“Roll up, roll up folks. Come and see the amazing spring. One day only, be sure not to miss it. roll up roll up”
Perhaps I’m being a bit pessimistic but our little bit of England, whilst being ‘green and pleasant’, has been a bit, er, ‘under the weather’. Others have been ok, over here northerly winds, grey and very cool but also extremely dry. Plants are growing and flowering but the poor old insects need to put on an extra woolly jumper! However the last day of April and the sun shone! After a week of having my head stuck in a pot of paint we just had to get out and enjoy it. To some this post will seem a bit ‘deja vu’ but I do like to visit old friends.
My choice of destination was Wiveton Downs about 20 miles west up near the North Norfolk coast. A lovely place at this time of year. The top of the hill is covered in flowering Gorse bushes which have a heady scent of coconut. The lower northern slope is sheltered and awash with Bluebells the flower of spring. We had not gone far when a tiny butterfly caught my eye as it fluttered low down by some Gorse. The first Green Hairstreak of the year. If it had not been flying almost impossible to see when perched.
Butterflies were out in good numbers along the lower path. Male Orange tips zig-zagging among the Bluebells looking for love, only stumbling across another male so a fight ensued. In fact all the butterflies were getting a bit aggressive, pent up hormones I guess. Only the little Holly Blues seemed quite sedate but not giving me many photo opportunities.
A really enjoyable few hours and with the forecast now set fair hopefully more to come. I have a lot more ‘old friends’ I would like to visit.
A nice morning so re-visited Wiveton Downs for a couple of hours butterfly hunting. The Downs is a site of special scientific interest (SSSI) and is an esker, in layman’s terms a glacial crevasse which was filled in and forms a winding ridge. Situated a mile or so inland from the Nth Norfolk coast. The top of the ridge is mostly Gorse and on the north side the lower slopes are clothed in Bluebells and well sheltered.
My target was seeing the Green Hairstreak. Spurred on by Mike’s post yesterday https://alittlebitoutoffocus.com/2021/05/10/green-hairstreak-butterfly-val-dherens-switzerland/ I was hoping the locals would be out and about, I was not disappointed. I have posted about this species before and have mentioned their rather nasty temper (yes B in Illinois, hard to believe but true). These butterflies are the size of a thumbnail but that doesn’t stop them from beating the living daylights out of each other and attacking any thing else that flies past!
All the butterflies were condensed into one area near a flowering Hawthorn and a bank of Bluebells. There was more than Hairstreaks though, in all I saw ten different species.
The one species of butterfly that most UK enthusiasts look forward to seeing each year is the mighty Purple Emperor (Apatura iris). Once this was a mythical beast that lurked deep in ancient woodland and was rarely seen. When I was a child I never dreamed I would see an Emperor, that was a long time ago, now with the internet and my car it is (relatively) easy. The most famous woodland for seeing Iris on the ground is Fermyn, part of the ancient forest of Rockingham near Corby in Northamptonshire.
On the 26th I set off early. It was very misty when I arrived at 7am. Parked opposite the glider club and waited for a friend to arrive from Hertfordshire. The mist did not clear until 10.30 then it went from cool to very hot in minutes, not great for seeing Emperors on the ground. At about 1.30pm they did however start to land in partial shade and become very approachable. What they are doing is extracting minerals, they don’t nectar on flowers like most butterflies but will feast on dead animals, excrement and other delicacies!
The beautiful purple/blue sheen on the upperwings is only seen at certain angles when the light catches it right, the females lack this. The Emperor is a large butterfly with a wingspan between 70-92mm (3-3 3/4 inches). The eggs are laid on the caterpillar’s food plant sallow. Males will congregate around the tallest, sheltered trees in the woods. Here they will watch out for passing females and joust with rival males. Their battles are quite vicious and they will even attack passing birds the size of pigeons!
In all I saw probably twelve different individuals. The most fantastic sighting sadly was not caught on camera, it was aberration iole where the wings lack the white markings. This is the ‘holy grail’ of Emperors, the rarest of the rare, unfortunately as it came to land it got involved in a skirmish with two Ringlet butterflies and glided off, not to be seen again, sigh!
I left Fermyn at 3.30pm, it was 84f. I had another target the White Letter Hairstreak (Satyrium w-album). This small butterfly lives most of it’s life high up in elm trees feeding on aphid honeydew. It will occasionally come down to nectar on bramble. I saw several at Fermyn but none descended, but a visit to Bedford Purlieus near Peterborough and I struck lucky. This is a species I have never photographed before, a lovely ending to the day.
Mention to anyone with a keen interest in UK butterflies the wonderful name Glapthorn Cow Pastures and one species springs to mind, the Black Hairstreak (Satyrium pruni). Glapthorn, as the name suggests, used to be grazing land, now it is a wonderful woodland nature reserve. It is located about 3 miles north of the historic town of Oundle in Northamptonshire, a drive of 2 1/2 hours from home.
The Black Hairstreak is a small and rare butterfly. In the UK it can only be found in a narrow band of woodland stretching from Peterborough to Oxford, it also has one of the shortest flight periods, only 2 to 3 weeks in mid-June. When I visited last year I struggled to see two in an afternoon, this year has been a record emergence and there was over twenty around their favourite dewberry bushes when the sun shone. Unlike most butterflies the Hairstreaks are very approachable allowing for some great photo opportunities.
The Black Hairstreak spends most of the day in the tops of trees or scrub feeding on aphid honeydew. They need banks of blackthorn in sunny spots to lay their eggs on, the egg overwinters and the caterpillar hatches in spring. The adults have a wingspan of 35-40mm (about 1 1/2 inches).
After last weekend’s glorious weather things have gone downhill, rapidly, here in north Norfolk. So much so that a warning is in place for possible flooding, up to 70mm (nearly 3 inches) of rain and gale force northerly winds overnight and into tomorrow, it is also cold! I have decided to do a post on what was a popular butterfly from last weeks post, the Green Hairstreak ( Callophrys rubi).
If Walt Disney was to use a butterfly for a cartoon what better candidate. Just look at those big innocent eyes and cute striped legs and antenna, but this fellow has a vicious temper! It is a small butterfly, wingspan 27 – 34mm 1 to 1 1/2 inches. It can be found in small colonies of up to 12 individuals (sometimes more) in a variety of scrubby habitat like gorse commons, moorland, embankments and valley bottoms. In Europe the range is from Lapland to the Med.
This is the UK’s only true green butterfly and because of the colour is very hard to spot, the upperwing is dark brown but they always rest with the wings closed. When you do locate Green Hairsreaks they are very easy to approach and photograph. The males sit on favorite perches waiting for a female, if another male passes a battle ensues! They also attack other butterflies and insects, last week it was the Holly Blues that were chased away, because of this their wings soon become battle scarred.
These butterflies start to appear in mid-April and can be found into June. They are great fun to watch, last week I spent over an hour amused by the antics of the one I found and was able to photograph it from only a few inches.