking contrasts of dark brown and orange.

The Gatekeeper (below) is one of the more common butterflies nationally which we don’t see so much of in this neck of the woods – or at least that’s my experience. They seem to be happy in a few varied habitats but I’m still amazed that they are consistently amongst the most common butterfly seen in the Big Butterfly Count.

The picture of the Gatekeeper (above left) was taken at a local site of Special Scientific Interest where a lot of the less common butterflies are abundant at various times of the year. Adonis Blues, Chalkhill Blues and Marsh Fritillaries all thrive there. You get used to seeing rarer butterflies, but spotting the Gatekeeper was unusual. The picture of the Gatekeeper on the large daisy (above right) was taken in our back garden, and I don’t see many of them there either. As a result I haven’t yet managed to get a good picture of one with its wings fully open. They are named apparently after their habit of hanging around near gateways where nectar-rich flowers are often found, though that’s not a phenomenon I’ve noticed. Their alternative name of Hedge Brown is probably more accurate but I prefer “Gatekeeper” anyway, with its mythological associations (Janus, the God of transitions – which of course butterflies know a thing or two about). Good name, attractive and not very common down here: I’m always pleased to see a Gatekeeper.

The Speckled Wood is becoming a favourite too. They have whiskery chins like the Small Heath, and unusually clear segmentation of their antennae. And I love the combination of their understated colour with their speckled markings.

Slightly tattered and torn (above) but still looking good and flying vigorously. They seem happy resting in stinging nettle leaves. I had no idea stingy nettle seeds looked that way: like a coral necklace or Christmas decorations.

Below, a Speckled Wood at rest on a fern in a sunny glade of a mostly dark and dingy pine plantation in Savernake Forest. Unexpected shades of green and purple around its body.

The Fritillaries

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