The Wood Whites – #9 & #10 Butterfly Challenge

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Cryptic wood white (Leptidea juvernica) – the newest addition to Irish species list (Photograph taken on 3 June 2016)

If you happen to see a small white butterfly flying weakly in dampish shaded areas, you are almost certainly looking at a wood white. For wood white keep close to scrub and bushes where shade and dappled sunlight meet. Unlike the other species of white, these are dainty with a lovely rounded profile and, and when seen close up, have a delicate white feathered trim around the wings.  They also always rest with their wings closed to make most of their greenish yellow mottled underwings.

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Wood white in the Burren (Leptidea sinapis) (Photograph taken on 6th June, 2016)

At Glencoum, the forested hill to the south-east of Bramblestown, wood white are a common spring butterfly.  An evening walk sees them settling down for the night on the grasses and foliage along the forest path. Their bodies, like pearls, reflecting the last of the sun’s rays before sunset. At the other side of the country, in the Burren, they are also a common sight flying in the shade of the hazel scrub. When I visited the magnificent Slievecarron National Nature Reserve in May, they were the only species of white butterfly to be seen, in amongst the shade of the bushes, unperturbed by the westerly winds that whipped across the exposed limestone.

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Cryptic wood white (Leptidea jurvenica) at Glencoum, Co. Kilkenny (Photograph taken on 3 June, 2016)

Although the wood whites at the two locations look and behave identical, at least to my eyes, these are two distinct species. The wood white seen in the Burren and adjoining areas in County Galway, is the species Leptidea sinapis. But up until very recently, until 2011 in fact, it was thought that the wood white found in the rest of the country was Réal’s wood white, Leptidea reali. But a study using genetic analysis to understand in more detail the relationships between L. sinapis and L. reali discovered that lurking within the L. reali was another species, L. juvernica or cryptic wood white. And it was this species, cryptic wood white L. juvernica which occurs in the rest of Ireland, not Réal’s wood white. It is remarkable to think that even with butterflies, the best studied insect group of all, there are still some fairly fundamental discoveries to be made. Mind you, should you feel the urge to take up your butterfly net to go off and make new discoveries, you are likely to be disappointed. The modern day entomologist is much more likely to be equipped with an electron microscope and a DNA barcode than a butterfly net. But, at least it means that I can get two for the price of one, wood white #9 and cryptic wood white #10.

Speckled wood #1, Dingy skipper #2, Wall brown #3, Common blue #4, Holly blue #5, Small blue #6, Meadow brown #7, Ringlet #8, Wood white #9 & Cryptic wood white #10.

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Wood white, settling down for the night

Ringlet – #8 Butterfly Challenge

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The ringlet is an elegent butterfly with fine ringed eyespots on a all wings (Photograph taken 5 July 2016)

Ringlet is the other brown butterfly that is very common at this time of the year. It is an elegant butterfly, smokey brown in colour with a fine white trim to its wings. Each of the four wings are adorned with  delicate ringed eyespots, from which it gets its name. It is most common in damp grassland and flies from late June to early August. Ringlet is not all that abundant around us in Bramblestown, on the well drained soils of mid Kilkenny, but on the high ground north of Paulstown, on the wet land of the Castlecomer Plateau, they must be the most common species seen in July. A walk through the fields where the grass has not yet been cut, results in three or four disturbed with each step.

Rushes dominate the grassland here. But one field in particular caught my eye where some cattle grazed amid meadowsweet, ragged robin, knapweed, self-heal and hawk’sbeards. While walking around this field trying to photograph a ringlet, I was approached by the farmer, intrigued by what I was doing. When I told him what I was at, his eyes lit up, and all he wanted to talk to me about was wildlife. A native of Bray, he bought the farm here when he retired. He is keen that his land provides a haven for wildlife, as nature is important to him. He tells me ‘it costs him money to farm’ as there is no profit in farming these days. I don’t know about the economics, but his land is teeming with wildlife and it is lovely to see his cattle grazing a species-rich grass sward. He is very grateful for the supplementary funding he receives through the agri-environment GLAS scheme, but does question the value of what he is asked to do under the scheme.28023904426_65e0f1f318_k He doesn’t see the merit of building nest boxes, when there are plenty of natural cavities in the trees and buildings on the farm, the placement of sand for nesting bees is a bit of a mystery to him, as his hedgerow banks are pockmarked with holes, evidence of a healthy bee population. And more recently he has been asked to fence off some land to protect it as a ‘wildlife habitat’. But, he welcomes the money, so this is what he will do.

