2017 in Butterflies

Like the bees in my last post – butterflies are summer’s companions. Whilst the bees add movement and sound, their gentle buzz providing the background to many a summer’s day, the butterflies are all about the flair and colour.

Below are a few of my favourite encounters as we moved through 2017.

Green hairstreak – Callophrys rubi

This is a species I have only ever seen briefly before, flitting in the low grasses as we walked The Ridgeway through Oxfordshire a few years ago. A hunt around Barnack Hills and Holes in May soon turned up a hawthorn shrub with several males standing guard over their patches of territory. This one was settled on an unopened flower bud, poised and ready to spring into the air as soon as another flew past and questioned his ownership of this space. You can read more about this encounter in this blog post!

Green hairstreak male guarding his patch - poised ready to chase an intruder!

Green-veined white – Pieris napi

With the exception of a couple of rarer species, it is easy to overlook our white butterflies as most people view them as pests in the garden. But like almost anything – they’re beautiful when viewed in their own right and on their own merits. My favourite part of this photograph is those chequered blue eyes as this butterfly feeds on forget-me-not flowers at Treswell Wood.

Small pearl-bordered fritillary – Boloria selene

We were walking through the dunes and forest at Newborough in Anglesey in May and spotted this static shape at the side of a path – a small pearl-bordered fritillary resting on the seedhead of a plantain. It’s rough brown textures gave it excellent camouflage. This species is widespread across the UK but only occurs in discreet colonies, commonly in the clearings in deciduous woodland but also marshland and moorland further north.

Ringlet – Aphantopus hyperantus

This is a common species of grassland and woodland habitats, but one which always delights me. The veins in the soft-brown wings are such good parodies of those found on the leaves it settles amongst, and the five eye spots are striking. This photo was taken at the Hills and Hollows behind Grantham, the butterfly sheltering amongst the grass on a windy afternoon.


Marbled white – Melanargia galathea

This white is actually more closely related to the browns than the other whites, despite name and appearance. It is a species I usually associate with the counties of Warwickshire and Oxfordshire as these are where I have encountered them most often on walks and surveys, so it was lovely to find a healthy population down the road in Bedford Purleius. This was taken in the meadow close to the carpark, along with the silver-washed fritillary pictured below.

Burnet moth – Zygaena sp.

Technically not a butterfly but a dayflying moth, I felt I had to include this photograph. This was taken at Lolly Moor – a Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserve – when I called by this year. The marsh helleborines were my main aim but there were many other orchids and these burnet moths were bouncing between them. This is one of the five-spot burnet moths, but I am unsure whether the ‘regular’ or the narrow-bordered. Any tips welcomed!


Small copper – Lycaena phlaeas

Some years I see this delicate little butterfly everywhere but others it is a real treat to encounter. Sadly 2017 was the latter – the only time I came across this species was whilst walking on a path above the Thames in Oxfordshire. The set-aside margins in the fields were particularly species-rich, drawn from the local wildflower meadows, and this was one of several species of butterfly enjoying the flowers on the day we were there.

Silver-washed fritillary – Argynnis paphia

This was a rather ragged specimen but its grace and presence was un-diminished – they stood out a mile flying alongside the marbled whites in the meadow at Bedford Purleius. This is our largest fritillary species in the UK and gets its name from the streaks of silver on the underside of the wings.


Wall brown – Lasiommata megera

A walk from Cheddar up the gorge to the quarry at the top rewarded me with this butterfly. The wall used to be much more common across the UK but suffered severe declines and now has a much smaller distribution. This is certainly the first time in a number of years I have come across this butterfly.


Common blue – Polyommatus icarus

Taken at sunrise in Muston Meadows, this common blue had spent the night roosting on the seedhead of a black knapweed and was waiting for the morning rays to warm it before taking to the wing. These little blue butterflies are abundant within the grasses, feeding particularly on the bird’s foot trefoils and other meadow wildflowers.

