Thursday 19 July 2018

Out for the Count

Well it's Big Butterfly Count time of year again, and unlike in previous years when the obligation on me to promote it via this neglected corner of the internet was purely moral, happily I am now professionally obliged to big it up. Not that it needs much help from me of course: it is already the world's biggest butterfly survey and the data gathered represents one of our finest examples of  'citizen science'.  Spending 15 minutes in a sunny spot - and there have been plenty of those around lately - is all it takes, and it's good for you too, so there's no excuse not to join in really. Even if you don't see much, it's still important to record it. So, off you trot. And if that's not encouragement enough, here are a few pictures to whet your appetite, highlights from many happy moments photographing butterflies over the last few months.
Painted Lady: this pristine migrant brightened up the weekend on the Purbeck coast
This White-letter Hairstreak was also in good condition - my first in Purbeck (14 July) 
The underwing of this Silver-washed Fritillary reminds me of  the iridescent lining of a mollusc's shell (Purbeck, 14 July)
An Essex Skipper in my tiny town centre garden was a surprise
The antennae tips look dipped in ink with black undersides
Attracted into the garden by our fine display of drought-resistant lavender
Silver-studded Blues emerged in good numbers on the Dorset heaths this year - this a male...
...and this a female (Studland, 24th June)
Silver-studded Blues have also been dispersing to non-traditional sites, presumably a function of the heatwave
Note the silver studs on the hind-wing of this female
White Admiral also appears to have had a good summer - this one was at Queen's Copse near Wmborne (23 June)
I visited there shortly after the White Admirals had emerged
'Who doesn't love a White Admiral underwing' I asked on Twitter. 114 kind souls agreed!
A business trip to Northern Ireland provided my first opportunity to see the Cryptic Wood White - having seen all the other regularly occurring species in the UK, this was a highlight of the year for me
There was a good colony at Craigavon Lakes, a grassland site well managed for the butterfly by Craigavon Borough Council (8 June)
We even saw a Cryptic Wood White egg-laying - I don't carry a macro lens so this photograph came out surprisingly well
An evening visit to the extraordinarily beautiful Murlough NNR enabled us to catch up with the Irish form of Marsh Fritillary (7 June) - this an iPhone photo
Adonis Blue at Dancing Ledge on 1 June - a species which doesn't cope well with drought conditions
And here's the English form of Marsh Fritillary (Cerne Abbas, 26 May)
Possibly my favourite fritillary underwing - Marsh Fritillary at Cerne Abbas on 26 May
Marsh Fritillary, Cerne Abbas
A fresh Brown Argus at Cerne Abbas (19 May)
Duke of Burgundy, Cerne Abbas (19 May)
The Duke is another species for which there is concern that the foodplant may be suffering in the drought, causing problems for the caterpillars
Small Blue was doing well this spring on the Weymouth Relief Road verges - more good local authority management by my former employer Dorset County Council
The Small Blue colony is thought to be one of the largest in England - and there were none there at all in 2011 (photo taken 18 May)
So the warm weather has certainly been kind to some species - but there are growing concerns about the impact of drought on the next generation: all the more reason to submit your records for the Count.

Monday 16 July 2018

Damsels causing distress

I don't know about damsels in distress, but sorting out the little blue ones has caused me some distress over the years. I got the hang of them many years ago but middle age intervened and I forgot more than I had learnt. The long hot summer has brought out the curiosity in me again though so with field guide in one hand and site guide in the other I set off to see some of the scarcer species to be found within striking distance of home in Dorset...
Scarce Blue-tailed Damselfly is on the GB red list - a new species for me
Note the tiny black marks on s9 (near the tail tip) which help identify this species
Finding water on its parched Dorset heathland home was the key to finding this one
Compare the Scarce Blue-tailed above with the 'regular' Blue-tailed Damselfly here
Another new species for me was this Southern Damselfly in the New Forest
The smallest blue damselfly and one of the rarest, it was busting some serious moves
Southern Damselfly can be identified by the 'mercury' mark on s2 (just behind the thorax)...
...and the spear-shaped marks on the abdomen. Compare to:
Azure Damselfly, with a 'beer glass' shape on s2, and...
...White-legged Damselfly - more black on the abdomen and white sides to the legs
A bit easier was this Small Red Damselfly in the New Forest - an all red abdomen compared to...
...Large Red Damselfly (also New Forest)
Longham Lakes was full of Common Blue Damselfly (which has a 'mushroom' mark on s2)
And after all those little blue jobs, something nice and easy to close: an impressive Golden-ringed Dragonfly in the New Forest

