Exhausted Adonis

Addendum to previous post.

Pictures taken on August 28th, the day after the second storm abated.

This Adonis Blue still has its full set of undamaged wings, only a little frayed around the edges. His problem though was getting a good grip on the grass strand, pictured in the slideshow below. But then he’d been clinging on to strands of vegetation for days – and nights – while the storms raged around him. So if his grip was a little weak it was understandable.

“If I could just pull myself up here a bit”… “That’s better”… “Oops, slipping again”… “Maybe I should try some less challenging vegetation”

He flew off to find another perch. And this one, with its several seed-head fronds, proved more stable and easier to get a hold of. All six legs taking the strain.

But a nice flat blade of grass was better still.

Back to business and keeping an eye out for the next passing female.

After the Storms

Green-veined White on wild mint in the field next to the house, a couple of days after the storms

The sun was out for much of the dog walk up on the plain yesterday morning but there weren’t many butterflies about. During the course of the mile or so walk to our local Special Site of Scientific Interest, the total number of butterflies seen came to: one Small White, one Meadow Brown, a couple of Small Heaths and not a single blue. It looked like most of the species that were usually on the wing at this time of year had gone. Taken out, I was assuming, by Storms “Ellen” and “Francis”. It had been a stormy week or two.

The Adonis Blues at the SSSI had faired better. There were a dozen or more that I saw flitting about on the gently-sloping top of the escarpment.

One of the Adonis Survivors, a little faded and frayed around the edges

I’m guessing the Hawthorn bushes – of which there are quite a few there – would have given more shelter than on more open areas of Salisbury Plain. But wherever butterflies had ended up roosting it would’ve been pretty tough, clinging to a piece of vegetation for dear life – literally – with winds gusting to over fifty miles an hour. One can imagine they might easily have been battered by the other strands of vegetation flailing about – maybe thistles or scrub branches – or ripped from their stalk and thrown to the winds. And that would have been it. It was blowy enough in our sheltered valley at home. Up on the exposed Salisbury plain it would’ve been fierce.

On the way back to the car, I didn’t see many more butterflies – one or two – but I was pleased to see a Wall Brown that was still flying along one of the tracks.

Another intrepid survivor, it had a bit of its front left wing missing and a chunk of the right rear looked to be absent too, but it was still flying. I was hoping it would find a mate with which to produce some of the next generation. He/she would have deserved it. But the chances – bearing in mind how few other survivors I’d seen – looked a bit slim. It struck me that it’s no good being the fittest to have survived if there are no others left to survive with.

Far more butterflies were about in our relatively sheltered garden, and in the adjoining field, the day before: Meadows Browns and Small Heaths, the odd common Blue and a few Green-veined Whites.

But Large Whites were the most prevalent. They were all over the place. And they all seemed to be in beautifully fresh condition.

It looked like they’d emerged that day – or very recently – and it made me wonder what had triggered it. Do their chrysalises know somehow that conditions are favourable? Are they maybe sensitive to temperature or levels of sunlight? But then again, some of the winds have been pretty warm and the skies had been clear while the wind was blowing fiercely. Could they be sensitive to vibrations caused by high winds perhaps? Is their an instinct in the dormant chrysalis that makes it wait until things have calmed down?

Whatever had caused the new generation to appear, it was like a Large White carnival: butterflies chasing each other and dancing and feasting on the nectar of flowers in our garden, and in the field too where there was a profusion of wild mint in bloom. 

And what about the Adonis Blues up on the Plain? I’d comes across one male on a walk during the last couple of weeks that was about quarter of a mile from where they were normally found. Perhaps blown there by the wind? But it wasn’t the location so much as the condition of the butterfly that I found intriguing. The worst of one storm had only subsided a day or so before, and this butterfly was in pristine condition. It had to have only recently emerged, perhaps that morning.

At the time I had wondered whether this was just a lucky individual who’d avoided the storm by chance – in emerging a day or two after it – while other butterflies had been emerging and perishing in the fierce winds. Or whether this was the tail end of the Adonis Blue emergence, and there was some innate instinct that made the chrysalises that were left wait. Instinct or chance, it looked like timing was pretty much everything, as usual. Though, having said that, there was no way the butterfly – or chrysalis – could have known that another storm, Francis, was just round the corner. But then there’s bad luck as well as good timing.  

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.