Red admiral – Vanessa atalanta

The last butterflies I saw in 2017 were those set to see out the winter in their adult form – the red admirals, small tortoiseshells and peacocks. Ivy flowers provide an abundant source of nectar for these late-flying species and they joined the bees and hoverflies on the flowers beside Grantham Cemetery.

Brimstone butterflies – the perfect harbinger of spring

Brimstone butterflies are the perfect harbinger of spring. They are typically the first butterfly seen in most years – excepting the occasional tatty small tortoiseshell or peacocks – and they always look pristine. Perhaps the connection with spring is so strong because they confirm our own perception of the first spring day – they need the warmth and clemency of sun and still blue-skies in February or March to take to the wing.

Brimstone  (Gonepteryx rhamni)
Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni)

I saw my first brimstone of 2014 a couple of week ago but they were out in abundance last Sunday – settling on the south-facing hedge in the garden to warm up and bask in the sunshine. A short drive across the Vale of Belvoir saw almost every hedge graced with at least one which bobbed and bounced around the periphery of the foliage.

The brimstone is one of five or six species of butterfly which hibernate in the UK. You may see much tattier and battered small tortoiseshell, comma and peacock butterflies at this time of year along with the occasional clouded yellow and, increasingly, the red admiral. All of these, excepting the brimstone and the clouded yellow, are in the Nymphalidae family – a group which includes many other familiar UK butterflies including the fritillaries and the browns. The brimstone is in the Pieridae family which also includes the whites.

Hibernating peacock butterflies which find dark places such as sheds, roof spaces, tunnels and tree cavities to close up their wings and wait for spring to return.
Hibernating peacock butterflies which find dark places such as sheds, roof spaces, tunnels and tree cavities to close up their wings and wait for spring to return.

Brimstone butterflies are a single brood species – the adult butterflies emerge in August and are on the wing, feeding and building up fat reserves, until they go into hibernation at the end of autumn. The butterflies, also called imago, re-emerge early in the spring to mate and begin their life cycle once more.

The comma and small tortoiseshell butterflies, in the Nymphalidae family, tend to have two broods in a year – that is the first batch of imago will mate and lay eggs which hatch and give rise to a second batch of imago in the same year. The red admiral has a single brood but the prevalence of imago is affected by migrating butterflies from the continent. The peacock has rather a similar life cycle to the brimstone.

It is always noticeable that the brimstone butterflies look pristine in spring, whereas the commas and small tortoiseshells often look much more battered and tatty. I was hoping this might be explained simply by the Nymphalidae butterflies being older – that is they had been on the wing longer in the previous season before hibernation, but the phenology doesn’t seem to bear this out for all. It could explain the particularly tatty comma and small tortoiseshell butterflies, if some of these are surviving stragglers from the first brood of the previous year.

Comma butterfly (Polygonia c-album)
Comma butterfly (Polygonia c-album)

 There is still a difference in family between the brimstone and all of the other hibernating butterflies and I wonder whether the brimstone is simply a more structurally sound butterfly, with stronger wings which are less likely to deteriorate than the other species. The species is the longest living of the UK species, at a year, so the imago would need to be hard-wearing! I would be fascinated to know an answer to this if anybody can advise.

Small tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae)
Small tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae)

The brimstone butterflies feed on a range of nectar sources – as they are so early to emerge they rely initially upon long-flowering species such as dandelion, or early flowering species such as bluebell, cowslip and primrose. The key food plant in the autumn is thistles with a range of other species also used.

The larval food plant is surprisingly specific and not abundantly common – they require buckthorn or alder buckthorn. The species name for the butterfly eludes to this link – rhamni which refers to the latin for buckthorn – Rhamnus sp. This is a shrub which can be found in hedgerows and woodlands but is not nearly as common as other similar species such as hawthorn or blackthorn. I do not know of any buckthorn in the area but the presence of the brimstone butterflies clearly proves its existence! The comparative scarcity of buckthorn has been directly addressed by Butterfly Conservation in the past with planting programmes to increase their presence within landscapes and this has had a positive effect on the brimstone populations.

