I am no expert photographer, preferring to capture the moment than get a perfectly composed shot. The pictures on my blog are either taken with a compact Canon, a Panasonic Lumix FZ150 or on my phone.

Friday, 18 December 2020

Painted Lady, Vanessa cardui

Back in 2016 I posted about the Painted Lady and wondered if 2016 would turn out to be a Painted Lady year. As it turns out, it wasn't a bad year, but it was nothing compared with 2019.

At the start of June I received reports of Painted Ladies being seen flying in from the coast and once inland they continued to fly westwards. This seemed very exciting, but it was nothing compared to the second wave of arrivals.

Towards the end of July a second, much bigger, wave arrived. An almost continuous stream of butterflies were seen flying westwards from the coast. By the end of the year I had received records of 5,395 Painted Ladies, but that must have been a fraction of the number that were actually here.

There are 15 Painted Ladies in this picture!

To give you an idea I normally receive records of somewhere between 25 to 100 Painted Ladies and the best year before this I received records of 176, so in 2019 we saw 30 times more Painted Ladies than we had ever seen.

These butterflies spend the winter in north Africa and then over three or four generations make their way north to Scotland or Scandinavia. I speculated where ours had flown in from and I imagine it was probably the Netherlands or Denmark. That means that they had flown non-stop over the North Sea for over 600 kilometres. I believe that they can fly up to 150 miles a day, which means that they had been flying for four days and nights. I find this quite remarkable. Although we usually only see butterflies flying when the sun is shining, these butterflies had clearly been flying in the dark.

I remember once experiencing a mass arrival of Red Admirals along the coast on a cold, misty day and thinking that it was remarkable that they were flying on a day like that. However, I guess they have no choice once they have set off over the sea but to continue no matter what the weather.

It used to be thought that the adults perished in the UK, unable to survive the cold winter. However, in 2009 sensitive radar picked them up flying south in enormous numbers. These butterflies were heading back to where their great grandparents set off from earlier in the year.

More recent research has been able to trace where a butterfly has spend its life as a caterpillar by identifying the ratio of Hydrogen isotopes found in the butterfly's wings. This has proved that Painted Ladies found in Europe in early spring have originated from Sub-Sahara Africa. So, they have not only crossed the Mediterranean Sea, but also the Sahara Desert. The round trip, though several generations, is about 12,000 kilometres.

Some of my pictures show quite worn Painted Ladies, but I think they deserve to be photographed just as much as a pristine example. They are my heroes of the insect world!

Thursday, 3 December 2020

Common Rockrose - Helianthemum nummularium

We are so lucky that a few hundred metres further up the stream that runs past our new house is a lovely bit of valley that used to be grazed by sheep. About 15 years ago it changed hands and the new owner has planted scattered trees and doesn’t have any livestock grazing the area.

This section of valley has a great variety of wild flowers growing. These include Heather, Tormintal, Thyme and Rockrose on the slopes, with Meadowsweet, Knapweed and various other flowers in the damper areas.

It is also a fantastic area for butterflies with Dark Green Fritillaries, Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries, Meadow Brown, Ringlet, Common Blues and Northern Brown Argus all being recorded in good numbers.

The Northern Brown Argus, Aricia artaxerxes, uses Common Rockrose as the food plant for its caterpillars.

Four years ago when I was walking there, I thought to myself that I was following the same stream that runs through our property further down the valley and therefore the conditions with us should also be good for Rockrose. Much of our land was unmanaged woodland when my father bought it 20 years ago. However, we have done a lot of work to open up the woodland, particularly close to the house, and I wondered if it would be possible to re-establish Rockrose there.

So, having received advice from a colleague at work, I took some hardwood cuttings in May of 2016. I was advised to fill a seed tray with gritty compost, covered with a centimetre of sharp sand. Strip off the lower leaves from a woody shoot of Rockrose, about 6 centimetres long and push it through the sand into the compost. Once the tray was full I gave it a good water and let it drain before putting it inside a large polythene sack and sealing it up. This was left in an unheated conservatory and a couple of months later I noticed that many of the cuttings had grown and some were flowering!

Later that year I potted the cuttings into individual 6cm pots. This highlighted a bit of an issue, as each cutting had produced one or two very long roots and they were all rather entangled. So, by separating them out I broke a few roots. However, I ended up with 16 plants in pots, which I kept in a sheltered location for the winter. I let them grow on the following summer and planted them into my chosen site in the autumn of 2017.

I ended up with ten good plants, which didn’t grow very much during 2018. In 2019 I bought some plugs of Thyme and wild Marjoram, which I planted between the Rockrose. I had noticed that there is a lot of Thyme growing in the valley, which the Northern Brown Argus were often seen feeding on.

