Small Blue or not Small Blue?

When you’re learning about butterflies and identifying them, and you’ve made one or two howlers in the past, you tend to be a little cautious about flat out, definite identifications. Particularly when the individual butterfly in question is worn around the edges and even more so if you see it at a time when the species in question is not supposed to be about.

According to the UK Butterfly Conservation website, the second Generation of Small Blues normally appear in the third of fourth week of August. I saw this particular butterfly (above) on August 2nd – last Sunday at Tilshead Down – and its tatty condition suggested that it had been around for a good week or more before that. I decided it was extremely unlikely to have been a left-over from the first generation which would normally have petered out by the end June. So if this particular butterfly was a Small Blue and part of the second generation, it had been around getting on for a month before Small Blues were supposed to start emerging.

But looking at the pictures, I can’t see what else it could be.

The following day, I saw the first of the second generation of Common Blues that I’ve seen this year in the area where I normally walk the dogs – I’d been keeping an eye out for them for a week or two. I only saw a couple of them on the two or three mile walk – one male, one female. When they’re in full flow you’ll see dozens in that area. So it looked like the emergence was only just beginning. And the appearance of these two individuals suggested that they may well have only broken out from their respective chrysalises hours before.

Do the clearly visible markings showing through from the underwing suggest that the wings haven’t dried out fully yet, the butterfly having only recently emerged?
Wings looking strikingly fresh on this female Common Blue. And it looks like the forewing on this side is crumpled. Maybe, still stretching out/unfolding from the confines of the chrysalis? (She’s also wearing very smart stripy socks that I haven’t noticed before.)

This was on August 3rd, and the Butterfly Conservation Website suggests that Common Blues (second generation) normally start to emerge in mid July.

So you’ve got a Small Blue appearing getting on for a month earlier than you’d expect it to. And Common Blues appearing maybe a couple of weeks after you’d expect – in a typical year. So no particular pattern. And of course these were isolated, local sightings of no statistical significance, but it did get me wondering about what it might be that affects the timing of the emergence of these different species of butterfly. 

How much of it is down to the weather leading up to their emergence – perhaps affecting the prevalence of their food plants? Can the inhabitants of chrysalises time their emergence to make the most of conditions? And if so, how earth would they do that?

With the Small Blue I didn’t see any other Small Blues about, so perhaps it was just a mutational aberration. In which case this individual wouldn’t have got to pass on its genes to the next generation. Maybe, when it comes to emerging from your chrysalis, as is the case with many other areas of life, timing is everything. But then again maybe there were plenty of other Small Blues about that I just didn’t get to see, and they were all just ahead of the crowd, having their only little exclusive party.

Tilshead Down. Picture taken a couple of weeks ago. The ‘X’ marks the spot where I saw the Small Blue two weeks later – and a month earlier than expected.

Bit of a Workout

On a recent dog walk I noticed the Essex Skipper above struggling to get a grip on a grass stalk in the undergrowth. Made me think of athletes doing a workout on the bar, but more slapstick comedian than dainty little gymnast. In one of the shots it even looks as if he/she has deadpan eyebrows. These are unconventional little butterflies.

More conventional were the Gatekeepers I saw a couple of days ago on some bramble bushes – the first of the year for me. They have more varied markings than most butterflies, and some quite exotic – in a brown and orange sort of way.

Otherwise not many new arrivals around. The cloudy weather is probably not helping but it should get more lively within the next week or two. Didn’t see many Common Blues earlier in the year – just one in the field next to the house and not many up on the plain. It’ll be interesting to see how many we’ll get in the second generation. Sunny days forecast for next week so should find out soon.

Getting Your Eye In…

Was chatting to a knowledgable neighbour the other day about Ringlet butterflies, as you do, and he said that when you get your eye in you start to see them everywhere. The fact that we’re approaching peak Ringlet season helps too, but it’s also approaching peak Meadow Brown season, so the Ringlets can easily be lost in amongst the hoards of their more common brown cousins. So it definitely helps to have your eye in.

Ringlet in pristine condition
The best shot I managed of a recently emerged Ringlet with open wings showing off that dark velvety upper wing. They do a lot of flittering and not much landing. And even less resting with wings open.

I got my eye in the weekend before last. I’d read somewhere that Ringlets are unusual in that they often fly when it’s overcast. It was cloudy that day and the dogs needed walking so I decided to put the theory to the test. If the Meadow Browns weren’t flying and the Ringlets were, it would make it much  easier to see and identify them. And that was how it turned out. I saw a couple of dozen Ringlets on the walk and managed to get pictures of a few. Pretty much the only Meadow Browns that were flying that day were the ones I’d disturbed while walking through long grass – along with the Marbled Whites and skippers that were also sheltering there. It was windy, and on the rare occasions the Ringlets landed it seemed always to be low down, sheltering in amongst the grass. Which made photographing them difficult. As you can see…

Once you’ve seen a few Ringlets, you notice that they have a faintly blue, misty tinge to their dark wings in flight – particularly newly emerged ones. And they seem to me to have a preference for longer grass, often not far from trees and scrub, whereas the Meadow Browns can be seen almost anywhere, from bramble bushes, which they sometimes congregate around in large numbers, to fluttering on their own across wide open grassland. Knowing where to look for Ringlets makes it easier to find them. Having said that I’m not sure I’d feel confident enough to put money on identifying one in flight. The picture below is of a male Meadow Brown I photographed in the garden which, before it landed, I’d convinced myself was a Ringlet.

And here’s a picture of a Ringlet that landed on the Michaelmas daisies by our back door and which I thought initially was probably another Meadow Brown.

Those upper wings, which are often most of what you see when they’re flying low to the ground, are still very similar to me. Maybe I need to get my eye in a little more.

Also flying in the field by our house at the moment, along with the whites and the browns, are skippers. Here’s a Small one who decided to rest its front legs for a bit.

And here’s an Essex Skipper, the first I’ve seen this year, that was chilling out on an Umbellifer bud on the overcast day mentioned earlier. With their antennae tips dipped-in-ink look, they’re one of my favourites.

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.

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…