Some thoughts and images from this wonderful Butterfly Summer.
As children, my friend and I, along with most of our peers I suspect, would collect butterflies. Together with collecting bird’s eggs, that’s what you did. Of course it was wrong, totally and unequivocally, but in those dark ages that were the 1960s we knew no better. Moreover, there was seldom anyone the slightest bit interested to point out the error of our ways. Perversely, we were aided and abetted in this horrible, but I guess ultimately educational industry, by the Brooke Bond collectors card album of British Butterflies, a quite wonderful and informative work containing full details of how to collect, preserve and mount your specimens (at least that’s how I remember it – it was either that or the Observer’s Book of British Butterflies, or maybe both).
Thankfully, the practise of collecting butterflies is pretty much a thing of the past; nowadays folk are far more happy to record their sightings by way of taking a few snaps with their camera. But of course, the modern scourge of unfettered habitat destruction, pesticide use and climate change has taken a far greater and long lasting toll than our childish shenanigans ever could. Butterflies have been taking a beating over the past few decades. Since my indoctrination into the delights of these colourful, amazingly hardy and fascinating insects during the misty realms of 1960s innocence, overall butterfly numbers have plummeted. During this period, the UK lost the Large Tortoiseshell and Large Blue (subsequently reintroduced), and Norfolk lost its Purple Emperors and most of our Silver-studded Blues (also subsequently reintroduced). Even such familiar species as the Small Tortoiseshell have become difficult to find. It’s all been quite depressing, and the survival of several species, including our very own Swallowtail population, is now heavily reliant on intensive management of remaining fragmented habitat and/or ongoing reintroductions.
To counter the general gloom, there have happily been several gains over the past 20 years, probably driven by our subtly changing climate. For example, species such as the beautiful Silver-washed Fritillary has returned to brighten up our woodlands, White Admirals have become widespread whilst Speckled Wood, Essex Skipper and Brown Argus have dramatically increased their range and abundance. To cap it all the Emperor has returned. Things could be looking up.
The really good news is that 2020 has bucked the general trend, and is turning out to be quite different to recent years. The extended period of dry, warm weather during spring followed by a reasonably good summer has produced large numbers of our more common species, which have delighted us in gardens, parks and the wider countryside. My own garden has produced 15 species so far, with Holly Blues and the whites doing very well. Lots of these garden visitors have been feeding on the profusion of nectar bearing flowers in my unmown lawn, and have also been attracted to patches of bramble blossom that decorate the hedgerow. Watching the buzzing bees, hoverflies, beetles and butterflies on this humble plant has brought home just how useful a resource it is. I keep thinking I should dig it up, but then when I see it covered in a wonderful array of insects, I’m always pleased I’ve let it flourish. It can be cut back in winter with no trouble, and who knows the Blackbirds might even leave a juicy berry or two for us to savour.
I’ve been fortunate to be able to get out and about a lot, and this article will, I hope, provide a bit of interest and enticing flavour of what I’ve been lucky enough to encounter.
A trip to the Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserve at Foxley Wood in early July really kicked off the butterfly season for me. This wonderfully accessible ancient woodland now holds numbers of the enigmatic Purple Emperor, a species now recolonising its former haunts. On this occasion, a quite cool and overcast day, the chances of connecting with one of these beautiful insects appeared slim. However, just when we had given up, a movement on the trunk of an old oak caught our eye. There, sipping sap oozing from a fissure, were not just one, but two resplendent Purple Emperors. A life tick and a much valued one. That day got even better later with a gorgeous male Purple Hairstreak showing itself off low amongst some grasses. These small creatures are quite difficult to see up close because they tend to spend most of their lives fluttering around the tops of oak trees, so we were particularly fortunate to be able to enjoy one, a shining purple male, up so close. As well as recording the incidents of the day in a general blog post, I wrote about this encounter in more detail for Norfolk Wildlife Trust and you can read that by clicking here.
Our more established woodlands, even those bounding the NDR to the north and west of Norwich, now hold breeding populations of the aforementioned bright orange Silver-washed Fritillary. These strong flying butterflies love sun-dappled woodland glades and have done extremely well this year. I’ve seen them in half a dozen localities around the county, and had a real surprise when one even briefly visited the garden a few days ago. White Admirals associate with the fritillaries, themselves being lovers of the same conditions where they nectar on bramble blossom or bask higher in the canopy. These black and white butterflies have a graceful, gliding flight and are now widespread across the county. The larvae feed exclusively on wild honeysuckle, so look for them in woodlands where that plant occurs.
