Wednesday, 10 August 2016

The day of the big butterfly count

I was walking Rosie (and Rosie was walking me) a few days ago. We weren't at Volehouse. Much to Rosie's disgust, the cattle are grazing it at the moment and that means she has to go on a lead, which she hates. So we've been going to a place known as Powler's Piece. It's a nice enough place with several different habitats and a well defined, easy track. I usually take my camera when we go, just in case anything's about.

And on this particular day, what was about was a rather depressing man.

"What are you doing"? he said
"Walking the dog. And looking for butterflies to photograph". I replied.
"You won't find any. Not this year. This year's rubbish for butterflies."
"Bloody rubbish".
"I don't know- there are a few around."
"No there aren't. It's bloody rubbish".

The conversation, if it could be called that, rambled on in the same vein. Him telling me how rubbish this year was and me looking over his shoulder at the butterflies that he was telling me weren't there.

The situation was, to quote a phrase, bloody rubbish.

Eventually I got rid of him, much to my relief and Rosie's, and we continued on our walk. But the man had rather spoiled the moment and I didn't do much more photography. Instead, I wondered whether he was right. Were there fewer butterflies than normal this year? The cloud that had hung over him had rather spread to me, so on the spur of the moment I decided to take action by joining in the big butterfly count.

When I got home, as luck would have it, I found that the following day was the final day to take part.

So the following morning, Rosie and I struck out to the same patch where we met Mr Bloody Rubbish, determined to prove him wrong. I must confess that I was more interested in the number of species I could photograph in 15 minutes than the number of individuals- which isn't really in the spirit of the big butterfly count, but there you go. I did actually also keep score, in the interest of submitting to the official count.

The day was sunny with some light cloud scudding across in a light breeze. And this is how it went....

Minute 1- There's a Large White (Pieris brassicae) further down the track but it won't stay still to be photographed. Not an auspicious start. 1

Things get better as a pristine second brood Speckled wood (Pararge aegeria), on patrol down the side of the fir trees, stops and poses at eye level. 2

Minute 2- All the whites are out today. A small white (Pieris rapae) is nectaring while above it, a green veined white (Pieris napi) is on the brambles. Both are occupied enough to allow a quick snap.

Further down the brambles, I spy a Gatekeeper (Pyronia tithonus). The Gatekeepers have only recently emerged, so I'm hoping he won't be damaged, and he isn't. 5.

Minute 3- More whites, large and small. Still no picture of the large white.

Minute 4- There's a grey butterfly a way away that I can't identify at first. As I get closer it reveals itself to be not grey, but black and white- a marbled white (Melanargia galathea). A good sighting, and my first of the year at this spot.

While I was closing in on it, I noticed a few skippers buzzing around. I return to take a closer look. They're all Small skippers (Thymelicus sylvestris).

No Esssex or Large skippers to be seen. 7.

Minute 5- Aaargh! The sun goes in and immediately the track becomes devoid of butterflies.

Minute 6- The sun is still in, but there's 2 Ringlets (Aphantopus hyperantus). They're faded and a bit tatty on one side, but one shows me his good side obligingly. 8.

Minute 7- Nothing.

Minute 8. Nothing. How big is this cloud?

Minute 9- Sun!!! And I'm back on track, making up for lost time with a Vanessid double header- Peacock (Inachis io) and Painted lady (Vanessa cardui) both second brood and both perfect. 10.

Minute 10- My jaw actually does a comedy drop as two silver-washed fritillaries (Argynnis paphia) float past the end of my nose in a pairing dance. After the other smaller butterflies they look as big as handkerchiefs. I have seen them here before, but only very sporadically. They part for a while and one starts to feed. I can't quite believe my luck.

Minute 11- Nothing new, but another very tatty silver-washed. They're like buses- you don't see one for weeks and then 3 come along at once.

Minute 12- The grass at the side of the track has a few daisies in it, and on one of those I spy a flash of blue. Common blue (Polyommaus icarus), second brood are out. 11.

Minute 13- Still no shot of a Large white. They're around, but very skittish. I spy a Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina). It's late in the season, but it doesn't look in bad nick. I've never had much success with these. They bolt at the slightest movement. Today though, this one sits just long enough for a photo before running for it. 12.

Minute 14- I think I've seen all there is to see in this section, so I'm racing for a side track lined with knapweed and sallow, where I'm reasonably sure I'll find...

Minute 15- ...Brimstone! (Gonepteryx rhamni).

The second brood started emerging last week and right on cue, here's a nice male. And as an added bonus, on the stroke of 15 minutes, I pull the trigger on an elusive Red admiral (Vanessa atalanta). 14.

Time's up.

Now, fourteen species is about 24% of the native species found in the UK. And given that many don't fly in August, and many don't live in Devon, I'd say that for a 15 minute period, that's not too shabby.

At any rate, it makes me think that 2016 isn't as bad for butterflies- at least second brood ones- as is being made out.

So, Mr Misery, here's my answer to you;

You know what you were talking?

That's right- bloody rubbish.

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