The female is much paler than the male – I saw one in the distance on Sunday which I at first through to be a large white until I crept closer and saw the distinctive veined, contoured folded wing which looks so much like a leaf.

Brimstone  (Gonepteryx rhamni) pretending to be a leaf

Autumnal Walk along Grantham Canal and Denton Reservoir

It’s been a long time since I’ve updated this blog – everything interesting I’ve seen recently has been far from Grantham, and usually in the dark as bat surveys have filled most of my time! So expect some bat related posts in the near future…

September scene

To get going again; this post is just a few photographs from a walk along Grantham Canal and around Denton Reservoir on a sunny, dew-damp September morning. A little bit of everything! It’s sad to see so many of the wildflowers going over, how can autumn be upon us while we’re still waiting for summer to begin? Still, a few flowers are still hanging on:

Black knapweed (Centaura nigra)

Black knapweed (Centaura nigra) is a favourite with the bees and butterflies and a few are still in flower.

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is a native which you may even have growing in your lawn, or one of the ornamental coloured varieties in the flowerbeds. Look out for the feathery fronds of leaves beneath.

Autumn hawkbit (Leontodon autumnalis)

There are several hawkbit (Leontodon spp.) species – I believe this one is the appropriately named autumn hawkbit. They are in the same family as the dandelion – the daisy or compositae family – but are a much finer, more delicate species.

Ragwort (Senecio vulgaris)

Ever-ebullient ragwort (Senecio jacobaea). There seems to be a fair bit of debate at the moment on whether it really is dangerous for livestock, but it’s another brilliant species for invertebrates. Look out for the yellow-and-black striped caterpillars of the cinnabar moth in July and August.

Creeping thistle (Cirsium vulgare)

Creeping thistle (Cirsium arvense) is another species with a long flowering season.

Rosebay willowherb (Epilobium angustifolium)

Rosebay willowherb (Epilobium angustifolium) flowers later in the season and brightens up the countryside, especially around water. This photo was taken beside Denton Reservoir.

Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia)

Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia) is a species I was not expecting to encounter – this was growing within a sheep-grazed field to the south of Denton. It is a delicate flower often found in more dry, nutrient poor grasslands and heathland, Sherwood forest is a good area to spot them. A welcome addition to the day!

The fields look as though they are on fire from a distance as clouds of dust rise like smoke from the combines. With the crops gone and the stubble remaining, it’s a good chance to look for a few arable plants. There are a number of species which are well adapted to arable conditions and are growing rather rarer these days thanks to the intensification of agriculture. Below are photographs of scentless mayweed (Tripleurospermum inodorum) and common poppy (Papaver rhoeas) – not rare but attractive, I especially love the texture of the poppy flower!

Scentless mayweed (Tripleurospermum inodorum)

Common poppy (Papaver rhoeas)

I spotted a fair few birds within the hedgerows and arable margins, it’s getting to the time of year when large numbers descend on the feast of berries which are ripening. Plenty of blackbirds along with mixed-tit flocks, yellowhammers, chaffinches and an attendant kestrel. This stretch of farmland is a great spot for fieldfares and redwings when then arrive for the winter too.


The last few butterflies were still floating and resting in patches of sunlight; red admirals, comma’s and speckled wood all in evidence. Below is a comma (Polygonia c-album) sunning itself on a bunch of ripening blackberries!

Comma butterfly on blackberries

Dragonflies and damsel-flies were spaced out along the edge of the reservoir, the dragonflies jealously guarding their patches. This was my first attempt at a dragonfly in flight, I’m quite pleased with it! I am not 100% confident on the ID but this is certainly a hawker dragonfly, probably a southern hawker (Aeshna affinis) judging by the amount of green on the thorax but please feel free to set me straight if it’s a common!

Southern hawker dragonfly