This encounter highlighted to me how under the agri-environment scheme wildlife is seen as very much separate from farming, and that interventions have to be with things that are easily ‘administered’; number of nest boxes erected, number of sand banks made, length of area fenced. Wouldn’t it be an easier world if the farmer could just receive the agri-environment payment as a thank you for farming the way he does? All it would take is for the administrators to get out from behind their paperwork, and just see the results achieved by low intensity farming at first hand.

Speckled wood #1, Dingy skipper #2, Wall brown #3, Common blue #4, Holly blue #5, Small blue #6, Meadow brown #7 & Ringlet #8.

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Meadow brown – #7 Butterfly Challenge

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The meadow brown is not one of Ireland’s most flamboyant butterflies (photograph taken on 3 July 2016)

I understand that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but let’s face it, the meadow brown doesn’t have much going for it! Not only is it a fairly nondescript brown butterfly, with only an eyespot and splash of orange to enliven its appearance, it is also very common. Wherever there is grassland with a bit of structural diversity it will be found flying from June through to August.

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Meadow brown have benefited greatly from our biodiversity area (photograph taken 28 June 2016)

I didn’t have far to go to photograph this species, just outside my office window, in fact. And even managed to get the photograph during work time (Oops, sorry boss!). For we have left the grass around the Data Centre grow to encourage biodiversity. The cutting regime couldn’t be simpler; the grass is cut once in autumn and taken away. In a sea of otherwise tightly cut lawn on the campus, our patch stands out, and confirms to our neighbours that we are a bit odd, doing all that biodiversity ‘stuff’. But our wildlife patch is proving a great success. First the dandelions, then the ox eyed daisy and bird’s-foot trefoil, then the self-heal and knapweed ensure we have colour throughout the season.  Last year the first orchid, a common-spotted, grew much to our delight.  But it is the insect life it attracts that surprises me most. I know little of the tiny insects that lurk in the depths of the vegetation (I leave that to others with more expertise), but I love watching the meadow brown, ringlet and common blue content in our patch.  After suitable south easterly winds the migratory Silver Y, the moth made famous by Ronaldo, arrives to keep the six-spot burnet and cinnabar moths company. And almost daily the large and hugely impressive emperor dragonfly can be seen quartering over the grass. Not bad for a small patch of uncut grass! But, I suppose, better get back to work….

Speckled wood #1, Dingy skipper #2, Wall brown #3, Common blue #4, Holly blue #5, Small blue #6 & Meadow brown #7.

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The uncut grass area at the Data Centre is a great distraction from work!

 

Small blue – #6 Butterfly Challenge

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The small blue has only a dusting of blue, unlike the two other species of blue (photograph taken on 6 May 2016)

The small blue is the third species of blue that occurs in Ireland, but you really shouldn’t confuse it with the others as it is tiny, often no larger than 20mm. And whereas both the holly blue and common blue often announce themselves with a flash of bright blue, the small blue is a butterfly that one needs to search to find. Even where it occurs, you need a sharp eye to see it, and even sharper one to follow its erratic flight. It is found in very dry habitats, mostly along the coast but also at a few inland sites. Dune grasslands, esker ridges, disused quarries, and the limestone of the Burren region are the habitats where it can be found.

