Sunday, 9 August 2015

Butterflies that flutter by

Bovingdon (BMT): It’s always easy, and mildly reassuring, to fall back into old routines after a good break. Having been away in Warwick for a few days, yesterday morning’s sunshine and warmth was perfect for catching up with the local wildlife. At the Brickworks, I came across 3 species of dragonfly, which is pretty good going there (female Southern Hawker, male and female Brown Hawkers and an Emperor). The second generation of Common Blue butterflies have been emerging, all looking pristine and perfect. There were a fair few mating pairs around the site too, making preparations for next season.

The best welcome home present, though, was to find a splendid male Silver-washed Fritillary. It’s only the second one I’ve found at the site (the first was last year, also a male, but he looked more dead than alive, with a greater resemblance to a waffle than a butterfly! Take a look if you don’t believe me, HERE).

There’s an underlying sense of awe whenever I see this species. It’s our largest fritillary and in spite of being Tango orange, it’s the silver streaks and shimmer on the underwing that inspired its name. Its flight appears effortless and buoyant. It looks to be floating on air and, weirdly perhaps, it makes me think of long, luscious eyelashes moving slowly and gracefully. Perhaps it’s the black markings on the upper wing or that we talk about "fluttering eyelashes"... Anyway, it’s not a species you can miss, even across shoulder-high Teasel and Thistle heads.

I had to wait quite some time for him to land within photographic range and fully open his wings. It’s only then that you get a really good look at the 4 distinctive black veins on the forewings, known as “sex brands” (now there’s a blog post title that would generate hits!). These veins contain special “androconial” scales (i.e. sexual scent scales, to those of us who don't speak butterfly) which the males use during courtship.

I’ve had very little experience of this species so I’ve never seen the sex brands and scent scales put into action! However, having read the UK Butterflies description of courtship, I hope very much that one day I will:

“The courtship flight of this butterfly is one of the most spectacular of all the British species. The female flies in a straight line while the male continuously loops under, in front and then over the top of the female. With the courtship flight over, the pair lands on a convenient platform where the male showers the female in scent scales. The male then draws the female's antennae over the sex brand and mating subsequently takes place.”

The morning didn’t end with the Fritillary. There were also a couple of Painted Ladies on site. One, with a malformed or missing right antenna, was nectaring on Thistle and dancing around a pair of mating Common Blues on the open ground; the other, which was looking a little frayed around the edges, was nectaring on Bramble in dense scrub. I think that makes a total of at least 5 possibly 6 Painted Ladies at the site this year, which definitely beats the 1 from last year.

I called in at the Brickworks this morning but no sign of the Fritillary and only one Painted Lady remained. Two Small Copper were a cheery sight even if one of them looked half eaten!

Finally, I checked on the Small Blue colony yesterday, on the A41 Bourne End/Hemel slip road. Still just 3 second generation butterflies....but fab to see!

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