Today, a gorgeously golden August bank holiday Monday, I was in Small Tortoiseshell heaven in my back garden with my Olympus 300m lens. With our wildflower meadow newly shorn, I could enjoy wonderful close up views of a late summer brood of Tortoisehell butterflies. They were a beautifully vivid, rich russet-orange colour as they flitted gracefully between the edge of our wildlife pond and our white buddleia, sweeping in to nectar on the pond side water mint. One butterfly cheekily nectared on a water mint flower so close to the water line that it had a narrow escape from becoming dinner with our rather noisy resident frog.
But I’m lucky to be enjoying this sight, because, despite this weeks flurry of emergences, today the Butterfly Conservation Society issued a press release about their worrying decline. The Small Tortoisheshell’s population has plummeted by 73% since the 1970s.
Like many butterflies, habitat loss is an issue, but in addition the growing numbers of a parasitic fly, Sturmia bella may also be a contributory factor.
Due to their complex lifecycle, butterflies need caterpillar food plants for their larval stage, as well as nectar from flowers and fruit after they metamorphose into butterflies. Small Tortoiseshells, like several of the nymphalidae butterfly family, use nettles as their caterpillar host plant.
Gardens are increasingly playing a vital role as a habitat in our rapidly changing environment, so if you are a gardener, allowing a generous patch of nettles somewhere sunny at the edge of your garden really could help a struggling butterfly to recover, and when emerging Small Tortoiseshells grace your flower borders, make late summer days in your garden even more beautifully golden.
A first play with a new lens – the Olympus 300ml f4.0 pro. After a crazy circling autofocs experience I’ve updated my EM4’s firmware and can now focus without seasickness. With a minumum focal range of 1.4m it works for less confiding butterflies. Yes its sharp. Yes you can get bokeh….
Ssshh! Don’t tell the Essex Skippers, we’re in Norfolk…
These charming, vivid orange little butterflies have extended their range recently and seem perfectly happy living two counties further North than their namesake county. At this time of year they can readily be seen “skipping” amongst the hedgerow flowers and meadow grasses of East Anglia alongside their similar looking cousins, the Small Skippers and Large Skippers, sometimes in the company of the larger meadow species such as Meadow Brown, Gatekeeper and Ringlet butterflies.
All three of our most common Skipper butterflies are small, similarly coloured and rather flighty, in fact the Essex Skipper and Small Skipper look so alike that the Essex Skipper was only recognised as a separate butterfly species in 1889. So just how do you tell these three oft-seen Skipper butterfly species apart?
Get a Mug Shot
The surest way to tell the three most common Skipper butterflies apart is to get a photo or good look of the underside of the tips of the butterfly’s antennae. The Essex Skipper has very distinctive, inky black antenna tips; whereas the similarly sized Small Skipper has orange-brown coloured antennae tips. Although the Large Skipper also has black tips, the antennae ends are more bulbous than those of the Essex and Small Skipper (which are stubby) and have twirly pointed tips.
Skippers are territorial, living in colonies and can be quite confiding little butterflies when perching or basking. However, as their name suggests,they do have a frustrating habit of zooming vertically off their perch at the slightest movement and skipping off before we get the viewing angle we want, so here are some other perspectives and identification tips.
Skipper Butterflies In Profile
The Large Skipper’s chequered pattern is visible with its wings closed so should be readily distinguishable when perching or roosting. Essex and Small Skippers are harder to identify in profile as neither have distinguishing marks on their underwings and they are of a very similar size. However, according to Lewington and other field guides, the Essex Skipper’s undersides are more straw-coloured than those of the Small Skipper, which may appear more beige or buff. Be cautious if using this to distinguish the Essex and Small Skipper, as the look of the underwing can be affected by light conditions and indvidual variations.
“Check” out their Wing Markings
The Large Skipper is most readily identifiable from its chequered pattern wing markings. As well as being larger, Large Skipper butterflies appear brighter and more robust than then smaller Essex and Small Skipper butterflies. In contrast both the Small Skipper and Essex Skipper have relatively plain orange wings. Male Small and Essex skippers can be distinguished from each other by their sex bands (see more below). Female are trickier but one other clue to aid separation, though not always a reliable indicator, is that in Essex Skippers sometimes the dark wing edging bleeds up more heavily into the wing veins.Below are two Essex Skipper photos, one with the dark banding radiating into the veins, one without.
Use Wing Bands to Identify Male Essex Skippers and Small Skippers
All three male Skipper butterflies have a black gender or scent band line marking on their front wings which can be a particularly helpful additional aid to distinguishing an Essex Skipper from a Small Skipper butterfly if you’re unable to view them head on. The male Small Skipper has a prominent black gender band that is long and curved whereas the Essex Skipper’s gender band is much less conspicuous, short, straigt and runs parallel to the edge of its forewing. The male Large Skippers also have very prominant gender bands and at a distance, when fresh from emergence, might even potentially be confused with Gatekeepers due to their vivid orange colour.