I am very pleased with the way my little patch of Rockrose is developing. It hasn't all gone perfectly. When I added the Thyme, I also put a couple of plugs of Vipers Bugloss plants in. These grew much larger than I expected and ended up almost smothering some of the Rockrose.

I tried planting some more cuttings this summer, but they all failed. I think I was just a little bit too late in the season for them to work.

The biggest thrill this summer was spotting a Northern Brown Argus just next to our house. They are not meant to fly far from their colony, but this one must have been at least 500 metres from the closest colony. Although I didn't see it again, it proves that these little butterflies do explore and maybe in the future, once my Rockrose is more established, they may find it and form a new colony here.

Tuesday, 3 November 2020

Casarabonela Butterflies - September 2019

Last September my wife and I decided to go and explore some nearby villages and we randomly picked Casarabonela, which is about thirteen kilometres west of Alora, where we were renting a flat.

It is amazing what a difference those 13 kilometres make, though, and we noticed how green the countryside was on the drive up the hills towards Casarabonela. It is an amazing little village, perched on a steep hillside, with narrow little streets, only wide enough to walk up. As with many Spanish villages, it wasn’t always apparent which streets were suitable for vehicles as many of them started off wide, but narrowed, or had really tight corners, or steps!

Luckily, we decided to park the car near the bottom of the village and walk through the streets to the main village plaza where we found a café that served cold beer, with amazing views over the valley.

This trip wasn’t meant to be a butterfly trip, but I was amazed at how many butterflies there were flying around the village. This butterfly had be puzzled and I still don’t know exactly what it is! When I first saw it, I assumed it was going to be a Southern Brown Argus, but the pattern on the underside of the wings suggest it is most likely a Southern Blue, Polyommatus celina. However, it was very much larger than others I have seen elsewhere in Spain. Possibly the lush vegetation allows then to grow a little larger here than in more arid areas where I am always surprised that they are so much smaller than Common Blues that we get back home.

There were quite a few Geranium Bronzes, Cacyreus marshalli, flying in the village, presumably taking advantage of the lovely geraniums growing in all of the window boxes around the village.

I stopped in my tracks when we were walking next to a small formal shrub garden and I was astounded to see a Spanish Festoon, Zerynthia rumina. I had always assumed these were a springtime species, but when checking the books I see that they are double brooded in some locations. This picture was taken on my phone, so it is a little fuzzy.

This turned out to be one of five we saw there and to my wife’s frustration I would chase off after others trying to get a picture, but they were very active and wouldn’t let me get close.

There was a steep ravine running into the village with terraced orchards and vegetable gardens. From the pavement above I could see a number of Holly Blues, Celastrina argiolus, flying around some ivy-clad buildings, all too far away to photograph!

As we walked along a road with an orchard below I was delighted to see a Two-tailed Pasha, Charaxes jasius, drift past us and down amongst the fruit trees. All along this road there were Small Whites, Pieris rapae, and what looked to be freshly emerged Large Whites, Pieris brassicae.

I spotted a house with an amazing garden full of flowering bushes. I really wished I could have gone and had a look inside the garden, but on the hedge outside was a Long-tailed Blue, Lambides boeticus.

Higher up in the village we found the municipal swimming pool, but sadly despite us really feeling the heat, it is considered too cold for it to remain open in September. The lovely cool water looked so tempting through the bars! As we walked along this road, with scrubland on one side, we saw a few Swallowtails, Papilio machaon, a worn out Meadow Brown, Maniola jurtina, a Painted Lady, Vanessa cardui

and two striped Graylings, Hipparchia fidia, also looking a little worse for wear.

This is a beautiful little village and I really hope we can return there next summer when there may be more butterflies around and hopefully the swimming pool will be open!

Saturday, 17 October 2020

Antequera Butterflies - September 2019

Having visited Antequera in April 2019 and seen such a fantastic variety of butterflies, I thought I would visit again in September. I parked in the same spot as I had earlier in the year and walked along the track where there had been so many wild flowers in the spring.

Not surprisingly the flowers were mostly finished, other than one or two species. This didn't bode very well, but I was surprised to see quite a few little butterflies flying around.

First off was a Lang's Short-tailed Blue, Leptotes pirithous, which was laying eggs on a Gorse bush.

There were a number of similar-sized butterflies, which turned out to mostly be Sage Skippers, Muschampia proto,

... and Long-tailed Blues, Lampides boeticus.

There were also a few Small Whites, Pieris rapae, and some very worn Meadow Browns, Maniola jurtina.

The track then went through some arable fields, but I continued past a farmyard and into dip in the track, which offered a little shade. Here there was some mint growing, which was attracting butterflies. They flew backwards and forwards along this short section, stopping occasionally to feed. They were mostly Sage Skippers, Long-tailed Blues and Lang's Short-tailed Blues again, but there were also two or three Southern Blues, Polyommatus celina.

