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.  

Big Downpour, Tiny Lizard

Male Common Blue in low evening sunlight, in amongst bullrushes

We had a tropical downpour in rural Wiltshire the night before last. We were woken by seriously big rain clattering on the roof and there was instant dual springing out of bed and panic closing of all the wide-open windows upstairs. One of our dogs, Roxie, was shaking and whimpering downstairs – she’s not a fan of thunder and lightening – and we had to feed her slithers of ham to calm her down. You give slithers of ham to one dog and you have to give slithers of ham to the other. And then you start getting a bit peckish yourself – at two in the morning. All to a background of dramatic lightning flashes and rumbling thunder. Strange night.

Was hoping the downpours might have eased the humidity a bit but not so far. This is the second day of cloudy damp and drizzle, which is not great butterfly weather. It hasn’t been great butterfly-spotting weather for a while now:  either too hot for the dogs to walk out in the open where the butterflies generally are, or it’s been overcast but still hot and steamy and not great walking weather either, for man or dog. 

Walking has been confined to early mornings under the trees. We’re lucky to have shady woodland at the top of a breezy escarpment five minutes drive away. It doesn’t attract many butterflies but does attract a lot of other dog-walkers. In these socially-distancing times it’s often the most human interaction we get all day.

So, not many butterfly pictures lately. We do now have a few Common Blues in the garden and field along with all the Small Whites which seem to be looking for places to lay their eggs at the moment. About a week ago I managed one or two evening shots with low sun of Common Blues. The one at the top is an example. The one below another.

Female Common Blue on dry grass

The last good sunny walk we had was at Tilshead Down, a week and a bit ago, where I saw my first Small Copper of the year. 

Thought it was a female Common Blue flittering about in the long grass (I’d just taken a picture of one) before I saw it through the lens. And then it was up and away and we didn’t see another. The angle wasn’t right for showing off its shiny copper wings, but good to tick off another species for the year.

UPDATE, AUGUST 28th: I misidentified the butterfly below left. I’m now pretty sure it’s a Brown Argus. Another first of the year for me!

And then we saw a tiny thing wriggling its way across the dusty path just ahead of us. A closer look showed it to be a Common Lizard, no more then a couple of inches long, including its tail.

Not the best shot in the world. But it was almost impossible to see it against the dirt with its perfect camouflage. The autofocus struggles when there is little contrast and low light. And it’s difficult to focus manually when you can’t make out the tiny thing you’re trying to focus on. I include the picture here as it was not only the first lizard I’d seen this year, it’s the first I’ve seen in two or three years. We don’t get to see many of them – or at least I don’t – in this neck of the woods. I suspect the dog element of walking doesn’t help. When you’ve got a couple of them running about ahead of you, scaring away anything sensible that might be in their path, you get to see less small wildlife than you otherwise might. But of course if I wasn’t walking dogs I wouldn’t be out there anyway.

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.