Mad dogs and wildlife surveyors

With temperatures soaring, you would have to be a fool to go out in the midday sun.  Unless you had a wildlife survey to do.  This weekend, like a fool, I went out twice.  On Saturday I did my monthly BeeWalk (now in the fourth year), and on Sunday I went to survey a square for the Wider Countryside Butterfly Survey.

The Bee Walk can vary in difficulty, depending on the time of year.  Early in the year there are only queens to worry about, as the season goes on there are workers, males and cuckoos thrown into the mix.  I am not the most confident bee identifier, so I really should get some practice in before hand, especially when the lavender is in full flower and the bees are buzzing all over the place.  Much easier to be confident identifying the different species in the field than to try and take photos, do diagrams and count at the same time.

I did take a little diversion on the way home to try and see my second favourite butterfly (Marbled White) and also to check that the Brown Argus are still where I expect them to be (although not for much longer as the site is going to be built on).  Both were ticks – my first for the year for both species.  Brown Argus are a bit tricky to ID, unless you are prepared – they look very much like a female Common Blue – except that they have two dots that are close together on the underside of their hindwing making it look like a figure of 8.  The Blues don’t have this, but they do have an extra spot of the underside of the forewing.  Fortunately the Argus does like to pose with its wings closed so you can be sure of the ID.

Brown Argus Butterfly

On Sunday I had a cunning plan – get out early to look for butterflies and get home before the heat really ramps up.  Unfortunately the old adage of fail to plan, plan to fail, held true for me.  I was picking up a route that had already been done by a previous surveyor a couple of years ago.  But, I thought I knew where I was going and, armed with my print off of the map I set off in high spirits having just seen a Red Kite overhead.  I took this as a good omen as it is my favourite bird of prey.  In hindsight, maybe it was looking for the carrion from previous unprepared surveyors.  The survey involves walking two roughly parallel 1km paths, and should take about one to two hours.  (Although the last square I had was in the land where butterflies feared to fly and it took about 30 minutes because I only had to count 5 on the entire route).  I was happily following the field margins along the path, counting large whites, small whites, meadow browns and gatekeepers.  I even managed to spot my favourite butterfly, the small copper – which was an unexpected bonus – things were going well.

Small Copper Butterfly

Then, I thought I had reached the end of the first 5 parts (of 10) of my walk.  I emerged onto a road – and found I was back where I had parked my car – not halfway along my walk, but actually at the end.  I had to start all over again!  I hadn’t realised that the path I was supposed to take went through the middle of the field, but instead I had followed a path that wasn’t marked on my map!  So I walked down the road, and tried to find out where I should have gone – sorted.  I did the last three bits of that part and went to go and find the route back – and got lost again.  Instead of going through a field, I was in a housing estate and found myself on a completely different road – it took me nearly 30 minutes to get back to where I should have been!

On the plus side I did see a nice dragonfly, survived the field with cows in it and still managed to find a Small Copper (actually two of them) on my proper route.  But, instead of being out for about an hour or so, I spent two and a half hours in the sun – good job I had factor 25 and insect repellent on as well as a stout hat.

So, for anyone thinking of going out and surveying, please do but be more prepared than I was – visit the area first so you know the route, and make sure you have an idea about the species you are likely to see.  I was told earlier this week that lots of people send in records of the rarer butterflies such as Purple Emperor and Wood Whites, but there are not many records of the generalists – people will just report lots of whites, or plenty of gatekeepers  – which is not really very helpful to determine the state of the butterfly (delete and add in appropriate wildlife) population.

New for me

Time for a confession.  Before the start of this year I had never heard of a Brown Argus.  I didn’t know that it was a butterfly.  How bad is that.  Moreover, I saw them in the results for the Wider Countryside Butterfly Survey, and assumed that they were a specialist that I would never see.  I saw pictures on Facebook and then thought nothing much more about them.  In fact I wasn’t sure I would recognise one if I saw it.

Yesterday I took my camera out for a walk – for once the weather was warm and not very breezy.  I saw a lot of gatekeepers, a very lovely small copper – a butterfly that I had never seen in Daventry before.  I also saw some common blues flitting about the field edges.  Lots of photographs were taken as you can probably imagine.

Today I decided to upload them and sort out the fuzzy from the sharp as well as those that might not be the best, but could be useful for ID purposes.  After I had sorted and tagged them it occurred to me that I had assumed that the small brown butterflies were common blue females (which have wings that vary from blue through to brown) because they had frequently been disturbed by blue males.  But, for some reason I thought I would see what the difference was between a brown argus and a female common blue.