Non Visual Characteristics Can also Eliminate a Suspect
Both the Small Skipper and Essex Skipper have expanded their ranges northwards. The Essex Skipper is still the more south-easterly of the two species, being seen as far north as the Humber and west to the Severn Estuary. The Small Skipper, like the Large Skipper can be seen even in Wales and Cornwall and as far north as Northumberland recently.
The Large Skipper is the early bird of the three, flying from late May, peaking in mid July and ending in late August. The Small appears next, flying from early June until early September. The Essex Skipper has the narrowest flight period, being seen on the wing from the end of June until the end of August.
All three species are single brooded and feed on various grasses such as Yorkshire-fog (Small Skipper), Creeping Soft-grass (Essex and Small Skippers) and Cock’s foot (Large Skipper). Early stage larvae overwinter in the sheaths of long grasses and winter cutting and “tidying” can negatively affect populations. For more information visit www.butterfly-conservatin.org
Butterfly Conservation Society – Species Information and Factsheets:
It seems that summer has been slow to start, but nature can’t afford to wait and one of Norfolk’s rarest butterflies has taken to the wing pretty much on cue. Silver-studded blue butterflies have one of the most amazing symbiotic lifecycles you could imagine. Frequenting heathland, they plant their eggs on fresh low lying gorse or heather and depend upon just two specific species of black ant, Lasius niger and Lasius alienus to complete their lifecycles.
Silver-studded blue butterflies live in small colonies. They are a sedentary species, tending to stay local and fly low to the ground. Unlike the blue males, female studded-blue butterflies are brown in colour, but both share the same silvery blue scales in the black spots on the underside of their hind wing for which the butterfly gets its name.
Adults survive only a few days each summer, just long enough to mate and lay eggs. The caterpillars hatch in spring and are and nurtured by the black ants in exchange for a sugary secretion produced by a special gland. The caterpillar pupates underground in the ants nest before emerging as an adult.
Sometimes as a naturalist and photographer, certain subjects remain so stubbornly elusive that they become a bit of a nemesis. Britain’s largest and most iconic species “papilio machaon britannicus”, our very own British swallowtail, was one such unlucky species for me. So much so, that it took me some five years to achieve my first photograph of this amazingly beautiful butterfly.
Our British swallowtail butterfly is actually a subspecies of the European strain that has adapted itself to use the delicate and somewhat sensitive fenland plant milk parsley as its caterpillar host plant. Once comparatively widespread in the south east, its range is now restricted to the Norfolk fens.
Many of you will know that butterflies are one of my favourite wildlife species and I’m a passionate supporter of the Butterfly Conservation Society, which does a great job of raising awareness about the threats to this beautiful animal. Though scarce, I live in Norfolk, the same county that this elusive butterfly calls home. So just how hard can it really be to see one?
Well timing is everything they say. The swallowtail is single brooded and has a relatively short flight period, from around mid May to mid June. If you add to that the need for reasonably clement weather, the window of opportunity is fairly narrow. In my defence, years one and two of my five year wash out were before I had relocated to live in Norfolk.
My natural history and local knowledge was still comparatively limited, and I was restricted solely to weekend trips to Norfolk targeted for the start of its flight period. These were planned using field guides, with the sole aim of seeing this amazing butterfly. Sadly that was just as we entered that phase where our winters were harsh, spring arrived late and the weather utterly uncooperative. Thus for two years in a row, bleak grey skies, cold temperatures and high winds put the kaibosh on my naive optimism and my target remained stubbornly and mysteriously elusive…
Year three and I relocated to Norfolk, surely now I would just stumble across one right? Cue multiple trips to Hickling, How Hill and Strumpshaw, all known Swallowtail hotspots over the course of the next three years. Yet these attempts attempts to witness the beauty of this butterfly were always ill-fated. I forget how many times I met people and heard them say frustratingly, “oh there was one just down that path there ” . Of course said Swallowtail invariably had vanished by the time I reached the spot, for all my luck, the Swallowtail might have been a capricious sprite from the cast of Shakespeare’s a midsummer’s nights dream.
Last year life simply overtook me. My hunt started far too late in the season for success. So this year, I was determined, was to bethe year of the Swallowtail. Come what may I was determined, I would find this iconic, awe-inspiring butterfly, no matter what!
Spring this year was again cool and I was nervous, conditions were far from auspicious for a prompt emergence or a bountiful butterfly season in Norfolk.
