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.


Spring? Where?

Signs of spring have a been a bit few and far between so far this year, although I have managed to find some in the last week.

There has been a dearth of insects about – so far, apart from a probably very short lived peacock butterfly on 2nd January, I’ve seen a solitary brimstone, and five bees – all apart from one were Bombus terrestris (the buff-tailed bee).   This is a good time of year (well, if it gets a bit warmer it will be) for learning to ID our bumblebees as for the next month or so there will only be queens of true bumblebees about.  None of those pesky cuckoo bees or males to confuse matters.  For more info on bumblebee ID, the Bumblebee Conservation Trust has loads of help.  Even the views I did get of the bees were from a distance:


I found one lurking on some broom and a couple of others sunning themselves on trees.

However, it is probably a good thing that there aren’t many invertebrates braving the cold at the moment (although I was told today that 2015 temperatures have been normal for this time of year) as I’m not sure if it is just that I’m looking in the wrong place, but I’ve not seen many flowers in bloom yet.  I have some snowdrops and hellebores in the garden, but by the roadsides I’m not even seeing many dandelions which flower for most of the year.

willowThe willows are only just breaking out and it took me until the beginning of this week to find any celandines in flower – a bloom I usually associate with February.  However, find them I did, and, what’s more I also heard my first chiffchaff of the year (about a week earlier than I expected) – trying to drown out the sound of traffic on the Bedford Road.  So maybe spring is on its way after all.


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).


More Spring Flowers

From April through to June you might see masses of white flowers in the churchyard, along hedgerows or in damp meadows (there are usually lots at the bottom of the dam in Daventry Country Park).  If you get closer you will see that these are not white flowers, but very pale pink or lilac.  These are cuckoo flowers or lady’s smock (they are also called milk maids, bittercress, mayflower, meadowcress and pigeon’s eye in various parts of the country).  Their name originates from the coincidence of their flowering time with the call of the first returning cuckoos from their African wintering grounds.  The name lady’s smock dates from the Tudor period due to the resemblance of the flowers to the smocks worn at the time.  Possibly originating from this time is also the belief that it is unlucky to bring a cuckoo flower into the house.

These are a perennial, native plant with yellow-centred flowers (which close up at night and in heavy rain) held on thin stalks that are usually about a foot in height (although they can grow to twice that height).  Their small kidney-shaped leaves are rich in Vitamin C and were used to fight against scurvy.  Although it has been used in salads when lettuce was not available, it hasn’t gained the popularity in modern times of its close relative, watercress.

It is however much prized by the caterpillars of both the orange tip and green veined white butterflies.  In fact, one of the easiest ways to see the orange tip butterflies is to find a hedgerow containing cuckoo flowers and, if it is a sunny day, it probably won’t be long before you see a male orange tip butterfly patrolling by.

Another plant that is seen in hedgerows alongside the cuckoo flower is garlic mustard.  Like most flowers this one also has numerous other names, the most common being jack-by-the-hedge, although it is also known as Garlic Root, Hedge Garlic, Sauce-alone, Jack-in-the-bush, Penny Hedge and Poor Man’s Mustard.

This is a much taller, more erect plant than the cuckoo flower growing up to about a metre in height.  In the first year there are rosettes of green leaves close to the ground.  These overwinter and throw up strong, tall stems.  Between April and June there are clusters of small white flowers, each with four petals arranged in a cross shape.  These then form seed pods which are about four centimetres long that burst open in mid July scattering shiny black seeds up to a metre around.

The name derives from the smell of garlic when the leaves are bruised and, like the cuckoo flower its leaves (and sometimes flowers and seeds) have been added to salads.  In this case they are said to taste of both garlic and mustard.

It has also been used medicinally as a diuretic, disinfectant and to treat gangrene, ulcers and sore throats.

It was introduced to North America in the 1860s and is now considered and invasive species (depending on conditions it can self pollinate and the seeds can lay dormant for a couple of years).  In some areas it is threatening native butterflies which confuse it with food plant of their caterpillar.  They then lay their eggs on the garlic mustard, but the caterpillars cannot eat the leaves and therefore don’t survive.

In the UK it is an important food plant for the caterpillars of the orange-tip and green-veined white butterflies, as well as supporting many other native insects.  Its seeds are also important in the diet of farmland birds.