A brown argus has no blue on the upper side of its wings, whereas there may be some blue scales on the female common blue.  It also has more orangey spots along the edge and often a dark brown spot in the middle of its brown wings.  Not much help because my photos were all of the underside of the wings.  So, for the undersides the description was related to two spots with that form a figure of eight on the hindwing and the absence of a spot on the forewing for the Brown Argus.  This didn’t seem to be much help either – I was a bit non-plussed until I saw what they were talking about in pictures on the UK Butterflies website.  Suddenly I knew what to look for and guess what?  Yes, one of the butterflies I photographed was in fact my very first Brown Argus – colour me happy!

brown argus

I’m not sure if this is a viable population as my Northamptonshire butterfly book states that their range has contracted a lot in the county and that their traditional food plant is rock rose and, where this is not available, they have moved onto crane’s bill.  Unfortunately the only things I could see around the field edge were ragwort and a chamomile, along with lots of grass.  I will have to have a look around there to see if I can find the requisite flowers!


Today’s new discovery

Today seemed like a good day to go insect hunting.  The sun was out, the sky was blue and, for a change, it was warm.  As the back garden seemed mainly to have flies in it and little else (other than a rather lovely toad) of interest, I put my boots on and we went for a walk along some of our bee transect.

However, we hadn’t even got as far as the old railway track before the butterflies were out showing themselves.  And, to be fair, the front garden had a couple of bees (red-tailed and tree bee) as well as a basking small tortoiseshell.

We walked for a mile or two, and saw butterflies in many of the sections we went along, although, noticeably, not in the newer housing sections – good job as they probably would have starved.  There are four, possibly five, butterflies that overwinter as adults – the jury is out on the red admiral which normal migrates over.  The definite four are Brimstone, Comma, Small Tortoiseshell and Peacock and all of these were out in abundance, sometimes a couple on the same flower.  Dandelions seemed to be the flower of choice for the small torts, peacocks were a bit more interested in the willows and flowering cherries whilst the commas were mainly on viburnum tinus.  As for the brimstones, they were just dashing about like mad things.

So, I took lots of photos, had a big smile on my face, saw some bees and discovered that in contrast to the rest of them, commas have white legs.


On the upper side of their wings commas are a beautiful bright orange, but underneath they look like an old dried up leaf – move along birdies, nothing to eat here, type of leaf – a dull, brown, raggedy old leaf.  This is in fact the only butterfly with such jaggedy wings, although they are perfectly symmetrical in shape.  However, they are named for the small, white, comma shaped mark on the underside of the wing.  I suppose it is better than being called a dried up old leaf butterfly.

As usual, I only saw single specimens of these, as they are one of the few spring butterflies that isn’t often seen in any groups with others of its kind.

Have you seen this butterfly?

Once the weather finally makes up its mind to be warm for more than a few hours, have a look for this butterfly, the Speckled Wood, Pararge aegeria.

speckled woodIt’s quite a common butterfly and should be out and about in the beginning of April.  Like many of the browns, it tends to breed on grasses, and this one likes soft grasses in dappled shade.  In Daventry there will usually be quite a few along the old railway track and in the country park.  The sunlight usually picks up their distinctive yellow spots (numbers and markings vary) and often several will be seen having a bit of a tussle in the air.


The Wider Countryside Butterfly Survey and Butterfly Recorders’ Meeting

As I previously mentioned, I was asked to talk about the WCBS at the recent National Butterfly Recorders’ Meeting.  This was a nerve-wracking moment as I don’t do a lot of public speaking and there was a room full of butterfly greats there – Matthew Oates really should have his own accompanying drum roll.  However, I did managed ten minutes with virtually nothing included about butterflies; for me it was about the people who do the surveys.

I started co-ordinating the butterfly survey for Beds and Northants 3 years ago, and inherited 10 surveyed 1km squares which is not very many in an area of 3000 km2.  It had been higher, but the previous co-ordinator had gone off chasing swallowtails in Norfolk (and he did three of the squares).  We are now regularly surveying over 20 sites (over 30 if you include those from the BTO).

My presentation was about how we had increased to more than 20 squares and, with the help of some volunteers from the BTO, had amassed records of nearly 35,000 butterflies (more details on the actual butterflies in another post).

I’ve tried various ways of upping the numbers: Twitter, the local wildlife trust, and local wildlife groups, but only some have had any affect.  Maybe I am targeting the wrong people.  I had a bit of luck at the local AGM – after all these are people who like butterflies enough to spend a Saturday afternoon at a meeting, and I will try this again this year.  I’m also going to try and target local areas with a lot of empty squares and see if we can get some of them covered as well as talking to the local agricultural college and university.