A visit to RSPB Strumpshaw Fen offered me my first fleeting, tantalising glimpse, but my bad luck struck again! Just as I arrived I glimpsed a large custard yellow butterfly swoop in…and it was, yes! ,,,.a swallowtail swooping in and aiming to land to nectar on white violet flowers at the main entrance. But even as I approached it was immediately spooked by an over-enthusiastic visitor waving his camera at it! This tourist seemed to be the incarnation of my Swallowtail nemesis, the butterfly equivalent of the “Man from Porlock” and opportunity lost. Assured by staff that they often returned, I stood stationary, sentinel-like for over an hour. Eventually a friendly gentlemen suggested another spot where he’d seen them “only a few hours before” – so off I trooped, yet to no avail. Another Swallowtail near miss, thwarted by mischance or fate, who knew and I finally started to see the funny side of it all.
Perhaps my resignation and acceptance swung it and the gods took pity on me. I had only one last day left of even remotely suitable weather between what were quite vicious storm showers and off I went one last time on my Swallowtail mission.
Back at Strumpshaw, now a familiar friend of a reserve, I ambled around the areas I’d been shown over the years, my jacket still done up against a nippy morning chill. Mercifully, the weather stubbornly refused to close in as forecast. I dawdled up and down the footpaths for about an hour, amidst cloudy intervals and cool, breezy conditions. Eventually, quite suddenly the sun won its battle against the grey and the temperature rose sharply.
Suddenly, to my immense surprise and joy, an immaculate, freshly emerged swallowtail materialised from the tree canopy above, landing to nectar on some wild red campion blossoms, bouncing from flower to flower. I was taken aback by the sheer size and presence of this impressive, majestic almost magical, butterfly with its vibrant colours and bird-sized wingspan.
At last, this bird-sized stunningly beautiful butterfly posed for me, even basking, its impressive wingspread outstretched whenever the sun vanished behind the lingering cloud to warm itself up in the spring breeze.
One of the things I chatted about on my recent BBC Norfolk radio appearance was the difficult light and the challenges it presents to photographers in high summer. But there is always something to shoot for….
By the time we reach August., though its still very hot and to us the height of summer, in the natural world the days are already drawing in and autumn is just around the corner. Its already getting a little easier to capture soft light in mornings and evenings and if you rise early after a clear night you might even find dew on the ground.
August is a great time to to visit our lowland heaths where the beautiful pink carpet of flowers is just coming into its own and can make a wonderful backdrop for close up photography.
August is a good month to spot late dragonflies as well as second brood and migrant butterflies. Most first generation butterflies are getting very tatty by now and make poor photographic subjects but some species have second broods that metamorphose into a second brood in late summer.
The late summer harvest means that hares, who have enjoyed the cover of the growing crops since spring become easier to spot hunkered down in the stubble of harvested fields.
Many birds are already preparing for their Autumn migrations and this month I’ve immensely enjoyed watching the fledgeling swallows and house martins practice their flight techniques and feeding up for their forthcoming long journey by swooping around my wildlife pond.
Its high summer the bees are buzzing and the butterflies fluttering. Our newly planted wildflower meadow has undergone a transformation into a thing of beauty, enabling me to have a spot of just for fun macro photography in my back garden…
One species of butterfly that seems to be faring well despite the awful summer we’ve been having is the chalkhill blue butterfly. It is no small irony that after living at the bottom of the Ridgeway National Trail for nigh on four years, my first sighting and image of a chalkhill should be taken in Norfolk instead! Its not a butterfly you would expect to find in Norfolk; as its name suggests the chalkhill butterfly is a lover of warm chalk and limestone hillsides. Its caterpillars are accompanied by ants and the adults favour knapweed and other purple flowers as a nectar source. It is a real testament to the rich diversity of habitats in Norfolk that such a thriving colony exists here and long may it remain so. More of my images of chalkhill butterflies can be seen in my lycaenidae butterfly gallery.
In between the showers I’ve been venturing out to try to find butterflies that are surviving the difficult summer we are having. One species that seems to be faring well are ringlets, a new species for me that I’ve seen only since moving to Norfolk. In the last couple of weeks there have been several sites where there have been large emergences and I’ve counted over 30 individuals in a short walk.
At last, belatedly, the butterfly season has arrived. My first butterfly photo of 2012 was of a grizzled skipper, a relatively rare species, particularly so as far north as Norfolk and a new butterfly species for me. Its the earliest skipper to appear, and rarely visits flowers, instead it stays close to the ground basking. Wild strawberries are one of the favourite foodplants of their caterpillars.
My second was an orange-tip butterfly, which seems to be faring well in recent years and has increased its range. Though they’re far from scarce I’d never seen an orange-tip butterfly until I moved to Oxfordshire and I still have a soft spot for them. Its been interesting to note how much later spring arrives in Norfolk than it did back in Oxfordshire. I saw my first orange-tip butterfly at Whistley woods on 12th April but they didn’t emerge in my patch of Norfolk until exactly a month later, the 12th of May. It will be interesting to see how the wettest April for some time will affect the butterfly population, which suffered last year from the impact of a very dry sunny spring. Time will tell..