Friday, 17 March 2017

Alpine Amble - Part 3

After a reasonable attempt at spring the over the last few days that has seen me clock up all the 5 normal hibernators, the weather has turned and Lepidoptera once more seem a rather distant and frivolous summer thing, and as such, it’s time to burn the swiss midnight oil afresh.
BVW roosting.
The ‘Whites’ is a bit of an amorphous term that I tend to apply fairly freely to anything in the first 80 pages of Tolman & Lewington, hardly a monophyletic group, but convenient. This includes Swallowtails, Apollos, Festoons, Brimstones, Clouded Yellows, and then at some point actual whites. Over the course of the walk, we notched up 17 species in this fairly arbitrary group, with the commonest probably Black-Veined.

Acrobatic copulation from BVWs
Despite their relative abundance, I always find these butterflies strangely thrilling, a little piece of Old England flying by on their papery wings. Black-Veined Whites became extinct in the UK in the 1920s, with the failing of the last Kentish populations, a string of releases has followed since, famously by E. H. Newman in the grounds of Churchill’s Chartwell estate, and most recently, a clandestine introduction to Stockbridge Down resulting in trampling of some of the site’s key habitats by ardent photographers – a cautionary tale about the use of such releases if ever there was one. The causes of extinction are poorly known – Colin Pratt’s ‘Modern review of the Demise of A. crataegi L., the Black-Veined White’ notes a string of wet Septembers tended to precede extinctions on most sites, and the cries of many frustrated breeders of the time who suggested an increase in passerine populations (due to shotgun innovations=fewer raptors=more blue tits=more predation of larval webs and pupae). In essence, it’s far from an open and shut case.

Mountain Green-Veined White at roost.
Following the veined motif, Mountain Green-Veined Whites became one of the commonest butterflies at higher altitudes, and despite being very active in sunny conditions, were relatively easy to find and photograph when at roost on flowerheads. These differ from ‘our’ Green-Veined Whites by having heavier, greyish streaking, and often more of a dark suffusion. Interestingly, they have this in common with Scottish, thomsoni Green-Veined Whites – a nice bit of convergent evolution, adapting to their common struggle against frequent colder spells.

Having looked back through my photos from the trip, it’s clear I didn’t pay perhaps as much attention to the whites as I should have, with only a few photos of Mountain Clouded Yellows and their kin, probably because most of it was lavished on one particular set of broad white wings – Apollos. These are arguably one of Europe’s most impressive butterflies – ardent brits might choose the Purple Emperor for its dazzling iridescence, and aloof, regal nature, yet Apollos are amazing in a different kind of way: ethereal, seemingly detached, gliding past on wings so large and papery it’s possible to locate them as they soar past the back of your head, purely on the basis of the rustling they make as they move, and for such a butterfly, an iconic setting is a must, so snow-capped peaks and sound of music meadows it is – they, like most alpine butterflies, are a sight it’s hard not to be seriously impressed by.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Alpine Amble - Part 2


Searching for Brown Hairstreak eggs to stave off the winter blues is proving unsuccessful, with favoured thickets of young Blackthorn having been flailed left right and centre, so it’s back to Switzerland to eke out the remains of the summer that was. Unlike the lycaenids, the fritillaries didn’t yield any new species for me, but it was nice to re-acquaint myself with old friends in a different context. Fritillary is a vernacular name that doesn’t really reflect the taxonomy of the butterflies that it’s applied to, which can be divided into two main groups: Melitaeini (Euphydryas and Melitaea) and Argynnini (Argynnis, Issoria, Boloria, Brenthis in the Alps), 2 rather distantly-related groups of Nymphalids. Melitaeini are generally smaller, with the classic checkerboard markings, while the Argynnini are typically the larger, more orange, and more mobile species.

