A wonderful spell of warm, settled weather is upon us again and moths have responded by emerging in good numbers. Not only are the moths numerous, many nocturnal moths are appearing during daylight, probably roused by the heat during the warmest parts of the day and also flying in the evening, usually within the shaded areas. Below is a small selection of moths that are out now.
Look at how each differs in size, shape as well as in colour. The variety is amazing. We have cream, yellow, grey, white, mustard, canary yellow, peach, pink and browns in a range of patterns and wing shapes. Every species has its habitat niche, its preferred flight time, its story. All of these are attracted to light, all are found in ‘good’ gardens, gardens that cater to their needs by growing plenty of native trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants.
The Blue tit nesting in the eaves above front bedroom window, the Starlings in my chimney and attic, the Blackbird in my bramble and wherever my Blackcaps have made their nest are shovelling up beakfuls of caterpillars and adult moths. Look after moths and you look after the birds. The birds sing to me all day long so I am looked after too! We are all in it together!
One tip: water your flowering plants in dry weather. Do this in the evening when the heat of the day has passed. This allows for nectar release for thirsty moths and butterflies.
The restrictions on travel and the social distancing requirements established by the government to control Covid-19 means that the events we planned to hold from May 30th onwards are cancelled or postponed. When the advice provided by the government permits us to hold events safely we will resume the balance of our events programme. Butterfly Conservation Ireland regrets any disappointment caused.
We urge all of our members and friends to continue to enjoy the butterflies in our home ranges, including the butterflies that visit our gardens. The year 2020 is developing into a special year for butterflies. We hope you make the most of this wonderful weather to enjoy our butterflies and nature generally
May is the final month of spring and perhaps the fulfilment of the season. May has 22 butterflies in flight so there is so much to see. Admittedly, some, such as the Brimstone, Peacock and Small Tortoiseshell are on the wane but others, such as the Common Blue, Dingy Skipper, Marsh Fritillary, Small Copper and Green Hairstreak are in their palmy days. These are shown below. Which do you think is the most beautiful?
Few would opt for the Dingy Skipper but I like it! While very muted, the pattern is subtle and intricate, like embroidery. The butterfly also has a teddy bear appearance, a cuddly, friendly-looking butterfly. It is not at all common in Ireland, found mainly in scattered locations in a band across central Ireland stretching mainly in a line from north Clare to south Mayo and across the country towards but not including Dublin (it was found in Dublin in the past). It favours limestone areas with plenty of bare soil, rocky areas and cutaway bogs with dry areas with bare, sparsely vegetated peat. It is a low-flying and fast-flying butterfly. The males react to the appearance of any small butterfly by darting out to investigate it. Males fight each other and other butterflies, such as Common Blues and Small Coppers while mated females keep a low profile, dropping into vegetation when pursued by a male. After he gives up she flutters low over the sparse turf seeking out Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil to lay her eggs.
The Common Blue is an obviously attractive and very active conspicuous inhabitant of unfertilised grassland, with males dashing across the turf, chasing other males and females. A point of interest is the sexual dimorphism in the butterfly with the females very variable in the amount of blue scaling on its upper surfaces. Some females are almost fully brown on the upper surfaces of their wings while at the other extreme some females are fully blue aside with the outer edges which contain orange chevron markings which vary in how well defined these are.
Now we move on to the Marsh Fritillary. This species is widely distributed but endangered. Its colonies are usually small, with sites quite small in area but there are usually a group of colonies in a landscape that is connected by individuals flying between the breeding sites in some years, especially in 2018 when prolonged good weather encouraged dispersal. The Marsh Fritillary has a large European range and is very variable in appearance. I know of no more attractive form than the one we have in Ireland where many individuals have a stronger contrast between the dark and bright colours on the wings than the butterflies found in Europe where a more uniform orange ground colour dominates the upper surfaces. Appreciate this lovely butterfly if you are in a position to see it-it is highly localised and badly neglected by the state which is supposed to protect it. For example, Ireland has designated 16 Natura 2000 sites (a network of nature protection areas in the European Union) for the Marsh Fritillary. Of these areas, it is absent or only sporadic in its occurrence in at least five of the sites. In two of these sites, Ballynafagh Lake and Killarney National Park the butterfly has been extinct for over 20 and 30 years respectively. In addition, some large sites with large populations of the butterfly have no legal protection, such as Yellow Bog, west of Loughrea.