Early Spring Flowers

One of the earliest flowering native plants is the Lesser Celandine, member of the buttercup family. Although these are often seen in February, they are most commonly in flower from March through to June. In fact their name, Celandine, is derived from the Greek name for the swallow, Chelidon, as they are both seen as early indicators of spring.

Celandines (actually Lesser Celandines) are noticeable by the mass of bright yellow star-like flowers that are seen on a carpet of dark green leaves. If you look closely you will see that there are between eight and twelve glossy petals on each of the flowers. You may also notice that the leaves are heart shaped near the ground, often with white markings, and become smaller and more ivy-leaf shaped closer to the flowers.

Celandines love the sun and are found all over the county, particularly in clay soil, at the roadside, or on sunny banks – the old railway track in Daventry often has some close to town. When the sun goes in the petals close up, reopening as soon as the sun comes out again. Such is the effect of the bright shiny flowers that celandines have been referenced in many poems over the years, they were particularly favoured by William Wordsworth who wrote an ode to the Lesser Celandine.

The lesser celandine has other local names including pilewort, small celandine, smallwort, figwort, brighteye, butter and cheese. The name pilewort derives from its therapeutic use in the treatment of piles, both internally and as an ointment. This was due to the resemblance of the roots to haemorrhoids

All traces of this, and the following flower will have gone by mid-summer, the leaves and flowers dying away completely.


Another flower to look out for in March is the incredibly pretty wood anemone. As the name suggests, it is mainly found in wooded areas (dry and deciduous please), although it can be found in old hedgebanks – as long as there isn’t too much shade. In common with the celandine, it likes sunshine and therefore does all of its flowering before the leaves are out on the trees and only opens when the sun is out.

The exquisite (but scentless) white flowers are held above dark green palmate leaves, just one flower per plant. The flowers are often flushed with a little bit of pink. Again, just like the celandine, it flowers too soon to attract many insects and so propagates underground – although in this case very slowly.

Another name for the wood anemone is the windflower. According to Greek mythology, Anemos, the wind, used the star-like flowers to herald his coming in Spring. The delicate flower stems are strong, but supple enough, to bend and not break in the March winds. It is also called the thimbleweed and smell fox, the latter being an allusion to the musky smell of its leaves.

Wood anemone has few medicinal uses due to the fact that it is toxic to humans and most animals causing amongst other things skin and gastrointestinal irritation, burning mouth and throat sensations, mouth ulcers and nausea.

Unimportant fact of the day – the wood anemone is the county plant of Middlesex

Flutterby Butterfly – look out for these beautiful insects this spring

One of the first butterflies that you will notice as the days get a bit warmer and lighter is the Brimstone.  As its name suggests this is a yellow butterfly, which it is thought was the original butter-coloured fly from which butterfly was derived – its name later being changed to reflect its sulphurous colour.

The Brimstone is one of the few UK butterflies that overwinter as an adult and therefore it is one of the early fliers in Spring.  In fact Brimstones were spotted on 2nd January in Hampshire and Surrey, and have already been spotted in Northamptonshire in February.

Whilst many butterflies live as adults for only a few weeks Brimstones are a much longer-lived insect and, despite laying eggs only once a year, can be seen from February through to November, depending on where you are in the country.  The best time to see the butterflies are reported to be April, May and August (the latter when the year’s eggs have gone through their full cycle and the adults have emerged).  However, I think they are much more noticeable in March when there are fewer insects about and the bright yellow of their wings becomes very noticeable as it catches the spring sunshine.  They are another of the indicator species that I use to decide that spring has finally sprung.

So, how do you recognise a Brimstone butterfly and where will you see one?  The males are a bright yellow colour whereas the females are much paler but both have an orange spot on their wings; their colour makes them unmistakeable in flight.  They are a medium sized butterfly, their wings are about 2 1/4 inches and they are very strong fliers, often roaming away from their food sources in search of a mate.

At rest you will notice that their wings are a beautiful leaf or shield shape.  This helps them camouflage themselves for roosting overnight under ivy leaves or for when hibernating over winter.  I was actually surprised by how well they blend in when I watched one move underneath the leaf of a dogwood in the garden to shelter from the rain.