My favourite of the fritillaries is one of the Melitaeini, the Marsh Fritillary (Euphydryas aurinia). In the UK, it favours damp neutral/acid meadows and calciolous grassland, but in Europe is a bit more cosmopolitan, and has evolved into a large variety of regional subspecies, generally with a high altitude form, and low altitude form in each area. A new paper gives loads of really cool information on the taxonomy (and some pictures of the many awesome-looking forms): , in Spain for example Euphydryas beckeri (or Euphydryas aurinia beckeri if you’re not a splitter) flies at low altitudes, while Euphydryas aurinia pyrenesdebilis favours the peaks, and in the South of France: Euphydryas aurinia provencalis in the lowlands, and Euphydryas aurinia glaciegenta in the Alps. The latter, formerly lumped with pyrenesdebilis as just debilis (on account of morphological similarities resulting from convergent evolution, the two are pretty different both in terms of genitalia and genetics apparently) was the subspecies I caught up with, a smaller, more contrasty form than the ones I know and love from the west country (Marsh Frits tend to get a bit smaller and darker with altitude). These stunning little beasts were toughing it out by one of our campsites at 2000m towards the end of the walk, they feed on gentians (unlike ours, which opt for Devil’s Bit Scabious), and fly much later in the year, between June and August depending, like many things in the Alps, on the altitude.
Mountain Fritillary (metallic female!)
Mountain Fritillary

Shepherd's Frit

Shepherd's Frit
A variety of other high Alpine species were flying alongside these at our campsite, including Shepherd’s Fritillaries, a species that looks very similar to the closely-related Mountain Fritillary (the males can be distinguished by greater red suffusion on the underside, and two rows of submarginal spots in Shepherd’s, and the females by Mountain’s gorgeous blue suffusion). Both are high altitude specialists feeding on violets, in common with most Boloria species, and fly extremely quickly in hot weather, fortunately I was able to catch up with a couple of them on cooler afternoons. These flew alongside their close, and equally similar-looking relatives, Small Pearl-Bordered and Pearl-Bordered Fritillaries, both are classic spring species here in the UK (apart from when Small Pearls sneak in a second brood and ruin everything in August), but with the high altitudes and cold temperatures in the Alps delaying development, I found many mud-puddling companionably alongside Silver-Spotted Skippers and Chalkhill Blues – the ultimate species of heady late summer days on the chalk back here, with the orange emperors of the spring woodlands and meadows – weird!

High Brown Fritillary (Note sex brands!)
Again note sex brands!
Niobe Frit egg-laying.
Other classic summer species flying alongside these early emergers were the Argynnis species, High Brown, Silver-Washed, Niobe and Dark Green Fritillaries (in order of increasing abundance). The latter were present in pretty much every flowery meadow, like lepidopteran sports cars, fast, flashy, and utterly unattainable, I’ve seen them every year for the last 6 and still haven’t got a photo that I actually like. I thought I’d succeeded with the photo below, but in an elated rush of blood to the head, I’d not noticed the enormous shiny sex-brands on the forewings that should have been screaming High Brown, this was only encountered a couple of times, both in the small, sheltered clearings that seem to be a key part of Alpine woodlands. Niobe was slightly commoner towards the end of our trip, quite distinctive in flight with its slightly paler ground colour and blue-looking veins (it’s the little things), it falls somewhere between Dark Green (very rounded) and High Brown (pretty angular) in terms of its shape, and was found in pretty similar habitat to the High Browns. Silver-Washed Fritillaries are the odd ones out of the group, discarding the ‘dots and pearls’ underside motif of their relatives in favour of their own magnificent green and white water colour. They’re more of a woodland butterfly too, and like High Brown, tended to pop up in clearings along the route. Interestingly, the ultimate Argynnis has just begun to stake a claim to Swiss territory (as chronicled on Guy Padfield’s UK Butterflies Diary here:, this is of course, the legendary Cardinal, possibly the chief of all the European Fritillaries, a giant, roided up silver-washed with a green tint and extravagant red forewing panel just because, I was lucky enough to catch up with a couple in the south of France a few years ago (see photos).

