Saturday, 11 June 2016

June 7th 2016- Painted ladies. The perfect antidote to a London trip.

I've been in London. This is partly good and partly bad. Good, because it gives me a chance to see the parentals, catch up with who's doing what in my place of teenagehood and, very importantly, to have a curry without having to drive 10 miles to pick it up.

Bad because the air isn't nice, there are too many people and it isn't Devon. It is, to be exact, four and a half hours of tedious motorway driving away. Two hundred and thirty miles that feels more like a million from the leafy single track lanes that I've come to love so much.

So it's with an understandable spring in my step that I walk Rosie (who as a Springer Spaniel is required to always have a spring in her step) down through the top meadow at Volehouse. No pausing for hide and seek today- there are things to be seen.

There is a charm of Goldfinches moving around the top meadow, eating the seeds off the dock, I think, or maybe one of the grasses. They don't come near enough to see properly, and I'm not hanging around when there are fritillaries to be reintroduced to.

But we never make it to the Fritillaries. Our thoughts and attentions are captured by some new faces that have arrived at Volehouse during our enforced absence.

The Painted Ladies (Vanessa cardui) have arrived in force from their annual migration and 4 of them are flying strongly across the meadow stopping to feed on what's around. It's mostly campion, cow parsley and the last few cuckoo flowers.

Painted lady (Vanessa cardui)

They look a little faded and have a few nicks in their wings, unlike the magnificent specimens that will emerge in August.

The Painted lady has, until very recently, been a bit of a mystery. It was the Oompa Loompa of the butterfly world. Because like the Trump-hued workers at Mr Wonka's factory, nobody ever saw them come out. They were observed arriving in Britain every year from Africa, sometimes in huge numbers, and pushing right on up to the Arctic circle (a journey quite a lot further than the famous Monarch migration of North America).

But it wasn't until 2012 that anybody knew what happened to them after that. It was generally assumed that they simply died off, because unlike their cousin the Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) nobody had ever seen them leave to go back south.

And yet, down in Africa, huge numbers would suddenly appear every winter, as if by migration.

Opinion was divided as to how the Painted ladies were pulling off this Dynamo-esque stunt.  The dying-off theory didn't bear close inspection because it would require huge numbers to stay at home in Africa each year to replenish numbers for the next year's migration. And that didn't appear to be the case.

Then some bright sparks decided to use radar to track them, in conjunction with observations from the public. 60,000 of them.

Painted lady- high flier

What they found was that the butterflies were returning south, but at a height previously believed to be too rarified to make sense- over 1000m over our heads, only coming down when the wind direction was favourable. Using these winds, they could reach speeds of 30 mph with a strong breeze at their abdomen. In fact, they were averaging a height of 500m.

To put that into a very non-scientific but quite visual perspective, a 747 usually cruises at around 10,000 m.

So while that's 10x higher than a Painted lady, a Jumbo Jet is a lot more than 10 times the size (the clue's in the word 'Jumbo'). And the Jumbo looks tiny when you see it up in the sky. So we can all be entirely forgiven for overlooking a butterfly cruising along at 1000m

With more and more observers joining in, the scientists discovered that 11 million were making their way northwards, but 26 million were making their way back south. Far from dying off after the long journey north, they were bolstering their numbers and undertaking the second half one of the most epic journeys of any animal on the planet. One which would take 6 generations of butterflies to return to whence their great great great great grandparents had set out from the previous year.

Back on the ground at Volehouse, I look at the Painted lady with its slightly faded and nicked wings, and I think about its long, arduous journey and I feel slightly embarrassed. Because suddenly, a four and a half hour trip up the motorway cocooned in a comfy, air-conditioned, stereo-equipped car doesn't seem like much of a hardship at all.

Don't you just hate it when that happens?

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