Another NWT reserve at Buxton Heath held good numbers of the home-loving Silver-studded Blue. These small jewels rely on certain species of ant to collect and nurture the larvae in their underground nest for their lifecycle to complete. They find the conditions on the dry heathlands of North Norfolk much to their liking, but seldom stray far from where they hatch. In the sweltering June sunshine, we were able to watch lots of these specialist butterflies feeding on purple early heather blooms which made for a colourful spectacle.
Further afield still, a couple of trips to the Devil’s Dyke in Suffolk/Cambridgeshire was simply marvellous. Here, in a chalkland habitat, a number of special butterflies can be found, most notably Marbled White and Chalkhill Blue. Large numbers of these graced the abundant wild flower strewn slopes, making it difficult to know where to look first. Smaller numbers of Dark-green Fritillary zipped past on their powerful flightpaths, whilst hundreds of skippers, browns and peacocks flitted about the flower heads. To give an indication of the scene, from one single vantage point overlooking a patch of thistles we counted 41 Peacocks, 8 Brimstones, 2 Dark-green Fritillaries, numerous, too many to count, Chalkhill Blues, Large White, Small White, a dozen Red Admirals, scores of Meadow Browns and Gatekeepers and 4 Marbled Whites. This from a 50 metre stretch of a 7-kilometre site. Amazing.
A visit to the Ted Ellis Trust reserve at Wheatfen, a superbly managed example of Broadland Fen, marsh and wet woodland, was memorable for being able to connect with a rather lovely colour form Valezina of the Silver-washed Fritillary. This particular insect, a female, was egg laying amongst ivy covered trees, but occasionally dropped down to imbibe a sip of nectar. Such a beautiful, subtlety shaded lady.
A trip to the RSPB reserve at Minsmere in Suffolk was full of butterflies flitting around the buddleia bushes near the reserve centre. It seemed every sweetly scented flower spike held a feeding insect. Not only butterflies as it happened, because an opportunistic hornet was hunting fresh meat to carry home to its nest. It would inspect every flower spike in the hope of catching a feeding butterfly unawares. Most often the butterfly would swiftly take wing, but eventually it captured a peacock, fell heavily to the floor and directly in front of us proceeded to dismember the poor creature. I videoed the experience rather clumsily, but you can distinctly hear the hornet crunching its way along the wing join. Gruesome, but just nature.
South Norfolk has been able to share the spoils. A gentle walk in the sunshine around the pleasantly empty lanes and footpaths one morning between Fritton and Shelton produced 16 species. Lots of jaunty Gatekeepers, good numbers of pristine, perfect Peacocks, Red Admirals aplenty, moth like Essex Skippers and several Meadow Browns and whites. Perhaps the best find was a superb, newly emerged Brown Argus which on close inspection showed the markings of an aberrant form known as ‘snelleri’. This form shows white areas around the black wing dots, a fact subsequently pointed out to me by a real expert, proving you really do learn something new every day. The Essex Skippers were good to see but can only reliably be told from the Small Skipper by looking at the underside of the antennae which is black in the Essex and orange in the small. I’ve produced a simple guide to some of the more common butterflies which even though the season is waning, will still be useful during the rest of the summer and for subsequent years. Have a look here for this series.
Whilst snapping the many still photographs that are sprinkled around this and other posts, I also managed to take a series of short video clips. I’ve strung them together and hope you enjoy the outcome. A couple of apologies about some of the background noise – there’s nothing I can do about F15s mock dogfighting overhead, and there’s always a bit of wind noise and other distractions. However the Small Tortoiseshell is accompanied by nothing other than natural noises, including a calling cuckoo, which I hope you agree is simply lovely.
Lastly, if you do see butterflies it’s worth making a record of what you see, where you see it and when. These records are very valuable in tracking butterfly movements, range distribution and abundance. Visit the website of Butterfly Conservation, where you will find details of how to submit your sightings in a very easy way.