Bonus pic of 'The Chief'

Tit Frit
Tit Frit

The commonest fritillary from the trip was undoubtedly Titania’s, this is a smart butterfly that tends to pop up hand in hand with Purple-Edged Coppers (since both feed on Bistort in damp meadows). Like most Bolorias, it’s a wonderfully graceful flyer, with interspersing rapid flapping with lengthy glides. Perhaps this is where it gets its name from, Titania, in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream was the Queen of the Fairies.
False Heath Frit
Knapweed Frit

In previous trips to the Alps, it’s always been joined by the Lesser Marbled Fritillaries (yet another Bistort feeder), yet these handmaidens to the queen were strangely absent in the parts of Switzerland that our walk took us to, instead, the second most abundant species was the False Heath Fritillary. As the name suggests, it’s a dead ringer for Heath Frits which we know and love from coppiced woodland in the UK, appearing slightly darker, the cause of the occasional identification headache. In fact, the whole Melitea genus becomes rather more varied and tricky once you go abroad, along our walk for example, we clocked up Spotted Fritillary (bright orange, and easy enough), Grisons Fritillary (another high-altitude hard nut, look for the dumbbell mark on the forewing), Meadow Fritillary (slightly sparser forewing markings than Heath and the darker False Heath), Heath Fritillary, and Knapweed Fritillary (like a large, angular Glanville Fritillary – very smart). Generally, I managed to pick my way through this group and the majority of the ID disasters were saved for Pyrgus (with a handful helpfully set aside for Erebia too, in the interests of fairness), such disasters (I’ve convinced myself), are a natural part of getting to grips with the awe-inspiring variety of butterflies in the Alps, and well worth the effort.
Tit Frit in the land of the Tit Frit


Saturday, 3 December 2016

Alpine Amble - Part 1



As Autumn draws to a close and the long nights draw in, times become hard for butterfly enthusiasts, you can eke out the rest of the season, and kid yourself there’s still life left with reckless November Red Admirals, or tired, morbid Speckled Woods, or distract yourself with birds and Brown Hairstreak eggs as a stop-gap before the first Orange Tips next April. Truly, winter is a trying time of year. This is oversimplifying the case a bit, since serious devotion and field skills improve our understanding of our butterflies’ winter doings more and more each year (check out Matthew Oates’ Purple Emperor larval doings:, and Pete Eeles’ White Admiral ones: , this is the great thing about butterflies, there’s always another layer of complexity and understanding to unlock.
The point is however, that there are fewer butterflies around, and coping strategies are therefore required, one such, is reminiscence. This July, by way of a light at the end of the examination tunnel, I spent three weeks hiking in Switzerland, along the Via Alpina’s Green route (, with a long-suffering friend. The idea is to walk from refuge to refuge across Switzerland (we used tents, more because of cost than any purist walking notions), on a rather challenging route, generally involving a 1000m ascent and corresponding descent each day. It’s a famously impressive part of the world, taking you through the Bernese Oberland, past chocolate box towns (think Murren), rushing waterfalls (think Reichenbach, of Sherlock Holmes fame), and of course, high alpine meadows rich in butterflies. 

High altitude meadows - land of the Gland'

Over the course of the trip, we chalked up somewhere in the region of 100 species, many flying in awe-inspiring abundance, in equally awe-inspiring settings. For me one of the most exciting groups are the lycaenids, seen in much greater diversity than here in the UK, they’re striking, obvious, and pose few of the ID challenges that Erebia and Pyrgus often raise. The most exciting for me was the Glandon Blue, a really hardcore species that ekes out a living flying among the peaks (we never saw one below 1700m) at low densities (wherever there were large numbers of puddling blues, there would only ever be one or two Glandons), and thus has eluded me for a while. They’re small, and nippy, and appear very dark in flight, but are stunning up close, with a really unusual set of diffuse underside markings.

Glandon in Glandon country.
Lady Glandon
A typically anti-social Glandon sneaking into the corner of a party
of puddlers.

Seemingly copying the Glandon Blue’s underside, but setting it off with a rather more extravagant upperside (at least in the males), the Alpine Blue was another denizen of (slightly less) high altitudes, and while flying at similarly low densities, it was rather more widespread. These were joined by another new species for me, the Cranberry Blue, seen only a couple of times around boggy areas where the foodplant (Vaccinium uliginosum in the Alps) grew.

