Meteorological autumn was on 1st September and astronomical autumn has entered the calendar this week. However, the natural world around us has already started to spirit away our memorable summer into the four seasons departure lounge.
Surrounding hedgerows are laden with hawthorn berries and rose hips; hopefully these will attract flocks of winter visitors such as fieldfares and redwings provided the local blackbirds remember to leave them some. At this time of year necklaces of hedge bindweed bugle the close of this plant’s beauty and the beast’s summer season (see photo). In the wild the flowers are visited by insect pollinators, but elsewhere, especially in gardens, it may be difficult to control and quickly grow to the exclusion of other plants. Local oaks appear to have produced a bumper crop of acorns – a bounty for seed eating animals and birds such as squirrels and jays during the winter.
Elsewhere on my walks around Wrenthorpe, Brandy Carr and Carr Gate there is a further changing of the guard in the species of butterflies. Small numbers of speckled wood and small white still hold on faithfully to shortening days of fading sunlight albeit in reducing numbers. In the garden a red admiral has been a regular visitor to the flowers of the buddleia x weyeriana during the recent warm spell, together with a comma nectaring on ivy flowers in readiness for hibernation.
comma on ivy
Now I wonder if the single swallow I saw flying over Jerry Clay Lane on Sunday will be the last one I see until next spring?
Not deterred by the unsettled weather at the end of June, I planned to start the new month with a walk using footpaths around the village of West Bretton avoiding the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, which remained closed due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Come the morning of 1st July with a forecast of grey skies and intermittent drizzle I was beginning to have second thoughts. However, the clouds started to thin, albeit slightly, allowing some weak sunshine to filter through coaxing the temperature to slowly lift. So I was soon more hopeful of seeing some wildlife and set off. The conditions underfoot, indeed almost up to waist level in the tall grass, was very wet. Nevertheless, in places there were clouds of ringlet butterflies fluttering carefully amongst a mass of raindrops delicately balanced on narrow leaves shimmering like precious gems. An ephemeral gift of heavy overnight rain.
Other butterflies included a small number of meadow brown, two small tortoiseshell, a single small skipper and good numbers of the caterpillars of peacock butterfly feeding on nettle. During a brief shower towards the end of the walk I shared the shelter of a tall hedgerow with a bumble bee attracted to the flower and pollen of a field rose (Rosa arvensis). So even on this occasion rain didn’t stop play.
field rose and bumble bee
Although we’re still in a state of lockdown, easing of restrictions meant that it is possible to travel around a bit more. With this in mind, Hreather and I headed off to Brockadale on the day of the proposed meeting as we weren’t too sure if other members might turn up on the off chance too. Although we didn’t bump into any othe WNS members, we did have a great morning, spent mainly on the slope noted for marbled white butterflies. The weather was very warm, muggy and overcast which meant that butterflies were out but not really on the wing. Within moments of arriving at the slope, we found a marbled white with wings outspread on a thistle. This was followed by a dark-green fritillary also wings oustretched and sunning. Both these were quickly photographed before they had time to move on.
In addition to the super butterflies, there were a great many plants to admire including lots of pyramidal orchids, white bryony, black horehound, knapweed, minionete agrimony and lots of others that were beyond my limited plant knowledge.Birds included whitethroat, yellowhammer, blackcap and willow warbler but no cuckoo, a very scarce bird this year. The site was very busy with dog walkers and families by the time we left, way more folks than normal, probably due to other sites still remaining closed to the public.
Here’s hoping we see you all at the next field meeting in July, although the location may have to change as the RSPB reserves may well be still closed to the public. I will send an email if things chnage and update the website where necessaary
marbled white butterffly at Brockodale
dark green fritillary at Brockadale
The Corvid-19 outbreak lockdown rules have recently been relaxed. Even so at the moment I continue to be loyal to my local walks all taken within one and half or so miles from home rather than travelling further away. This has now become a very familiar landscape to me, but it is beginning to show signs it is ready to change and leave spring behind. The pristine fresh green tree leaves are now more sombre with many sycamore covered with ‘honeydew’ a sticky substance excreted by feeding aphids. The tiny caterpillars of moths blown in the wind abseil down from the tops of oak trees on fragile silken threads like miniature SAS commandos. All these insects are a timely food source for hungry young birds and their exhausted parents. Similarly, the yellow fields of oil seed rape are fading fast turning their energy to the job of seed production. Even so their narrow field margins remain a refuge for some wildflowers to shine especially flaming red poppies. Photo attached. Elsewhere yellow is intensifying around paddocks full of buttercups and young rabbits.
poppy and oil seed rape
9.rabbit and buttercups
On the 11 May I reported the progress of the small tortoiseshell butterflies caterpillars that have transformed the garden patch of nettles into their dining room. They continue to devour their host plant leaving only a skeleton. It is a reminder they will soon start to pupate and then emerge to announce a changing of the guards and summer has arrived.
small tortoiseshell caterpillars
On the 12 April I noticed a small tortoiseshell butterfly egg laying on the garden patch of nettles. These have now hatched and, characteristically, the caterpillars have formed a communal silken web around the uppermost leaves for protection whilst they continue feeding. Six days before, a comma had used the same patch of nettles for egg laying (see reported dated 13 April 2010). Comma eggs are laid singularly and the caterpillar also spins a silk web on the underside of the leaf. At this stage they are less conspicuous than the small tortoiseshell butterfly so I am not too surprised not to have found a caterpillar so far..
On the 14 April while sitting next to the nettles armed with a cuppa and a piece of cake I noticed an orange tip butterfly egg laying on the flower of a garlic mustard sometimes known as jack-by-the-hedge. I was unable to see any eggs without causing damage. However, it appears they are laid singularly. This may be a blessing, because as they grow the caterpillars may be cannibalistic and no doubt more so when food is in short supply.