The Small Copper is, happily, a common and widespread but rarely abundant butterfly. Although much of the literature states that it is usually found in small numbers, it can be abundant with some good sorrel-rich sites showing 50 or more butterflies in a single count-always exciting to see this shining copper in numbers. It is very vulnerable to fertiliser application-even if sorrels survive the butterfly disappears. In unfertilised fields, even on grasslands that are heavily grazed, it appears year after year while it disappears even from adjoining fertilised areas containing the same habitat.
A very elusive spring butterfly which is rarely seen by most is the Green Hairstreak. This butterfly always settles with closed wings but its upper surfaces are chocolate brown. When in flight it looks brown so observers should look for a brown butterfly tumbling and spinning at a great pace in the sunshine. Tap gorse or willow at the drier areas of a bog and step back-it usually flies out immediately but often returns to its original perch point. It is a dynamic, aggressive butterfly and is often abundant in discrete areas of its boggy habitats. It can also be found on open bog but usually occurs on bogs containing scrub. The worry for this still widespread butterfly is drainage and destruction of peat bogs-these must be protected to preserve this gorgeous species.
The twentieth century saw warfare produce industrial-scale slaughter that was unimaginable in previous times. These dark times saw combat involving all continents, a truly global scale. Even in the throes of trauma, people took the time to notice nature, especially butterflies.
Erich Remarque was a German soldier who served in the German Army in World War I. His book describing the experiences of German front line troops appeared in 1929. Remarque’s brilliant exposé of the horror of modern war, All Quiet on the Western Front describes a brief moment of brightness following a ferocious battle the Germans fought against French troops in the summer of 1917:
“For the whole morning two butterflies have been playing around our trench. They are Brimstones, and their yellow wings have orange spots on them. I wonder what could have brought them here? There are no plants or flowers for miles. They settle on the teeth of a skull”. (Chapter 6, pages 88-89, Vintage Classics edition)
In fact, the wood where the German troops were sheltering had just been destroyed by shelling-presumably these newly emerged Brimstone butterflies came from that wood.
Near the conclusion of the brilliant 2018 documentary (which used original war film), They Shall Not Grow Old produced and directed by Peter Jackson, a British soldier who gave testimony after the war reported that he was delighted to get the chance to see Camberwell Beauties and Common Swallowtails flying along a riverbank in France or Belgium-these butterflies are very rare in Britain.
In fact, despite the horrendous suffering on the western front, the heavy shelling of the battle zones in France and Belgium had some benefits for butterflies and the troops who needed to see the beauty in their ugly, nasty world. Soil disturbance often allows wildflowers to flourish, producing great conditions for grassland butterflies.
The British Prime Minister and war leader, Winston Churchill, planned a butterfly house at his home at Chartwell, Kent in 1939 but the war meant that he had to wait until the war ended to build his butterfly house to breed butterflies. This has recently been restored. Churchill also got his gardener to plant thistles in his otherwise formal garden to attract butterflies.
In her 2019 book, Love, Life and Loss on the British Home Front Caroline Taggart show us how Britons succeeded in keeping spirits up with her entertaining collection of first-hand reminiscences from people who lived through those six long years. Many children from London, Liverpool, Sheffield and other large cities were evacuated to the countryside to avoid Goering’s Luftwaffe. In rural settings for the first time in their lives, children came into intimate contact with nature and revelled in it. One boy, Brian, returned to Surrey after two years in Cornwall and was astonished by the changes he saw:
“It was the summer (of 1944) of the great invasion; not by Rommell’s Panzers but by swarms of butterflies. In the park, where trenches had been dug across open fields to prevent German warplanes landing, thousands of tortoiseshells now sunned themselves on the tall thistles that had sprung unbidden from the disturbed clay.
As the summer advanced, clouds of migrant butterflies- peacocks, painted ladies, red admirals and clouded yellows-poured across the channel on the bombsite buddleias, where they hung in clusters, drinking in the nectar with watch-spring tongues until they were too drunk to fly”.
However, this great Clouded Yellow migration from the continent caused great alarm among the Coastwatch personnel. They watched the clouds of yellow pouring over the sea in shock, believing that this was a poison gas attack. Happily, this turned out to be a great Clouded Yellow year. So was 1947, a year when post-war rationing was still very much in operation. At least nature was unrationed.