Alpine Blue
Cranberry Blue

Even more tied to their foodplants were Geranium Arguses, invariably seen perched on or around the flowers of Meadow Cranesbill (don’t know why I never looked for eggs). Sharing a second name and perhaps an underside with the Geranium Arguses, (but little else) was the much rarer Silvery Argus, I was delighted to chance upon a single female in a boggy clearing.


Geranium Argus, strangely enough, on Geranium.
Silvery Argus - set apart by the delicate
pale blue wash

Mazarine Blues, despite no longer gracing the meadows of our fair isle, were one of the commonest blues, flying in small numbers pretty much everywhere, right up to about 1800m. Females depositing their sea-urchin like white eggs on clovers were seen several times, as well as a male harassing one still drying her wings.

Mazarine Blue

Mazarine Blue

Commoner still than Mazarine Blues, were Small Blues, which were fairly ubiquitous, forming their little leks in small hotspots, particularly at higher altitudes. Here, the foodplant, Kidney Vetch was found thriving on rocky soils, very frequently with their eggs peppered liberally among the flowerheads. They were particularly fond of mud-pudddling, and on several occasions, made the greatest possible sacrifice for this predilection, when a careless foot or quad-bike tire ploughed over the little aggregations that formed in damp spots. Rather more sinisterly, survivors did not seem to take the hint, and would often be seen feasting among (and even on) the corpses of their fallen companions, a stark reminder of the life and death struggle that confronts one of the most fragile-looking of European butterflies every day.

Small is beautiful
Feasting on the bodily fluids of spent comrades.
Like the Small Blues, male Coppers were often seen staking out territories in sheltered spots, one to each glade. These weren’t too well represented across the walk, with just Sooty, Purple-Edged and Scarce seen (Violet, Large and Purple-Shot can also be found in Switzerland). Sooty was the commonest, in pretty much every flowery habitat up to about 1800m, Purple-Edged was frequent in boggy areas in little colonies, and Scarce was strangely patchy – it was abundant towards the end of the walk, but completely absent elsewhere.

Scarce Copper (male)
Sooty Copper (male)

Classic eurydame-type male PEC - what it 'should' be.

The lack of quantity of copper species was certainly made up for by their quality, these are royalty among lycaenids, the Sooty Copper a black prince, smoky, somehow lighter and more wraith-like on their larger wings than the petulant, angry fireballs of their Scarce and Purple-Edged relatives. All three species feed on relatives of docks, and come in their own limited-edition forms in the Alps: subalpinus for Sooty (much darker than lowland forms, lacking orange on the underside), montanus for Scarce (males with a thicker black forewing, and females a tad washed out), and eurydame for Purple-Edged, males lacking the trademark purple upperside colouring, and females a uniform brown apart from darker cell spots, while both sexes lack any really yellow underside markings. The latter proved a real point of interest, I’ve only ever seen them in the Alps  - all smart eurydame specimens, and was expecting to see much more of the same, but some didn’t seem to have read Tolman and Lewington, with one male sporting really impressive purple markings, and plenty of females with a yellow flush on the forewing uppersides.
Hippothoe-type male PEC - note strong purple iridescence,
what it 'shouldn't' be.

Strongly-marked PEC underside, more
hippothoe like.
Variety, both within and between species is very much the order of the day in the rich tapestry of life that is the Swiss lepidoptera, and nowhere was this more obvious than at the large gatherings of mud-puddling lycaenids that formed on hot days. Blue wings, blue skies, and white peaks will live long in the memory.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Challenge on Nature Photography Part 6

One of the things that characterises the common or garden naturalist, is their obsession with what seems, on the face of it, trivial, small details that separate species or make them unique and interesting, it’s these details which give them a richer understanding of the natural world around them, and give its study its enormous depth and interest.
I am no different, and I’m particularly delighted by butterflies and moths, and their ecology and life cycles, but also, with that classic naturalist’s love of the trivial, their scientific names, having done a bit of Latin and Greek at school, ostensibly useless, dead subjects, it’s nice to find a purpose for all those ‘wasted’ hours in the classroom and tease out the meanings of the mighty binomial system that defines everything living on earth, combining this with photos is always a winner, and so this post will be the latest part of my flagging challenge on nature photography.

