August Butterflies

August is well established and although the peak period (June/July) for species numbers has passed there is still a great variety of butterflies and moths to see.  Yet there are  hints of seasonal change; change is not full-blown yet, but there are  indications such as changes in the moth species turning up in the light trap that summer is waning.

Between Wednesday 9th and Thursday 10th of August I saw 21 species of adult butterfly, underlining  August’s  importance for butterflies. The high numbers and high activity levels demand large nectar and larval food plant resources. Many species are gorging on Common Knapweed. Bramble is a close second. Towards the end of August the important and beautiful Devil’s-bit Scabious becomes available on a large scale, providing nourishment for breeding and sustaining activity levels as well as helping to provide migrants and over-wintering species with fat reserves.

The fact that some butterflies are feeding in preparation for migration and over-wintering makes for excellent views. Peacock and Brown Hairstreak (a generally pacific butterfly that breeds in August/September) are so engrossed on taking nectar that they allow a gentle viewer to obtain superb views. On Wednesday I watched  female Brown Hairstreaks in County Clare feeding and basking on bramble.  By approaching carefully, I was able to get close to see her starched white ‘socks’, tan-tipped antennae clubs, zebra-crossing markings on the antennae and her pale fawn proboscis. The butterfly makes gradual changes to the angle of its body especially while feeding. It can be seen face-on and wafer-thin and slowly turning to reveal its autumn leaf hued undersides when perched with its undersides parallel to the observer.   Position changes enable the butterfly to probe different parts of the flower and regulate its temperature by heating or reflecting heat.  If there is a cloudy interval followed by weak sunlight, the butterfly will engage in dorsal basking (wings held at a plane horizontal to the body in full dorsal basking, open at a shallow angle in partial dorsal basking). When the butterfly basks in this way, a clear identification of sex is made. Females have large golden patches on their dark brown fore-wings, these are absent in males.

The sexes look so dissimilar on their upper surfaces that James Petiver, an early author and the father of British entomology was unsure if these were a single species; he named the male the “the brown double Streak” and the female “the golden brown double Streak” (Petiver abbreviated hairstreak). Petiver drew a female specimen taken in Croydon, Surrey on August 31st 1702. The Brown Hairstreak is still found in Surrey but it has declined  in the southern half of England and in Ireland it has been lost from Counties Waterford, Wexford, Cork and Kerry. Thankfully it survives in the Burren in Counties Clare and Galway where it appears to be doing well on unkempt hedges and scrub that are bathed in sunshine. The Brown Hairstreak is just one reason to seek butterflies in August. There are 25 additional reasons!

And that’s just the butterflies.

Brown Hairstreak.©J.Harding.

Burren Green.©J.Harding.





July Butterflies

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There are plenty of butterflies out there  this month, but to see them forget the garden Buddleia and go out into good wild grassland where you will see the July butterflies that keep mainly to the wilder places. Gardeners often feel shock at the often-empty July Buddleia, fearful of a butterfly population crash, but it’s just a question of searching in the right places. A stroll along a sunny ride  through native broad-leaf woodland will produce a good collection of species, notably Silver-washed Fritillary, our largest native butterfly, and on the increase.

If you need some positivity about our natural world,  the Silver-washed Fritillary population’s upward trajectory is one way of getting it. It is, however, absent from Scotland, absent from most of England and  extinct in The Netherlands. This lovely butterfly is thriving in Ireland’s woods, abundant where light reaches the woodland floor to heat the area around the larva’s food plant, Common Dog-violet. The adult loves to take nectar on bramble and it is certainly a beauty when fresh out of the pupa. Enjoy them now, as their finery soon dims (“When I consider everything that grows/Holds in perfection but a little moment” (Sonnet No. 15, William Shakespeare)) and the aged bedraggled butterflies a gutted ruin of once splendid architecture.

Ringlets are everywhere tall wild grasses grow with some shelter/shade, especially in damp and humid places. This humble ‘quiet’ butterfly, its dark, almost black upper sides fringed with white and its light brown undersides decorated with white-pupiled, black eye-spots ringed in gold bobs gently along the same woodland tracks and lanes, a very different personality to the resplendent orange Silver-washed Fritillary which flashes deep, shining orange while he dashes past. Meadow Browns like this habitat but generally prefer open grassland with flowers. Large but low-key, this also has a bobbing flight, but  generally appears more purposeful in its manner than the easy-going Ringlet.

Wild, open flower-rich grassland by the sea or on mountain/hill slopes, cliffs, limestone grassland and cutaway bog is where the Dark Green Fritillary makes its home. To watch its energy and power, you would doubt that its home is large enough for it, but in fact this dramatic flyer usually stays local.