It really is a nice survey to do and is seen as one of the best scientific surveys that Butterfly Conservation carry out – mainly due to the random allocation of the squares.  It also targets the more common butterflies as it is carried out in July and August – just two visits on a sunny afternoon are required so it isn’t a massive time commitment.

I get a lot of good feedback from volunteers about the survey – some really do love it and look forward to it each year.  The question is – how do I persuade more people to come and do their bit for butterflies and for citizen science?  Answers on a postcard please…

The National Butterfly Recorders’ Meeting

Every year Butterfly Conservation hold a Recorders’ meeting in Birmingham, this year I was asked to talk to the Recorders (more on this in a later post), so I went along for just the second time.  It is a day with a wide and varied schedule of talks and one that is open to anyone with an interest in butterflies.  These are the highlights of just some of the talks, but there were others scattered in between (although I admit to losing the plot with the talk about butterflies and nitrogen – too statistical for me) so plenty for everyone.

The day opened with a talk by the always interesting Richard Fox who gave highlights of 2014 in terms of butterflies – prior to the full results that were saved until the end of the day.  The year was dominated by tortoiseshells.  The familiar small tortoiseshell continued its recovery from its precipitous decline earlier in the decade (something that I think has been reflected in Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire) but the real star was the influx of the Scarce Tortoiseshell from the continent.  Prior to 2014 there were only 2 records – last year there were 19 (and some have been seen this year already).

Zoe Randle spoke about the importance and use of Citizen Science for conservation.  It was so useful to know that the data that volunteers submit through the various schemes run by Butterfly Conservation is put to use with 170 peer reviewed papers making use of the data – papers that have been cited 7,000 times.

A local highlight was the work done in Northamptonshire to try and reverse the decline of the Wood White.  This is a three year project that has just come to an end having been funded mainly through the SITA landfill grants but also receiving money from the local Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire Butterfly Conservation group.  Through working with the Forestry Commission to clear the rides through the woods and uncover the ditches running alongside these rides they have increased the number of wood whites seen for less than a dozen in 2009 to over 150 in 2013 and over 250 in 2o14.  The challenge is now on to keep this going now the official project is over and to replicate it elsewhere.

It it always a pleasure to hear Matthew Oates talking, this time about how the National Trust is prioritising the work it is doing on its land to improve the environment- particularly its farmland.

One of the more scientific talks of the day was from Bristol University researcher – Jon Bridle, who has been investigating whether the Brown Argus, a butterfly that has increased its distribution, possibly due to changing climate, has done so because of any evolutionary changes.  The work focused on the chosen food plant of the butterfly as in two areas of the UK where it had an established presence it had two different food plants – geranium molle and rock rose.  It appears that in the new areas they use exclusively the geranium on which to lay their eggs – those moved to areas with just rock rose didn’t lay at all.  However, when butterflies in areas of rock rose were moved to the new areas they were just as happy, if not happier using the geranium.  Interesting don’t you think.

The final talk gave details of the results of the various butterfly recording schemes for the last year – with the winners and losers described.  However, they will be doing a press release later in the week, so if I told you the results now I’d have to kill you.  Best keep them to myself.

It’s not too late for butterflies…

clouded yellow-3

Once the clocks go back at the end of October I start thinking about spring and the return of the insects.  However, if the weather is warm there is still the chance to catch a few insects still on the wing.  Wasps, flies and hoverflies are feeding on the last of the ivy flowers, and a few red admirals are sometimes be seen on windfall fruits and any remaining blackberries.  However, the first of November this year yielded reports of 11 different butterfly species.  I’m not sure if this is a record, but it certainly seems unusual.

What was more exciting for me was that in addition to the aforementioned admirable reds, I saw my second ever clouded yellow butterfly (colias croceus) and, I  had a camera with me.  This caught my eye initially because it looked like a leaf fluttering, but I soon realised it was a butterfly.  A much deeper yellow than the brimstone which isn’t usually seen this late in the year, the clouded yellow is a migrant to the UK but once here as many as three broods can be produced in one year.  Although not visible from the underside of the wings, the butterfly has a black border round the edges of the upper surface of the wings which gives rise to the clouded part of its name.  The two sexes can be differentiated by the row of spots that are present in this border on the females.  Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to see this one close up when in flight so have no idea whether it was a girl or boy butterfly.  Not that it matters, it was still an exciting find for any time of year, but more so for November.

Small is beautiful

small copper butterfly

Ryton gardens, sunshine and a glint of pure copper, a mini beast photographer (that’s photographer who takes pictures of mini beasts) can’t ask for anything more.

Unlike the plethora of white butterflies that were out that afternoon, the small copper is an unmistakeable butterfly.  Although it is paler on the underside (looking a bit like a common blue – they are the same family after all) the bright copper that it shows when it sits with its wings open resembles no other butterfly – the gatekeeper looks drab by comparison.