'The Beautiful eyebrow of the bramble.'
First up is a favourite spring species, Green Hairstreak (Callophrys rubi), flying on moorland, downland and light woodland across the UK from April to June, it is, like most hairstreaks highly territorial and males often engage in vicious dogfights from favoured perches along tree-lines. Callophrys means ‘beautiful eyebrow’ (kallos – beautiful, and phrys – eyebrow, spliced together), and rubi means ‘of the bramble’, a bit of a misnomer, since Green Hairstreaks are polyphagous and feed on foodplants from several plant families, not just bramble, but others, including Gorse, various legumes, and bilberry.
A close relative of the Green Hairstreak is the Purple (Neozephyrus quercus), which tends to be a bit more elusive, favouring the tops of oak trees during July and August  - check the crowns at about 6:00 on warm evenings, and you should see these silvery butterflies, like the Green Hairstreak, engaging in frequent territorial dogfights. A loose translation of Neozephyrus quercus is something like ‘young west wind of the oak’, where ‘Neos’ is greek for young or new, Zephyrus is the Greek god of the West wind, and quercus, of course, is oak. Interestingly, in Greek Mythology, Zephyrus was married to Iris (the god of the rainbow), who is commemorated in the Purple Emperor’s scientific name – Apatura iris, perhaps this hints at the way the two species share habitats, both having an affinity for oaks, the Hairstreak as a foodplant, and the Emperor as master trees where males congregate.

'The Young west wind of the oak' (on an oak, of course)

Another branch of the Lycaenidae is the blues, including the aptly named Small Blue, which, measuring in at just 20mm, is Britain’s smallest butterfly. Its scientific name (Cupido minimus) also picks up on its small stature (Small Blues could be forgiven for feeling downtrodden) with ‘minimus’ the Latin for very small, and cupid the tiny love god of Roman mythology.

Keeping with the small theme, Small Skippers get the label Thymelicus sylvestris, where Thymelicus was a dancer in ancient greek drama known for a strange, erratic dance, picking up on the Small Skipper’s bouncing flight style, whilst sylvestris means ‘inhabiting wild places’ – so we have the skipper of the wildlands!
The Large skipper (Ochlodes faunus) also receives a wild name tag, with ‘Faunus’ another name for the god of mysterious wild places – Pan/Bacchus, and ‘Ochlodes’ meaning turbulent, relating to the territorial behaviour of male Large Skippers, which often sit motionless, with their wings held at 45 degrees before attacking anything that dares to enter their territory, so this gives us ‘the angry wild thing’ in a rough translation.

Returning to the blues, the Large Blue’s Maculinea arion picks up on its life cycle (the story of the Greek musician arion provides a neat allegory for its adoption by ants as a larva – see this post for more: ) and its colouring, maculinea means ‘many-spotted’, referring either to its underside, with the black spots on a silvery field, or its upperside, with the strong black forewing markings which make it so unique among British butterflies (I haven’t quite decided which). It’s smaller relative, the Silver-Studded Blue (Plebejus argus) again gets its underside examined, with argus a nod to the many-eyed giant of Greek mythology, and the spotting on this butterfly’s underwing, and ‘Plebejus’ meaning ‘plebeian’ – it sounds rather damning now, but it was the name given to ‘the common people’ in ancient Rome, and suggests that this exquisite heath-dweller is a pretty widespread species (if only!)
'The Angry wild thing' - sticking its tongue out at
passers by.
A common theme in these names, should, by now be making itself obvious, many of them refer to Greek mythology, they fete butterflies as god-like, ethereal beings, indeed, in ancient Greek, the same word is used for both soul, and butterfly (psyche), these creatures appealed to both the ancients, and more modern taxonomists on a very spiritual level. An interest in butterflies is not a strange delight in the trivial; it is more complex than that, as these 2000 year old roots will testify. They hint at the place of butterflies, and the natural world (at the risk of melodrama), at the centre of the way we live, and teach us a lesson, that now, more than ever, we should learn to live by. The modern, urban world, and the more primal, natural world are not mutually exclusive, the two are intertwined, nature governs our economies, be it through water purification, soil formation (or as we’ve seen, flood defence), and we must not by slow to embrace it and work with it, now, more than ever, an holistic approach is the future.


