Fahee North Butterfly Walk May 21, 2022

It seems wrong to start an event report with an ugly image of wanton ecological vandalism, but this scene pictured below, close to the Burren limestone near Gort, underscores in stark reality the brutality being meted out to our country, Europe and the planet. A more savage scene, of bulldozed limestone pavement near the Burren College of Art dragged my mood to a darker place. According to the Natural History Museum in London, out of all EU countries (including the UK) only Malta is worse in terms of biodiversity loss than Ireland.

See

https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/news/2020/september/uk-has-led-the-world-in-destroying-the-natural-environment.html#:~:text=While%20countries%20such%20as%20Canada,UK%20only%20has%2050.3%25%20remaining.

This puts Ireland in the bottom 10% of countries globally in terms of biodiversity intactness. We have no natural habitats left, and our semi-natural habitats continue to suffer an onslaught. The greatest reason for biodiversity loss in Ireland is the change in land use, mostly for agriculture. Other drivers include climate change, pollution and invasive non-native species. The issues shown in this photograph are land-use change and pollution (increased carbon emissions).

Scrub, grassland and limestone were destroyed near Gort, County Galway.
View of Fahee North, County Clare, looking west from the Burren Perfumery. Idyllic vistas like this are declining in number, and many that are pictured require clever camera orientation to conceal habitat loss.

The Butterfly walk at Fahee North just north of the Burren Perfumery was eagerly anticipated. The walk, in outstanding and varied habitat in late spring, promised to yield so many species, including several rarities. But the weather was against us. Despite the forecast of sunny spells, it rained for much of the walk, although not heavily, which meant we saw no butterflies on the grassy area adjoining the road.

The habitat ingredients are all there and brightened by Early Purple Orchids. Added to this the site is managed for nature, with extensive cattle grazing and scrub control applied. But butterflies, especially spring species, are fussy about weather, and stubbornly remain out of sight during rain. Higher air temperatures in summer allow butterflies, notably the Dark Green Fritillary, Meadow Brown and Ringlet to fly in light rain, but in May butterflies refuse to do that.

We looked at various habitat features that favour butterflies, and we found Orange-tip eggs on Cuckoo Flower (we glimpsed a Cuckoo too!) growing at the edge of a stream, typically one egg per flowerhead.

We entered the limestone pavement (shattered type with some larger pavement) immediately west of the grassland and it was very interesting to note the change in temperature-the heat rising from the limestone juxtaposed with the cooler adjoining wet grassland. The cloud was thinning and finally, a Dingy Skipper darted into view. Everyone was impressed with this characterful butterfly, and we compared him with a male Common Heath moth, with both looking superficially similar on the wing.

I kept promising that any sun would yield a Pearl-bordered Fritillary, and flashes of yellow were reported, but no fritillary was confirmed.

Finally, there she was, in a really sheltered opening, fluttering low before alighting on a slab of warming stone. Netted and jarred, she was shown to her admirers. A major ‘tick’ for many in our band, some coming from Dublin to see their first Pearl-bordered Fritillary.

Then a snow-white female Wood White appeared, powdered white like an aristocratic lady from a Jane Austen novel. Her delicate, ponderous flight, gracefully slow motion, earned her praise.

Then a Dew Moth was caught and shown, its lovely deep yellow marked with black dots imbuing it with a taste of the exotic, and exotic it is, because this is a rare species in Ireland although happily not currently regarded as under threat, unlike the Pearl-bordered Fritillary, rated Endangered or the Near Threatened Wood White.

Abruptly, the walk ended as many of those attending were on their way to another walk elsewhere as part of the Burren in Bloom Festival. But everyone left happy, as the weather gave us just a glimpse of the glories of the Burren.

Glories like the butterflies and habitats shown in this post must be treasured. Beautiful, rare butterflies like the Pearl-bordered Fritillary cling on to their limestone habitats and are not found elsewhere in Ireland. Once destroyed, the habitat and butterfly are gone forever.

Our count of enchanted objects must diminish no further.