Small coppers are likely to be around until mid-October (unless we get very cold weather) and have up to three broods in a year.  The first broods are typically on the wing in early May, a larger brood is around for about a month from mid July and then a final brood occurs from the middle of September into October.  Eggs are usually laid on sorrel or dock leaves (guess what I will be planting next year in case any small coppers are reading this) and apparently are white and disc like and look a bit like the surface of a golf ball – I’ll let you know if I see one.  The green caterpillars that emerge are about for around a month before pupating into the beautiful adults.  The exception being those from the last brood as this is a butterfly that overwinters as a caterpillar.

However, small coppers are apparently very prone to variation in spot size and number and the copper varies in shade with white and brown versions sometimes seen.  And there I was thinking this was a truly unmistakeable butterfly!


Although the butterfly is quick and a bit flighty, males are quite territorial and if you wait for a while they are likely to come back to the same spot.  As shown in this photo, yellow flowers appear to be a bit of a favourite with these butterflies.

Is it going to be a good butterfly summer?

That apparently depends on the butterflies.  There has been some dialogue on Twitter that has revolved around an old belief that if the first butterfly seen in a year is yellow, then it will be a good summer, if it is white it will be a quiet summer and if it is brown or orange it will be a terrible summer.

I am not sure where this piece of wisdom has come from.  There are four butterflies that overwinter as adults; Brimstones, Commas, Small Tortoiseshells and Peacocks.  Therefore if you should see Brimstones first then the summer will be good, see one of the others and we are doomed to a watery summer, see a white butterfly and, I can only assume they mean an Orange Tip as they are the first white-coloured butterflies that are about, then it will be quiet.

Brimstone Butterfly 3I wondered if the reason for this was that Brimstones tend to overwinter outside and therefore if they are in a place that catches the sun then the air will warm up around them (they often shelter under dark coloured ivy) and they might be tempted outside if it is a particularly warm sunny day.  However, the Small Tort and Peacocks tend to overwinter in old buildings and sheds and are therefore less likely to experience sudden changes in temperatures and probably wouldn’t notice an occasional sunny day.  However, this doesn’t take into account the fact that Commas also spend the winter in the undergrowth so they should be out with the Brimstones.  Maybe Commas need the weather to be a bit warmer, or maybe they are much less noticeable than a bright yellow butterfly catching the sun as it flits past so they tend to be overlooked.  If the Orange Tips are out first then it must be April and hasn’t been particularly warm or cold so far and possibly a bit damp as they tend to spend the winter as pupae and then emerge to patrol damp verges and ditches to look for a mate.

Unfortunately I haven’t been keeping track of which butterfly I have been noticing first for the last few years – in Northamptonshire the Peacock has beaten the Brimstone for the last couple of years, but I wonder if that is because some have been overwintering in heated buildings and have come out in January.  For those that are interested my first butterfly this year was a Brimstone seen on 7th March, with Peacocks and Small Torts turning up a couple of days later along with a lot more Brimstones.   So, maybe it will be a Butterfly Summer after all (fingers crossed).


I learned today that Iachnis Io is more than just a pretty face

Thanks to Radio 4 and Butterfly Conservation’s Richard Fox.  I am talking about the peacock butterfly, one of the four butterflies that overwinter in the UK and, along with the Small Tortoiseshell, the Peacock is the one you might come across in your garage or shed.  (In case you are interested the other two butterflies are the Brimstone and Comma, both of which spend the winter in vegetation disguised as leaves.)

Apparently about half of the adult butterflies overwintering (they go dormant rather than hibernate) are predated and don’t make it through to spring.  But, the peacock increases its chances threefold.  Firstly the outside of their wings is dark, almost black making them difficult to see in the dark places they find for winter.  In daylight their bright markings are thought to resemble eyes and either put off predators or cause them to attack the wings, away from their body.  When they are attacked they flap their wings making quite a lot of noise (you can clearly hear them in the summer when they are feeding in the garden).

All these are things that I already knew about, but what I didn’t know is just how effective the defence mechanisms of the peacock are.  Their bright colours and eye patterns just don’t help when their predators, often bats and mice, are usually looking for food in the dark.  However, the clicking of their wings has been demonstrated to scare off mice and bats – after a close encounter with a predator the butterflies tend to move to somewhere safer to spend the winter.  However, even more amazing, when they are out in the sunshine, not only do the bright colours and eyes help them see off predators such as blue tits, but they have apparently been shown to scare birds as large as chickens causing them to start making the same alarm calls as when they come across predators such as foxes.


I wonder what the chicken sees and thinks it has found?  So, when you next see a peacock butterfly, don’t underestimate it…