The lonely ringlet, and other garden tales

Once upon a time, in a wild garden in the heart of Cornwall, there lived a ringlet.

The hero of our tale loved to bask in the sunshine, spreading his velvety brown wings to enjoy the warmth. He loved taking his gently dipping flights through the waving grasses of his home. If he caught sight of his reflection in a dew drop, then he loved to admire the beautiful yellow-rimmed eye-spots on the underside of his wings.

Ringlet
A very sad and lonely ringlet…

This, however, was a very sad ringlet. It was all very well admiring his own wings, but he longed for a lady ringlet who could share his adventures in the long grass. He would much rather admire her beauty than his own, and he yearned to be loved in return.

Every day, the fairy godmother of the garden would visit the ringlet’s grassy home. She, too, was heartbroken to see his lonely life. The sunny weather turned to rain, as if the lonely ringlet’s mood had even made the skies sad. But the rain meant it was even less likely that another ringlet would arrive. The future looked bleak for our despairing hero.

Then, one morning, there was a glimmer in the sky, the clouds were swept aside, and the sun came home after a long time away. The fairy godmother looked out of a high window in her castle at the edge of the garden, smiling at the feeling of sunlight on her face.

Then something caught her eye. Over the long grass of the ringlet’s home, two brown butterflies were bobbing and pirouetting round each other. Could it be? – yes! Two ringlets, spinning happily through the grass, overjoyed at finding each other, at long last. Each ringlet admired the chocolate of the other’s wings, and especially the beautiful yellow-rimmed eyespots.

They danced together all day until the sun went down.

***********************

Foxgloves and Biting Stonecrop
Foxgloves and Biting Stonecrop adorning the wall behind the ringlet home

And so, my story of the lonely ringlet has a happy ending. Fanciful it may be, but it is based on truth. I keep a patch of long grass set aside in my garden. It is a good spot for frogs and invertebrates, and who knows what else, to tuck themselves away. Plenty of wildflowers grow on the wall behind – foxgloves, biting stonecrop, pennywort, vetches, spearwort plantain and brambles. It’s a small patch, but it’s a haven for wildlife.

In previous years, this spot has always been alive with ringlets, lovely  velvety butterflies that need long grass: to shelter in, to lay their eggs in, and as the food plant of their caterpillars. This year – maybe because of the unseasonal weather – there have hardly been any. I was waiting for the first to emerge at the usual time of year for ringlets (mid-June onwards), but eventually only a single ringlet appeared (I’ve made it a ‘he’ in my story, but it could equally have been a ‘she’). Call me soft, but I felt very sorry for it.

It was a whole week later before a second ringlet emerged. This may also have been a ‘he’ or a ‘she’, but by the way the two danced round each other in a courtship flight, followed by one of the pair bobbing through the grass to lay eggs, they must have been of the opposite sex. So, even if there are only a few ringlets in the ringlet home this year, and maybe only these two, I’m hoping for a successful generation in 2017.

Blackbird fledgling_2.jpg
Fluffy blackbird fledgling

In other wildlife garden news, I have enjoyed watching a hardworking blackbird pair forage in the garden to feed their offspring. Then this young blackbird appeared on the roof of my woodshed, looking all fluffy and a bit nervous. It seems to be doing well: I’ve seen it a few times, looking more grown-up and brave with each successive sighting.

Other butterflies spotted include the usual crop of whites, speckled woods, red admirals and painted ladies. The tearaway flock of goldfinches have been speeding about, chasing each other from shrub to shrub to wall to fence to tree to shed…and so on, endlessly. Do they ever stop to rest?

And all the seedlings I tended so lovingly in the greenhouse this year are doing amazingly in the outside world of the garden. On sunny days (remember them?) they are alive with bees and hoverflies. I’ve got an entire flowerbed filled with bishop’s flower, emilia, verbena, marigolds, hedge woundwort, sunflowers (just opening), sweet peas, black-eyed susan and tobacco plant (great for moths). All I need is a warm day so I can relax in the garden with a good book, surrounded by my plants.

Hopefully, I’ll be joined by at least two ringlets, dancing together in the sunshine.

Back to blogging…

Well, it’s near the beginning of 2016 and I haven’t written a blog post for a while, which gives you a big clue about my New Year’s resolution. Yes, it was to get back to blogging regularly about Cornwall’s wildlife and the places I’ve been as I continue to explore this wonderful end of Britain.

In order to ease myself back into it gently, in this my first post of 2016 I’m sharing a few photographic memories of some of my best Cornwall wildlife moments from last year. It serves as a quick catch-up on some of the things I got up to when I should have been blogging.

There were plenty of special moments – finding a rare Western Bee-fly, climbing Godolphin Hill (what an unexpectedly wonderful view!), discovering local woodlands, meeting the improbably but aptly named Swollen-thighed Beetle for the first time (and then seeing them everywhere). The weather wasn’t always great, but there was still plenty to see and do.