Monday 9 July 2018

Dung roaming

The Purple Emperor needs no introduction here, so much has been written about our largest British butterfly. Suffice to say that such is its celebrity that it has its own folklore and even fan-club, who worship at an online shrine to the beast, The Purple Empire blogsite.
A male Purple Emperor's wing catches the light

Same individual, slightly different angle
Last Sunday morning saw me with time on my hands so I made the journey to Bentley Wood in neighbouring Wiltshire, one of the most reliable sites for this species. Emperors occasionally make morning forays to ground level to probe for salts and moisture, and in view of the heat-wave I reasoned that an early start might be required to witness this spectacle. By 0700 I was already in the wood checking out the rides and treetops.
The stunning underside of a Purple Emperor
Note the long tongue which was constantly probing for salts
Almost immediately a shimmer of purple caught my eye, but it was only the upper-wing of the Emperor's courtier, the Purple Hairstreak. I say 'only' but while it can not compete with the Emperor on size, this is still a pretty spectacular insect in its own right, especially when seen at eye level. The early start had not paid off, however, in terms of finding an Emperor on the deck. By about 0900 I had seen just the one blatting around the canopy of a clearing either side of the main ride.
When an admirer cast a shadow over the Emperor it flattened the light but required a high ISO rating to capture the purple sheen on both wings
I had not seen the orange rings and details on the hindwing this well before
Bentley Wood is a popular place with Emperor-seekers and speaking to a few of the later arrivals, it seemed that with the hard surfaces of the rides being baked in the heat, ground-level sightings had been hard to come by in the preceding days. Fortunately, animal droppings provide a convenient source of moisture and while by the standards of most beauty spots in southern England Bentley Wood was remarkably free of dog mess, there was plenty of fresh horse dung around.
An impressive beast
Deeper into Bently Wood this Purple Emperor has forsaken dog mess for horse dung. Classy.
A few familiar faces with big lenses arrived from Weymouth around this time and after a bit more patient but unrewarding waiting around, one of them, John Wall, returned to the car park for a bottle of water. Minutes later we could see him frantically beckoning us in his direction where, we could only assume, a Purple Emperor was at his feet.
A watchful male Purple Emperor in mid-canopy
A fresh Purple Hairstreak at eye level
It transpired that a dog walker had alerted him to the presence of 'a large butterfly' on the path which has subsequently moved into a patch of vegetation where her canine charges appeared to have just parked their breakfasts. A small group of admirers was soon gathered around the insect, delighted to see the purple sheen of refracted light identifying it as a male. It was an assault to the senses: for the eyes, a splash of uncommonly beautiful colour; for the ears, a cacophony of whirring motor drives; and for the nose, well, let's just say the butterfly's chosen source of nourishment could not have been more foul.
Male Purple Hairstreak
A rare view of the open upperwing
I suppressed the gag reflex and concentrated on finding the right exposure to capture the Emperor at its best - not easy as it was sitting in strongly dappled light with vegetation casting shadows over all or part of its body.  For such a large butterfly holding its wings at angles it was also necessary to experiment with wider apertures, thus reducing the shutter speed and pushing the auto-ISO rating higher. All in all a delicate balance of factors which I am not sure I managed to pull off as well as I might, but I was happy with the results, and delighted to have enjoyed such a close encounter.
Female Purple Hairstreak
Another female - note the less extensive but more iridescent purple patch compared to the male
Amid widespread concern about the fate of our insect populations it was a comfort to be able to sit in the shade at Bentley Wood and watch the rides hum with good numbers of Whites, Skippers, Meadow Browns, Ringlets, Gatekeepers and Silver-Washed Fritillaries.
A fresh Ringlet basking in the early morning sunshine
A mating pair of Ringlet - the one on the left being of the rare aberration arete
A meander further along the rides produced a couple of further sightings of more discerning Purple Emperors feeding on horse manure. By noon they had retreated to the more familiar treetops and I had returned to my own familiar habitat in Dorset.
Male Silver-washed Fritillary
Female Silver-washed Fritillary underwing
Female Silver-washed Fritillary
White Admiral in the east car park at Bentley Wood