When speaking to Jesmond Harding, one of the foremost authorities on butterflies in Ireland, he mentioned to me that the Gortlecka area of the Burren National Park was one of the best places to see this species. This surprised me greatly for I walked a regular butterfly transect along that area for about four years in the mid-1990s when I was a Park Ranger in the Burren, and I never once saw it in that location.  So to satisfy my curiosity I visited the area in May. And sure enough, after a short time of searching to ‘get my eye in’, I found one, then another, and another…  Jesmond, of course, was right and they are to be found there in good numbers. However I find it hard to believe that I would have missed them back in the 1990s, particularly since I spent so much time at Gortlecka recording butterflies. The only explanation I have is that they must have colonised the area since the 1990s; an alternative explanation is that I should have gone to Specsavers earlier!

Speckled wood #1, Dingy skipper #2, Wall brown #3, Common blue #4, Holly blue #5  & Small blue #6.

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One of the best places to find small blue is at the magnificent Burren National Park, a ‘must see’ site for anyone interested in butterflies.

Holly blue – #5 Butterfly Challenge

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Holly blue is, for me, a harbinger of spring (photograph taken on 8th May 2016)

Holly blue is the other butterfly than could be confused with a common blue, however, its behaviour is very different. Holly blues tend to fly strongly around bushes and shrubs, often quite high up; by contract common blue fly low to the ground.  The holly blue is also the first of the blue butterflies to be seen each year, emerging in March and April. For me the sighting of my first holly blue is as significant an event as hearing my first cuckoo a month or so later – it is a harbinger of spring.

Holly blue is an intriguing species. It was once a much more localised butterfly, but its range has expanded significantly in recent years and is now commonly seen in gardens, even in urban areas. The sight of holly blues flying around parks in Dublin is not uncommon, and delightful to see. But holly blue populations vary significantly from year to year, and years when they are very plentiful can be followed by years when they are very scarce. It is thought that this population cycle is due to predation of holly blue by ichneumon wasps.  Predation rates by ichneumon wasps increase as the butterfly population increases, only for the butterfly populations to crash when predation levels reach a certain level.

Here in Bramblestown, holly blue is most often seen in April and May, and again in August in years when it has a successful second brood. I find this a difficult butterfly to observe at close quarters, as it is always actively flying. But, as luck would have it, early one morning I noticed one on our garden hedge, and it remain still long enough for me to get my photograph. Job done!

Speckled wood #1, Dingy skipper #2, Wall brown #3, Common blue #4 & Holly blue #5.

Common blue – #4 Butterfly challenge

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Common blue (male) is a beautiful blue butterfly commonly found where bird’s-foot trefoil grows (photograph taken 25th May 2016)

This spring, I visited parts of Connemara that I would have known well, when I worked there in 1990-1992. I remember the machair grasslands at Aughrus Beg, just west of Cleggan as being a magical place, so I decided to search them out again to see if they have changed. And much to my delight, the extensive grasslands here still look fabulous. The rolling grasslands were carpeted with yellow bird’s-foot trefoil and dandelions and pinks of thrift- a veritable pollinator’s paradise. As it was early in the season I wasn’t expecting much butterfly activity, but close to the shore, along a sheltered bank, I came across a couple of common blue butterflies enjoying the spring sunshine. I was able to get my photograph, and tick another species from my list.

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Female common blue form ‘Meriscolore’ considered an Irish subspecies.
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The more usual brown form of female common blue found in Ireland, Wales and England (Photograph taken 3 July 2016)

Common blue is the commonest and most widespread of the three species of blue butterfly that we get in Ireland. It can be found in dry areas wherever its food plant bird’s-foot trefoil grows, and on the machair here at Aughrus Beg, it can be extremely plentiful at peak season. Males are bright blue with no markings on the upper wing, whereas in females the blue is fringed with orange spots. This predominately blue form of the female common blue  is considered an Irish subspecies, referred to as Mariscolore, which differs from the predominately brown females found in  England and Wales.  Both sexes have well marked underwings with prominent orange dots. These differentiate common blue from the other two species of blue butterfly found in Ireland. If you have missed seeing common blue this spring, don’t worry, for they are double brooded and will be flying in abundance again in August.