 

Clockwise from top left, the photographs are:

The view from Godolphin Hill, between Helston and Penzance.

Water falling at Kennall Vale, a Cornwall Wildlife Trust-owned reserve near Ponsanooth.

Sunset at Godrevy.

The Western Bee-fly, which is like a mini Golden Snitch, and which I found on a beautiful sunny day at Poltesco on The Lizard. Here’s a link to a column I wrote about it.

Lesser Celandine lightening up a hedgerow on a lane near where I live.

The Swollen-thighed Beetle. What a wonderful insect it is!

Kiefferia pericarpiicola gall growing on Wild Carrot.

Kehelland Apple Day – lots of Cornish varieties of scrumptious apples, music and plenty of good fun.

Two Shield Bugs having a romantic moment in my garden.

A Silver-studded Blue butterfly, photographed on a wonderful day with Cornwall Butterfly Conservation near Godrevy.

Here’s hoping for plenty more special moments in 2016.

What’s been flying in?

When I think of autumn migrations, it’s the Whooper Swans, Fieldfares and geese that first come to mind. Or I might think of the birds that leave us in the autumn – the Swallows, Arctic Terns and warblers that have been here for the summer. The distances many of these birds fly is astounding, from the Arctic Terns crossing from one polar region to the other, to the many species that travel between northern Europe and sub-Saharan Africa.

Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta), one of our migratory butterfly species (photo: Amanda Scott)
Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta), one of our migratory butterfly species (photo: Amanda Scott)

If these migrating birds make us marvel, then what about the even more fragile creatures that cross to our shores through the summer and autumn? I mean the butterflies and moths, of course. It’s hard to believe that these insects with their delicate wings make it here intact across the sea, buffeted by winds and yet flying strongly. And make it they do. The Monarchs of North America are perhaps the most famous migratory Lepidoptera, but they are far from alone in their travelling habit.

Buttercup-coloured Clouded Yellows (Colias croceus) are a beautiful sight through summer and into milder autumns (photo: Amanda Scott)
Buttercup-coloured Clouded Yellows (Colias croceus) are a beautiful sight through summer and into milder autumns (photo: Amanda Scott)

Here in Cornwall, we are still getting new arrivals. Some are regular migrants, like the Hummingbird Hawkmoth (Macroglossum stellatarum) or Clouded Yellow (Colias croceus) butterfly, while others are more exotic and rare, blown across on prevailing winds. We’ve even had a handful of sightings of Monarchs in Cornwall over the last few weeks, carried here across the Atlantic.

I’ve just been reading a press release from Atropos (the UK journal for butterfly, moth and dragonfly enthusiasts) about the visiting moth species sighted here around Halloween. It’s well worth a look at the Atropos website – they have a page dedicated to recording new arrivals. From their list, I can see that someone saw a Hummingbird Hawkmoth – a moth associated with the sunny days of summer – in their garden in Penzance on 2 November. It was a warm day for November, but if a moth could shiver…

Slender-burnished Brass moth (), a rare visitor to Britain (photo: By JMK (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)
Slender-burnished Brass moth (Thysanoplusia orichacea), a rare visitor to Britain (photo: By JMK (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)
Also visiting Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly in the last few days was a rare immigrant – the rather exquisitely named Slender Burnished Brass moth (Thysanoplusia orichacea). A native of the warmer Mediterranean and Africa, there are only about 100 records ever for Britain (and now five more this year in Cornwall!), where it cannot survive the cold winters.

I also learned from the press release that Cornwall has received some less welcome moth visitors this year. The Box Tree Moth (Cydalima perspectalis) is an Asian moth, introduced to Europe over the last decade. The moth itself is rather lovely, with white, almost transparent wings. It’s the caterpillars that are the problem, with their ability to rapidly defoliate the Box shrubs (Buxus ssp.) beloved of topiary and ornamental gardens. The first British records of this moth were made five years ago, and this year there are two records in Cornwall. Oh dear.

But let’s console ourselves by remembering that, in our mild-to-date autumn weather, everyone is still reporting sightings of our regular migrant butterflies – Red Admirals (Vanessa atalanta), Clouded Yellows and Painted Ladies (Vanessa cardui). It’s already turning colder, so let’s enjoy them before we finally have to wrap up warmer for the winter.

Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) near Kynance (photo: Amanda Scott)
Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) near Kynance (photo: Amanda Scott)

If you want to find out more about butterflies and moths, and/or migrant species in particular, here are some useful websites.