I was delighted to see a beautiful male Adonis Blue, Polyommatus bellargus, but it wouldn't stop for a picture. Neither would a Holly Blues, Celastrina argiolus. A little Southern Brown Argus, Aricia cramera, was more cooperative.

On the walk back I saw a rather worn out looking Striped Grayling, Hipparchia fidia.

There was also a Bath White, Pontia daplidice, and four Painted Ladies, Vanessa cardui.

So, I managed to see 14 species on what hadn't looked as though it was going to be a very promising walk. Only two fewer than I saw on my spring walk here.

Thursday, 24 September 2020

Alora Butterflies - September 2019

I realised that I have not posted about our holiday to Malaga in September 2019, so ... 

We went on a week's holiday to southern Spain at the end of September 2019 to catch some much needed sun! We were at the same village we have visited on five previous occasions. Of course, I was keen to fit in a few walks to look for butterflies, but I wasn't expecting to see much with it being so late in the season. I did have a couple of nice surprises, though!

After an amazingly easy journey we arrived at the apartment in Alora in the early afternoon. Claire needed a sleep, which gave me a perfect excuse to go and look for butterflies. I started at my old favourite butterfly spot, which is just above the villa we used to rent. It is a steep valley up a mountain, and the way the track has been cut into the side of the valley shades an area where thyme, rosemary and lavender grows. During our normal July holidays these plants provide rare flowers and nectar in the area.

When I had visited this spot in April I was too early for any flowers, so there were very few butterflies. This time I was far too late for any flowers and after a long search all I saw was a female Lang's Short Tailed Blue, Leptotes pirithous. It was laying eggs on a rosemary plant.

I then decided to try a spot I had found in April above the village cemetery. Here there are tracks through olive groves where there had been a lot of wild flowers. However, in September there were no flowers left under the olive trees. I noticed that there were yellow flowers along the edge of a track and what I figured out was a helipad. These plants must have been able to get to the moisture under the concrete.

The plants proved to be a draw for butterflies. There were a couple of Long-tailed Blues, Lambides boeticus, flying about furiously in the heat, but they wouldn't stop for a picture. More biddable was this Mallow Skipper, Carcharodus alceae, which looked as though it had fairly recently emerged from its chrysalis.

This little Sage Skipper, Muschampia proto, was flying in the same spot.

There were also at least five Painted Ladies, Vanessa cardui.

Having had so many migrate to Scotland in 2019, I wondered to myself if these individuals had been born in Scotland and were on their way to Africa.

There is an area down by the river where in the spring there are a lot of wild flowers and in summer there is an area of mint, which proves very attractive to butterflies. In September there were far fewer flowers, other than the same yellow flowers I had seen in the hills. However, this still proved to be the best place to find butterflies near to the village, despite the goat herder regularly passing with this goats! Butterflies seen there included, Bath White, Pontia daplidice, Lang's Short-tailed Blue, Leptotes pirithous,

... some very worn Meadow Browns, Maniola jutina,

... some slightly worn Small Coppers, Lycaena phlaeas,

... Small Whites. Pieris rapae,

... a few male Mediterranean Skippers, Gegenes nostrodamus,

... and one quite different-looking female.

And a Rosy Grizzled Skipper, Pyrgus onopordi.

There were also a lot of  Painted Ladies and my favourite of all, the little African Grass Blue, Zizeeria knysna.

Occasionally, in the village I would see a small butterfly flying around a shrub bed or window box. These always turned out to be Geranium Bronzes, Cacyreus marshalli.

Most of the butterflies I saw at this time of year were the same species as those I usually see in the summer. I also visited a couple of areas further afield, Antiquera and Casarabonela, where I saw a few different species. I'll report on these in my next posts.

Saturday, 12 September 2020

Scotch Argus returns

I was really excited to find a Scotch Argus, Erebia aethiops, flying in our garden in August last year. This left me wondering if there is a colony somewhere close by, or if there has always been a small colony in our woodland. I watched it laying eggs in the grass and then didn't dare cut the grass in that area for the next 12 months!!

On 11th August this year, despite the weather, I spotted a Scotch Argus in exactly the same place. It was rather the worse for wear and looked as though it was at least a week old.

It was a female again, but I didn't see it laying eggs. It was still flying in the same area the following day.

Two days later I saw another Scotch Argus flying down near the wild flower meadow I am trying to develop.

I still haven't found the answer to my question of where these butterflies have come from. I had been hoping to explore likely habitats in the area this summer, but sadly good weather never coincided with my days off. I am aware of an old record in the next little valley a kilometre away and someone has told me that they are found about five kilometres from here, further up the valley. I hope I will be able to explore both of these areas next August.