Brimstone caterpillar on Purging Buckthorn, Fahee North, County Clare. The caterpillar, in its first instar, is near the leaf stalk. J. Harding
A Pearl-bordered Fritillary rests on a hazel leaf. The butterflies seem to materialize by magic when the sun shines.J. Harding
Pearl-bordered Fritillary male basking on limestone during a cloudy interval. J. Harding
Wood White male on Herb Robert, Fahee North, County Clare. J. Harding
Dew Moth, Fahee North, County Clare. J. Harding
Transparent Burnet Moth, near Lough Bunny, County Clare. J. Harding

Thanks to all who attended the walk, and a special thanks to Pranjali from the Burrenbeo Trust, who helped to organize this event, a collaboration between Butterfly Conservation Ireland and Burrenbeo Trust.

 

 

 

 

May Moths

Below is a sample of the moths flying in May. All are nocturnal, as are 95% of our moths, except for the final moth, the Narrow-bordered Bee Hawkmoth, a day-flying bee mimic. We have over 1500 moth species in Ireland. Here are just a few.

Common Swift. This moth’s caterpillar feeds on the roots of grasses and other wild and cultivated plants.
Rustic Shoulder-knot. The larva feeds above ground on grass leaves, such as on Cock’s-foot Grass.
Broken-barred Carpet. This moth breeds on native trees including Common Hawthorn, Downy Birch and Pedunculate Oak. 
Pale Tussock moth. This species is better known for its funky, punk-rock larva.
Muslin Moth. The Irish form is cream-coloured, and the form in Britain is brown.
Narrow-bordered Bee Hawkmoth. This moth flies and buzzes, like a bee.

 

Spring Scenes

The photographs that follow were taken this spring and show what is available right now. Get out and enjoy our wildlife!

The Purple Hairstreak caterpillars are busy feeding on fresh oak leaves and oak catkins, before the tree manages to pump tannin into the leaves, making them unpalatable. The availability of nitrogen is highest in oak leaves in spring, which is a further factor for early feeding by the caterpillars of the Brown Hairstreak, Winter Moth and Brindled Green Moth, among others.
This female Orange-tip has perched on the flowerhead of Cow Parsley, a favourite resting place. Her mossy undersides blend seamlessly with the frothy green and white mass, making her surprisingly hard to find. This butterfly will feed on Common Dandelion and other spring flowers but will lay her eggs on various crucifers, especially Cuckoo Flower. However, this female will not find it easy to find Cuckoo Flowers locally, as many of her fields have been sprayed with herbicide.
A male Orange-tip, showing why the butterfly is so-called. He is one of our most attractive spring butterflies, bringing the purest of delights as one sees his burning orange tips contrasted with the ice-white of the basal area of his forewing uppersides. He will be seen patrolling hedgerows from April to early July in search of a mate.
This newly emerged female Holly Blue is basking with opened wings during weak sunlight. Unfortunately, her uppersides are rarely seen in bright light, when they look exquisite, gleaming a deeper lilac-blue rather than powder blue as seen here. She will soon be scouring hedges for female Common Holly, which she uses as a key breeding plant, laying her eggs singly on embryonic berries.
This male Speckled Wood is basking on a Hogweed leaf. When warm enough, the male will patrol his territory, ejecting other males and pursuing females.
A female Brimstone laying on Alder Buckthorn. She is laying on a stem near the base of an unfurled leaf.
Here is a female Smooth Newt, busy breeding in weedy ponds on neutral and base-rich soils. She lays her eggs singly, inserting them into vegetation and securing them by glueing the aquatic vegetation around the soft, edible egg for protection.
Unimproved grassland on mildly alkaline/neutral soil, showing mass flowering of nectar-rich Common Dandelions, a favourite for all spring butterflies and bees.
Early Bumblebee on Common Dandelion. This bee will nest in old bird’s nests and rodent burrows. She has one yellow band on the thorax, one yellow band on the front of her abdomen and a reddish tip on her abdomen.
A Wall Brown pupa on fescue grass. This endangered butterfly has two or three generations each year, with the first emerging from April to June, arising from caterpillars that developed over the winter and earlier in spring. This pupa is about one month old. Shortly before the butterfly emerges, the wing colours can be seen through the wing cases.
This tiny Small Copper butterfly has just hatched and is holding his territory that extends from a farm gate, along a hedge to the corner of the field about 30 metres away. He hopes that a female will fly into his patch, attracted by the warm, sheltered conditions and nectar sources.

All photographs copyright J. Harding.