Speckled wood #1, Dingy skipper #2, Wall brown #3 & Common blue #4.

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The machair gassland at Aughrus Beg are magical in spring – a veritable pollinators paradise!

Wall brown – #3 Butterfly challenge

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The Wall brown, threatened with extinction in Ireland. (Photograph taken on 26th May, 2016)

Wall brown was one of the species that I thought might be difficult to find and photograph. It is one of six butterfly species threatened with extinction in Ireland, having suffered an alarming 50% reduction in range over the last 20 or so years. I have personal experience of this decline, for wall brown used to be seen at Bramblestown until about 2000, but I have not seen it there since. Indeed it is now a very scarce, if not already extinct butterfly in County Kilkenny, which is a shocking thing to report.

The last time I saw wall brown in any great numbers was in 2003 when on a visit to Inisbofin off the Galway coast. As luck would have it, in May this year I was invited over to Inisbofin to officiate at the launch of the locally-led Nature Plan developed for the island, a visit that coincided with glorious weather. I took the opportunity to revisit where I had seen wall brown 13 years previously, and sure enough, along the road to Cloonamore, east from the pier, exactly where I had seen them in 2003, they were in abundance. Wall brown are described as ‘being alert and difficult to approach’, but here many butterflies were basking along the sheltered warm earthen and stone banks by the roadside, so I did not the let photo opportunity pass.

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Delighted to find that wall brown are still common on beautiful Inisbofin, Co. Galway

Wall brown is a butterfly of unimproved dry grassland and is another of our species that is becoming much more localised in its distribution. At one time it would have been found across most of the country, but it is becoming increasingly confined to the coastal fringe and to fewer and fewer sites in the midlands. The 50% reduction in range was reported in the Red List of Irish Butterflies published in 2010 but based on data up to 2009. Wall brown occur in too few sites for its population to be monitored effectively under the Irish Butterfly Monitoring Scheme, so it is unknown how its population has fared in Ireland since 2010. But my guess is that its population continues to decline, which is a shame.

Speckled wood #1, dingy skipper #2, wall brown #3.

Dingy skipper #2 Butterfly challenge

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Dingy skipper can be easily overlooked (photo taken 6th June, 2016)

Dingy skipper is a curious little butterfly. It is drab and unassuming, rather like a dayflying moth in appearance. It has an erratic, skipping flight, making it difficult for the eye to follow. But if you are successful in following its flight, it will soon land and bask with its wings wide open, often on the flower head of ribwort plantain. It flies in spring, May and June, but needs warm, well sheltered sites. It is a localised species in Kilkenny, known from no more than a handful of sites, but undoubtedly this species is under-recorded. When I first moved to Kilkenny 18 years ago, it was known to occur in a small disused limestone quarry near Thomastown. My first visit to the site was a delight as I found it straight away but, I’ll admit, it was rather a challenge to separate it from the burnet companion, a day-flying moth with which it shares the site.

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Thomastown Quarry where I first recorded dingy skipper 18 years ago

Since then I have found dingy skipper at a handful of previously unknown sites in Kilkenny, mostly along forest tracks on the higher ground to the south of the county. It makes me wonder have they always been there, or have dingy skipper eggs or larvae been transported with the limestone chippings brought in to make the tracks when the land was first afforested?

If so, I have benefitted from this, for on the high ground at Glencoum no more than 5km from where I live, there is a small isolated wooded area overlooking the beautiful Barrow valley. Here, dingy skipper are plentiful along one section of the somewhat overgrown forest track, and are a delightful butterfly to see so early in the year.

#1 Speckled Wood, #2 Dingy Skipper.

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Dingy skipper, #2 species for my Butterfly Challenge

Speckled Wood – #1 Butterfly challenge

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Speckled Wood, in a typical pose, guarding its territory (Photo taken 4th June, 2016)

Speckled wood is a common and constant summer companion around us here in Bramblestown.  It has a long season, fitting in three generations between April and October, and can be seen flying daily throughout this period. It is perfect here for them as we have many overgrown shaded hedgerows and areas of tall, unmanaged grass. It is wonderful to watch them on our sun-speckled  lane;  males standing guard over individual patches of sunlight, then flitting out to entice passing females or scare off encroaching males. On dull, overcast days their behaviour is very different as they bask low down on grasses and other vegetation.