Finally, early Brimstones are appearing. These are skittish and wary, as if confused by the heat of high summer. This lovely butterfly, daffodil yellow in the male, greenish-white in his mate is our longest-lived adult butterfly so butterflies that have emerged this early need to make an extra effort to preserve themselves until after they breed, mainly April-June 2018.

Click on the photographs for the enlarged view.

Silver-washed Fritillary, showing the silver streaks on its mossy hindwing, a useful colouring for a tree canopy rooster.©J.Harding.

Silver-washed Fritillary male basking on bracken. Note the black forewing scent bars, used in courtship to encourage mating.©J.Harding

Meadow Brown, probably our most numerous butterfly©J.Harding.

Dark Green Fritillary, male.©J.Harding.

25 Jun 2017

Lullybeg in late June

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A warm, billowy day yesterday (24 June 2017) offered great conditions to see what was on show in the Lullybeg area in Kildare. Orchids on display include Twayblade, Common Spotted Orchid, Bee Orchid, Lesser Butterfly Orchid and Marsh Helleborine, featured below, a lover of lime-rich soil. The heady fragrance of Fragrant Orchid will be released in July.

Misumena vatia has taken up its station on the orchids, much to the disadvantage of this aged Peacock….

The last of Lullybeg’s Marsh Fritillaries are laying a second or even a third batch of eggs on Devil’s-bit Scabious, taking advantage of the sunny weather to do so…

Moths are thriving here, like this Pebble Prominent, one of half a dozen larvae found on a willow plant less than a metre high…

Finally, a rare sight indeed; a mating pair of Red-tipped Clearwings mating on bramble; female on the right…

All photographs copyright J.Harding.

Marsh Helleborine.

Peacock meets its nemesis, misumena vatia.

Marsh Fritillary.

Pebble Prominent.

Red-tipped Clearwings.

21 Jun 2017

Endangered Butterfly Expansion Success

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In June 2014 Butterfly Conservation Ireland, having assessed the habitat at a coastal site in County Meath as suitable for the endangered Small Blue released a small number of adults. The first release occurred on 7 June with a second release one week later. No further release was made. Since 2007 the donor site, Portrane, has sustained massive habitat loss due to erosion of the east facing sand dunes at Portrane. Since 2007, over 90% of the Small Blue habitat on the affected dunes  have been removed by the sea. Meanwhile, the dunes along County Meath coast lacked the Small Blue, despite the presence of the sole larval foodplant, Kidney Vetch, growing in highly suitable situations over an extensive area.

On their release on 7 June  females began to lay immediately, indicating the site’s suitability. However, searches of the release site in 2015 and 2016 which took place in overcast conditions failed to find any trace of the butterfly. The sunny weather on 20 June, when the temperature peaked at 20 Celsius, made for excellent search conditions. The release site was searched and seven butterflies were seen, including an egg-laying female. She was photographed ovipositing (see below) on a west facing plant adjoining a sand track; the release site was chosen because it contains the food plant growing among grassland vegetation with areas of bare sand, (the butterfly does not appear to favour areas with a very high density of the food plant, probably because the micro-climate is not warm enough) the site is sheltered and has a west facing slope. A further visit on 21 June revealed three egg-laying females.

The butterfly has not expanded far beyond the release site; its area of occupation has expanded only a few metres north and south of the release point. This indicates a high degree of loyalty to the natal area. The smallness of the area occupied (it was searched for in the area around the site  and not found) also suggests that the butterfly is not mobile and/or may have a low rate of reproductive success. The butterfly lays only one egg on each flower head and may only lay on one flower head per plant. On 21 June two females were observed rejecting a number of food plants, presumably because these already held an egg. This results in females moving from the original release zone in search of suitable food plants, and in turn to an increase in the the butterfly’s distribution as the population grows. In time it may expand to occupy all the available habitat along this stretch of coastline. Along the Dublin coast the Small Blue has not shown significant mobility; it has not, for example, expanded its Dublin distribution to include Bull Island, a site that has existed for around 150 years. This may be due to the  absence of suitable habitat between Bull Island and the closest population north of this, at Howth. The Small Blue may be sedentary throughout Ireland,  emphasizing how important it is to protect the breeding habitat of one of our most endangered species.

We will continue to monitor the Meath population. At this point it appears to be a conservation success to savour.

Small Blue, County Meath.©J.Harding.

Egg-laying female, County Meath.©J.Harding.

Small Blue habitat in County Meath.©J.Harding.