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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If the whole world was made up of faded Lemon Verbena plants, then Cabbage White butterflies would be perfectly camouflaged. I’m guessing, though, that success, when you’re an adult butterfly, has more to do with attracting mates than avoiding predation. Of course when you’re a caterpillar and uninterested in members of the opposite sex, your top priority, while you’re concentrating on eating your cabbages, is to avoid being eaten by birds and wasps – or being removed by eagle-eyed gardeners for that matter – so green would be the successful colour for you at that more stationary stage of your life cycle. And so it is for the Small White caterpillar.
The above picture was taken in our garden with the shade of long grass along a fence in the background, hence the dramatic lighting. More dramatic lighting in the next shot of a Holy Blue I spotted yesterday in the dappled light from overhanging trees up on the Plain.
And below, the same butterfly in direct sunlight a foot or two away.
A hundred or two yards earlier on the dog walk I’d seen Gatekeepers and a Wall Brown (or two – difficult to differentiate between them when they’re in flight) chasing each other on the edge of the same escarpment wood. It looked like a bank of Willowherb, covered in floss, was the real estate they were fighting over. I’m guessing the Wall was winning as he tended to perch near or on the Willowherb…
… while the Gatekeepers seemed to be retreating to the branches of some kind of wild plumb or damson tree overhead, their fruits beginning to ripen.
Also seen on the walk were Chalkhill Blues – first of the year for me – at the SSSI where I often drop in on dog walks to see what’s happening.
The Harebells were out, as were the Clustered Bellflowers, enjoying the sun of the south facing chalk escarpment.
On my way there, over open grassland, I thought I saw a clouded Yellow zooming along in the distance, though it could possibly have been a Brimstone – there are one or two of them on the wing at the moment. But I knew there were Clouded Yellows about as well as I’d seen a couple chasing each other on the plain about a fifteen minute drive away on Sunday. I managed to photograph one of them after a mad, zig-zagging chase over grassland. A first for me.
Will try next time to get a shot without grass in the way, but these migrants from Southern Europe and North Africa do not like sitting still – or giving you many chances with a camera.
Am looking forward to the emergence of the Common Blues, a favourite for me – and much more laid back when it comes to having their photos taken. Should be with us in the next week or two.
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.
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.
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.
Turns out our mystery plant in the Bay Tree pot was a Common Spotted Orchid – a couple of them, side by side.
In retrospect, it was the most likely outcome: they’re the most common species of orchid in the UK, they like a variety of habitats, and the leaves of the plant in our pot were, well, spotted. The white of the buds made us initially unsure but they became more of a delicate pink as they opened.
They have started to appear in numbers up on the plain now as well – no surprises there. So too, the Pyramid Orchids – as astonishingly pink as ever. Saw the first Marbled White of the year this morning as well. Summer’s here!
Also spotted one or two Meadow Browns – first I’ve seen on the plain this year – and some Large Skippers (picture of one below).
Have been seeing Small Heaths for about a month now and there are still plenty about. It’s been a good year for them. A little surprising to me that they have a high priority conservation status as we see them pretty much along all the paths we walk the dogs. They’re not confined to one or two sites like other uncommon butterflies on the plain. And we’ve had a few in the garden as well. They must just like it round here.
Recent Garden Arrivals
Great dog-walking weather this morning: bright blue skies and a cooling breeze. Still a bit warm for some inhabitants of the plain though.
The Marsh Fritillaries that have been around for a while now seem to have faired better in the strong winds than the Adonis Blues. Some do look pretty battered, but others look fresh still.
Here’s one I caught just as it was taking off, presenting an almost 3D effect against the dotted yellow background of Horseshoe Vetch.
There are flowers on the downland everywhere at the moment, including a little white five-petalled species with yellow stamens which I hadn’t noticed before, and which I think is called Fairy Flax (you can see them at the bottom of the picture of the Fragrant Orchid below). The various plants all seem to have their different strategies for survival and reproduction on the plain. The tiny Fairy Flax seem to keep their heads right down – maybe for protection for when the winds blow hard, or maybe to avoid the teeth of the munching cattle which graze here from time to time. The burnt Tip Orchids, that have been around for about three weeks now, keep fairly low as well – perhaps, coming out earlier in the year, they’re more likely to experience high winds. The Fragrant Orchids, which have only just started to appear, stand taller. Could it be that for them, blooming a little later, they’re less likely to be damaged by storms? Maybe being fragrant, they need to get up there to catch the evening breeze, advertising their presence to pollinators. Or maybe they just have more flexible, stronger stems. Whatever the reasons behind the various strategies, it all seems to work pretty well. The slopes are full of life and colour right now – without doubt, my favourite time of year.
Talking of orchids, we now have a mystery plant – possibly an orchid – that has appeared in the soil of our bay tree pot plant just outside my office window. It has spotted leaves with flower buds that, at this stage, look white. How it got there, we have no idea. There are no orchids in the field that I’m aware of. What kind of an orchid turns up in a potted plant in our garden? Could it really be an orchid? We will find out shortly.
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.
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.
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.