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Our sun-speckled lane, ideal speckled wood habitat.

It is appropriate that speckled wood is the first species of my butterfly challenge as, surprisingly, all is not well with this common and widespread species. The Irish Butterfly Monitoring Scheme which monitors butterfly populations across Ireland each year, found that the speckled wood is one of three common butterflies species that has experienced a steep population decline between 2008 and 2015. Declines of this kind in common species is something that should be taken seriously, as it means that habitat changes in Ireland are no longer local, but happening at a landscape-scale. Perhaps the widespread clearance of patches of scrub and improvement of rough grazing areas that has continued apace over the last couple of decades is now reaching a tipping point where even our common countryside species are being affected?  Now that is something to stop and think about! Do we really want to create a countryside that lacks vibrancy and richness? And rob the next generation of all the wonderful benefits, both intrinsic and tangible, that nature has to to offer?

Now as I watch speckled wood on the lane, knowing that they might become yet another species that is seen less commonly in the countryside, I look on them with far more affection.

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Could you image the countryside without speckled wood? (photo taken 3rd July, 2016)

No. 1 – Speckled Wood

My butterfly challenge

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Marsh fritillary, Ireland’s only legally protected butterfly

After my adventure of 2014 when I cycled around the coast of Ireland, I was looking for something else to do this summer. Another cycling adventure was considered but ruled out for a couple of reasons, mainly because I am terribly out of shape due to a long run of injuries and an equally long bout of laziness. Yet I am determined to continue to do my bit to promote Ireland’s biodiversity and to make a case for better nature conservation policies and practices in Ireland.

So the challenge I set myself this year is to find, photograph and write an account all of 35 species of butterfly that regularly occur in Ireland. If I had chosen to undertake this challenge say, ten years ago, I would only have to find 32 species, for Essex skipper, small skipper and comma have only established resident populations since then. And, if I had chosen to do this challenge in, say 1900, I would have to search for one additional species, the mountain ringlet, as it has become extinct in Ireland, probably since the beginning of the 20th Century.

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Small tortoiseshell, one of Ireland’s most familiar species

Butterflies are a good group to choose for a challenge of this kind. Quite a bit is known about their distribution and their status, and populations are monitored through the Irish Butterfly Monitoring Scheme, managed by the National Biodiversity Data Centre. In 2010, a Red List or conservation assessment was completed which found that six of Ireland’s butterfly species are threatened with extinction. These are pearl-bordered fritillary, small blue, wall, large heath and marsh fritillary. A further five are near threatened; dingy skipper, grayling, gatekeeper, small heath and wood white. Of these, only the large heath is of conservation status at a European level, and the marsh fritillary is the only species of butterfly, indeed insect, protected by law in the Republic of Ireland. So insects are a manageable group to tackle and each has a unique story to tell.

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Common Blue, the commonest of our three species of blue butterfly

To find all butterfly species in Ireland in a single year may seem a fairly straightforward task, but it is not without its challenge. Firstly, it is one thing to see a butterfly flittering past, it is another to observe and anticipate butterfly behaviour to enable a decent quality photograph to be taken. Also, some butterflies have both limited flight periods and geographic distributions, so it will involve some planning to make sure I don’t miss these windows of opportunity. As both my wife and colleagues will attest to, I am not the most organised person in the world, so organisation may be my downfall. Also, I have never seen the rather elusive purple hairstreak in Ireland, so locating and photographing one may prove my biggest challenge.

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Speckled wood, a common species of woodland edge but its population is now in decline

So, having publically announced the challenge I have set myself this year, it will be interesting to see how I get one. Over the season I will be writing profiles, species by species, once I have found and photographed them. So be sure to follow my progress here.