In his memoir concerning his experience of Operation Torch in North Africa, Spike Milligan writes in “Rommel?” “Gunner Who?” of seeing Cabbage Whites “along with several orange tips” on February 20th 1943 at El Aroussa, Tunisia. The countryside was bursting into bloom, especially Borage and blue and red anemones, giving Milligan the urge to paint. Instead, he had to content himself with leaving messages on stones for those who would come after him, “This way for World War II”. The orange-tip Milligan saw was not the Orange-tip Anthocharis cardamines we know, but Moroccan Orange-tip Anthocharis belia and or Desert Orange-tip Clotis evagore, both of which fly from February. The brightness and colour must have brought happiness-it reminded Milligan of the rather more peaceful South Downs in south-east England.
Perhaps this is what butterflies and their landscapes offer-a sense of happiness, normality, a groundedness in a turbulent, uncertain and unjust world. By continuing to fly, to feed, mate and lay down the next generation, we are reminded of the sheer goodness of life when we have most need to remember.
A Bird, came down the Walk –
He did not know I saw –
He bit an Angle Worm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw,
And then, he drank a Dew
From a convenient Grass –
And then hopped sidewise to the Wall
To let a Beetle pass –
He glanced with rapid eyes,
That hurried all abroad –
They looked like frightened Beads, I thought,
He stirred his Velvet Head. –
Like one in danger, Cautious,
I offered him a Crumb,
And he unrolled his feathers,
And rowed him softer Home –
Than Oars divide the Ocean,
Too silver for a seam,
Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon,
Leap, plashless as they swim.
The American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) wrote here about her encounter with a bird that appeared in her garden. In this poem, she celebrates the natural world and a unique feature of style here is Dickinson’s superb recording of minute detail: “And then he drank a Dew/From a convenient Grass.” Her focus is almost microscopic; she does not say “the dew” but “a Dew” as she records a small bird take a single droplet from a solitary grass blade. I was struck by her way of taking a simple action and communicating it in a fresh, innovative way.
Dickinson self-isolated in her family home in Amherst, Massachusetts. This isolation was a decision she took-it was not enforced. It probably contributed to her intense focus on minute detail, as you can see she did in this poem.
Most of us are currently in a similar situation today. Our restricted range has meant that we must stay close to home or even at home. We are able to look at those things we see close to us, often in our gardens or a local green space. More people are hearing birds and seeing butterflies-we have heard that “butterflies are everywhere” – it is not necessarily the case that populations are more abundant, it is more likely that butterflies are receiving more attention now.
Recently I observed behaviour in two species that I had not seen before, in two common butterflies that I probably take for granted.
The Speckled Wood, a fairly unspectacular abundant hedgerow and woodland butterfly is found throughout Ireland. This butterfly flies from April to October, in perhaps three generations, at least some of which overlap. Males are territorial and will expel another male from its home range. When a territory-holding male sees another male enter his patch, an aerial battle follows where each flies at the other in a tight spiralling orbital flight. After a while, the invader is repelled or he departs. Apparently, the holder of the territory always wins.
Recently while walking along a worn track bordered on both sides by lovely farm hedges near my home, I saw two males battling in a way I have not seen before or read about. Both were on a patch of dry, bare soil, facing each other head-on, like boxers engaged in close combat. Each was circling the other. Then the attack followed with head-butting and wing-flapping. One was clearly the more aggressive and the more defensive butterfly soon took flight, chased by his opponent. Luckily I caught the action on camera! See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4JZQWEHpizg
Another drama I spotted was in the adjoining field where two male Small Coppers had emerged to find their preferred territory crowded. Two is not company as far as male Small Coppers are concerned. Watched over a two day period, frequent fairly aggressive altercations were ongoing, yet neither male was prepared to desist or depart. The ground fought for is a highly suitable site-a flowery area containing lots of the larval foodplant (Common Sorrel) in a warm area along a south-facing hedge. One of the males is larger and he appears to be the dominant force. Fights were aerial. When the smaller one managed to lose his pursuer, he landed and shook his wings violently, possibly to repel his rival.
The other male did not vibrate his wings-clearly not worried by his smaller opponent. I noticed that the smaller male shivered his wings even after the attack had come to an end-he looked, to me, as though he had been bullied. His behaviour was clearly influenced by the onslaught of the larger male. See this video of this smaller male feeding on Common Dandelion at https://youtu.be/knkqNFrO9xg
Even if we do not see anything unusual in our experience on our daily walk, we can enjoy the wonders of our world and its gems, our butterflies.