On 6 May in accordance with the official Coronavirus outbreak advice of stay home stay safe I once again got myself comfortable with a cuppa and another piece of cake next to this tiny and yet action packed patch of nettles. I was soon joined by a small tortoiseshell butterfly. This time I could clearly see her carefully releasing the eggs from her ovipositor on the underside of one of the uppermost leaves. See attached photos. Eggs are normally laid in batches 0f 60 to 100 so I am not sure how many may survive particularly as the caterpillars have very large appetites. So during this very dry spell I have been busy watering the nettle bed to ensure there is a supply of fresh growth for the growing numbers of caterpillars. Not sure this is reflecting too well on my horticultural credentials!
small tortoishell eggs on nettle
small tortoiseshell egg laying
Yesterday I watched several peacock and small tortoiseshell butterflies making their now regular visits to the garden. Most are just passing through, but yesterday I noticed a comma circling around a sheltered corner containing a small, well established patch of stinging nettles currently only about one foot high. It alternated between settling on the nettles and then resting on a small nearby log left as deadwood habitat (photo attached). When the butterfly had finally left the garden I noticed it had laid several single eggs on the upper side of the leaf. The egg is tiny and the attached photo shows it resting against a sting spine/hair. Another spine/hair in the top left of the photo helps to give some sense of scale. This patch of nettles has been used by commas in the past and it is good to know it remains a suitable egg laying site for them.
comma butterfly egg on nettle leaf
Today a brimstone butterfly paid another fleeting visit, but a peacock stayed much longer nectaring on a flowering currant.
peacock nectaring on ribes
While in the garden on Tuesday 24 March I spent some time watching two buzzards soaring higher and higher above me in a beautiful clear blue sky. Only when I looked down I noticed three very mobile butterflies – peacock, brimstone and comma. No doubt these butterflies have recently emerged from hibernation and are now busy searching for early flowering plants for nectar, which can be in very short supply at this time of year. In spring brimstone are said to nectar on dandelion, primrose, cowslip, bugle and bluebell. Comma may be seen looking for nectar on sallow and blackthorn flowers. Peacock may search blackthorn, cuckooflower and dandelions for early sources of nectar. I attached photos of the peacock and small tortoiseshell butterflies taking a short break to bask in a sunny sheltered corner of the garden on 26 and 27 March respectively.
The big butterfly count 2018 is now well underway with records from all parts of the UK being invited. The count is organised by Butterfly Conservation and runs until the end of August and is open to everyone and is easy to take part in. It only takes 15 minutes during bright weather and full details are available at www.bigbutterflycount.org. The count is an annual check on changes in butterfly numbers, which is important in helping to identify how various butterfly species are reacting to changes to their environment and potentially may flag up early warnings for other wildlife losses.
The garden is proving to be an ideal place to sit each day with a cup of tea for 15 minutes and watch visiting butterflies. So far small white butterflies occupy top spot with holly blue holding onto second place, which is surprising for a species once uncommon in the Wakefield district. Some of the same individuals appear to stay in the garden for several days patrolling a long hedge, which contains plenty of ivy looking for suitable egg laying sites. Images of a female holly blue feeding on common fleabane and a tiny egg placed just below a developing ivy flower bud are attached. There are generally two broods each year. The holly blue overwinter has a chrysalis with the adults emerging in early spring when the first eggs are generally laid on holly. These form the second brood of adults at this time of year, which lay eggs on ivy although other shrub species may be used.
Other species continue to visit the garden, but not necessarily in the 15 minute recording time. These include large white, green veined white, speckled wood, ringlet, meadow brown, gatekeeper, comma, small tortoiseshell and a single small copper.
Holly Blue egg on ivy
Today we had some beautiful warm October sunshine which not only tempted me out for a walk but brought out plenty of red admiral butterflies as well as a few speckled wood and large white. It’s great to see butterflies still on the wing and the local ivy patches on the edge of Ryhill are in full flower and very attractive to these late insects. There were around 30+ red admirals on one strecth of ivy alone, plus the odd late speckled wood basking in the sunshine on the nettles lower down. The hawthorns are looking good too being laden with berries as well as having superb autumn colour
Red Admiral butterfly on ivy flower
Red Admiral butterfly
Speckled wood on nettle
Red Admiral butterfly
Chilly evenings and shortening daylight hours remind us that summer is now slipping away and autumn is here. This is confirmed by a bounty of sloes and elderberries, together with a good crop of acorns. A further sign of the changing seasons are fewer wildflowers in the surrounding countryside. Even so, this remains a good time to enjoy watching butterflies, especially comma and the other species that overwinter as adults rather than eggs, larva or chrysalis. They now gorge themselves on life giving nectar offered by flowers in many of our local ornamental parks and gardens to help them survive the winter and breed next spring. This also includes red admiral, which can currently be seen in very large numbers around Wakefield. This species can be seen flying during milder days well into November and sometimes beyond. This may suggest it overwinters in a reduced state of dormancy compared to our comma, peacock, brimstone and small tortoiseshell. Indeed, there is growing evidence to suggest this butterfly is beginning to be accepted as a resident, especially in the south of the UK.
Photos of red admiral feeding on Buddleia x weyeriana and comma feeding on Sedum spectabile at a Wrenthorpe garden during the past week are attached. In addition, to our garden flowers look out for our native ivy. This is starting to flower now and is a magnet for a wide range of insects searching for nectar at this time of year. This important plant is one of our few native evergreen plants sheltering many wildlife species during the winter months.
comma on sedum
Red Admiral butterfly