Saturday, 12 December 2015

Challenge on Nature Photography Part 5

The interconnectedness of the natural world is one of the things that makes it so appealing to Naturalists down the ages, I for example, like butterflies, and since they have to feed on something, my interest in plants has grown, and since Orchids are impressive plants with weird names, and often, even weirder Biology, I’m interested in them.

Common Spotted Orchids in abundance in West Somerset

I’ve always thought that butterfly-watching can come across as a bit strange, but perhaps orchid-hunting is even more so, in this bizarre hobby, you enter a clandestine world of ‘top secret’ locations, ‘gen’, hybrids, homozygous recessives and ‘vars’, and in many cases, drive across the country to see a plant that won’t run away, and will no doubt be in exactly the same place next year. Yet its magic, the magic of the hunt for the new, rare plants, and the many strange places that they grow never fades, I’m hooked, and so, for the fifth part of my excruciatingly slow ‘Challenge on Nature Photography’, it’s time for these charismatic plants to take the stage!

Early Purple Orchids forming a dense clump through
vegetative reproduction.
First up, is the Early Purple Orchid, it’s a bit of a generalist, growing in woodlands across the UK,(often, but not always under Hazel), but also chalky grassland, and like many orchids, it exhibits a fair bit of variation in colour, from pure white, to quite a deep purple-pink. It’s fairly common on ‘the patch’ in Somerset, and, as its name suggests, flowers fairly early in the year (April-May).

A statuesque Common
Another common species, is the aptly named Common Twayblade, (it’s common, and the tway-blade refers to its two opposing leaves from which the flower spike grows), a subtle beast which eluded me during my early days of Orchid-hunting, but once seen once, popped up pretty much everywhere, from my local Railway embankment, to a flower-rich local Common, to 1800m up a French mountainside.

So far, not so weird, the Bird’s Nest Orchid however, is a much more mysterious creature, lacking chlorophyll with which to carry out photosynthesis, it’s a rather insipid brown-yellow plant, and a saprophyte - totally dependent on a fungal ‘partner’ (perhaps not the best term, the fungus gets totally ripped off), from which it obtains the nutrients needed for growth. The fungus itself is then dependent on a tree (often Beech, sometimes others, such as Hazel) with which it swaps nutrients for carbohydrates. I had always suspected that this strange plant was lurking somewhere in the old beech woods near my home, and was delighted to find several hiding in plain sight in a search this spring.

3 Bird's Nest Orchids lurking on the patch.

At the other end of the specialisation spectrum, are the Dactylorhiza species, classic ‘spikes’ in a range of loud pink colours they often grow in large numbers in unimproved grassland of one sort or another, in my part of the world, Heath Spotted, Common Spotted, and Southern Marsh Orchids are the common species.

An impressive display of Heath Spotted Orchids
I could go on, with the stunning Bee Orchid, and the endless quirks and variations its self- pollination throws up, the Ghost Orchid, and its mysterious flowering every decade or so, or the Lady’s Slipper and the cloak and dagger intrigue that surrounds its last redoubt oop north, but there are 56 species of Orchid native to the UK (including one extinction, and another recent colonisation), as well as 8 others of dubious status, so I can’t really cover them all here without writing a book (there are several excellent ones out there, Harrap’s ‘Orchids of Britain and Ireland’, and locally, Chris Gladman’s Orchids of Somerset), I also haven’t seen very many of them, further turning such an endeavour into a dull, photo-less desert of a blog post. In short though, there’s a lot to be said for these stunning plants, they’re not just frivolous natural quirks, and their parasitic relationships, mysterious patterns, pollination, and indeed rarity, can tell us a lot about evolution, genetics, and habitat and climate change in the UK. If you fancy learning more about them, the books I’ve mentioned are a great starting point, and the Natural History Museum’s Orchid Observers project is a great way to get involved in their conservation and study….

A Bee Orchid looming majestically
in Large Blue country at Collard