Brimstone caterpillars eat mainly buckthorn and alder buckthorn plants, they are bright green and apparently resemble the caterpillars of the cabbage white butterflies.  I haven’t seen any yet, but I will let you know if I find some.

They are found almost anywhere there is a bit of sunshine.  Males can be seen patrolling along hedgerows and roadside looking for love, whereas the females tend to be a little less obvious and hide in the vegetation.  They are particularly fond of purple and nectar rich plants.  In the spring you will often see them on primroses, cowslips and bluebells, whereas in the summer knapweed, teasel (which their long proboscis allows them to feed on) and thistles are popular.  The Brimstones that I have seen in my garden tend to like the buddleia and verbena- as do most of the other insects.

So, in the coming month, keep an eye out for this remarkably pretty butterfly.  If you see it, you will know spring is on its way.

If you want to know more about butterflies or help conserve them then the Butterfly Conservation website is a good place to start.

Springing out this week.

OK, so the weather is warmer, the hint of Blackthorn flower to be glimpsed last week has erupted into a frothy, white mass and the Chiffchaffs can be heard regularly – Spring is definitely here.  So, what else has been happening out and about this week?

To start with, in my garden the Clematis Armandii is flowering away on the bottom fence, and, every now and again giving a hint of scent.  The Primroses and Hellebores are still looking great, and, the Pulmonaria is in full flower and attracting bumblebees.  The early tulips have now gone over, but the others are starting to show flower buds.Trees are now starting to show hints of lime green colour, such as this Maple / Sycamore that I pass on my way to work.

There are more flowers out for the aforementioned bumblebees, and, ergo, more bumblebees; mainly queens foraging before setting up home  – such as this one that I took a picture of whilst it was a little dazed having for some reason flown into a lampost!  On the flower front, the Celandines are particularly noticeable on sunny roadsides, as is the purple flower ground ivy.  There are also some wild violets flowering in places.

There are also more butterflies about, initially I had only seen Brimstones, but today I saw my first Small Tortoiseshell and Peacock butterflies.  I think it will not be long before the Speckled Woods are roaming up and down the old Railway Track.

On a distinctly Wintery note though, I had a Redpoll in the garden this week for the first time ever.  This is a bird I associate with Winter, and one that I have only seen in the Country Park before now (and then only once).  Very strange, it must have been passing through.  I have no idea whether it is a Lesser Redpoll or a Mealy Redpoll, however, I don’t care either.

The soundtrack has changed.

Someone has stolen all the robins and thrushes!  It occurred to me the other day that I no longer here the song thrush in the morning on my way to work.  Then I thought a bit more and realised there were no robins either.    Then one morning I woke up earlier than usual and heard the thrush (even through the double glazing – note to self, get double glazing changed).  The song thrush sings just before it gets light, unfortunately I am too lazy to get up at that time once we get past February and so I miss his solo performance.

Now the tune has changed and I am treated to the calls of chaffinches, blue tits and great tits.  It won’t be long before the blackcaps and chiffchaffs are adding to the chorus line.  I know that chiffchaffs have been heard in the area, and I was lucky enough to have a blackcap in the garden on last Saturday (strangely enough the day after I had 5 siskins, traditionally winter visitors, on the seed feeder).  I managed to catch the grumpy little chap on camera, unfortunately, though, not the siskins.

Early Male Blackcap
One sound of Spring that I am still missing is the sound of the frogs in the pond.  Alas, I fear there will be no frogspawn this year.

Is there a sound that you particularly associate with the coming of Spring?

More reasons to be cheerful.

I saw my first butterfly of the year yesterday.  It was a Brimstone, often one of the first to be out flying, in fact they were recorded a couple of months ago in Oxfordshire.  He gladdened my heart (he was definitely a he, too bright a yellow to be female).  I had popped into the back garden to enjoy the sunshine, and it appears he had the same thought.  Unfortunately I didn’t get a photograph.

On my way home today, I saw my first blossom trees flowering.  I am not sure what they are, but they are cherry related.  There was a bee on this flower shortly before I took this picture, but, as is often the case, he flew away before I could press the button.

Spring Blossom

Also of note are the daffodils flowering on various roundabouts, roadsides and gardens, as well as the early flowering tulips that open up to greet the sun in our front garden.  OK, they are a  bit gaudy, but I think you can get away with it at tis time of the year.

Early Tulip