Atropos, the journal for butterfly, moth and dragonfly enthusiasts. This website has information about new arrivals, how to get involved in recording and sharing information.
http://www.atropos.info/site/index.php/

Butterfly Conservation. This national charity’s website has information about butterflies and day-flying moths, how you can help, including recording, and news on their research and conservation projects.
http://butterfly-conservation.org

Cornwall Butterfly Conservation. The local branch of the national charity. If you live in Cornwall, you might like to go along to their annual AGM and members’ day on 7th March 2015, when Paul Waring, a nationally renowned moth expert, will be giving a talk. Details are on their website.
http://www.cornwall-butterfly-conservation.org.uk

UK Moths. A great website with lots of good photos to help in identification.
http://ukmoths.org.uk

A Red Admiral weekend

Friday just gone was a day of Small Tortoiseshells. My garden in West Cornwall was visited by tens of them enjoying a late summer feast on the buddleia – I was glad I hadn’t pruned it back already.

But then Saturday and today, Sunday, there was barely a Small Tortoiseshell in sight. Instead the garden was full of the striking beauty of several Red Admirals, again nectaring on the buddleia, but also seeking out ivy flowers and late summer bramble.

Red Admiral (photo: Amanda Scott)
Red Admiral (photo: Amanda Scott)

Butterflies seem so delicate, it is easy to forget that several species accomplish great feats of migration. The strong-flying Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) may have a small resident population in the south of the UK, but most of those we see each year have arrived from Europe and North Africa. The females lay eggs (usually on common nettle (Urtica dioica)) and UK-bred butterflies emerge from about July, but their numbers are swelled by several further waves of immigration during the summer. You can see them as late as October, occasionally later.

Our winters are generally too cold for this species to survive overwintering, possibly apart from the warmer south of the country (including Cornwall). Many adults will therefore attempt a southward migration as the weather cools. On a wildlife boat cruise out of Falmouth recently, while I was of course thrilled by the sunfish and porpoises, I was also delighted to see two Red Admirals a fair way out from shore, determinedly heading south away from the coast.

I hope they made it.

English: Red Admiral Butterfly (Vanessa atalan...
Red Admiral Butterfly (Vanessa atalanta) feeding on Buddleia davidii (photo: Wikipedia)

White-letter hairstreaks: back in Cornwall

I have a lovely butterfly book, inherited from my parents, dating back to 1968. The colour illustrations are detailed and painstakingly drawn; the text simple and hopeful. Why hopeful? I think because the words the author uses pre-date some of the more recent significant changes we have seen in our landscape, particularly those affecting wildlife, and there is very little about habitat deterioration or reducing species numbers. The book makes you feel that, at the right time of year and in the right place, you could walk out the door on a sunny day and see every single butterfly species you might expect to see.

Turn instead to Butterfly Conservation’s most recent report on The State of the UK’s Butterflies (2011), and the picture is of course very different.  Numbers of butterflies are reducing, with 75% of species showing a trend of a ten-year decrease, either in population numbers or distribution, with declining habitats suggested as a main cause. It’s a depressing picture, especially if butterflies have always been for you, like me, a joyful sight from spring through to autumn. Being very sensitive to environmental change, the problems we see in butterfly numbers are an indicator of all the wider issues adversely impacting our wildlife.

So, in the face of this, it is heartwarming and encouraging, and hopeful, when a species starts to make a comeback. And this time, it’s a Cornwall success story. The White-letter Hairstreak (Satyrium w-album) has not been seen this side of the Tamar for over 20 years, but it’s back! It even made the local news.

White-letter Hairstreak (800px-Ulmen-Zipfelfalter_(Satyrium_w-album)_2011-05-08)
White-letter Hairstreak (License Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported)

The great news was announced at the Annual General Meeting of the Cornwall Branch of Butterfly Conservation (BC) last weekend (16th March). Cornwall BC had been looking into a re-introduction of the species, working together with national BC and two White-letter Hairstreak experts, Liz Goodyear and Andrew Middleton, who came down to Cornwall in February to do a survey for the butterfly (or rather, for its eggs) – a pre-requisite for a re-introduction scheme. And, hey presto, they found eggs! Just three, at two different sites in south-east Cornwall, but firm evidence the butterfly is here, and breeding.

How did it get here? There are some colonies across the Tamar in Devon, so they may possibly have arrived from there. Or it is not impossible that they have been clinging on in Cornwall, in very small numbers, but unfound, even though experts have been looking over the years – this is a fairly cryptic species.

English: Photo of David Elm afflicted by Dutch...
English: Photo of David Elm afflicted by Dutch Elm disease taken at Great Fontley, UK. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As well as suffering from some of the same issues as other butterfly species, the White-letter Hairstreak has had one specific, but very major, problem. The one and only food plant of its caterpillars is elm trees and, of course, elm trees in the UK suffered devastation in the 1960s and 1970s from the beetle-carried Dutch Elm disease. And that meant all the species associated with elms, like the White-letters, also suffered badly.

Not only did they reduce in numbers along with the elms, but White-letter Hairstreaks are a small butterfly, with a wingspan of about 3.5 cm, they are mainly brown (although their underwing patterning is lovely up close, with orange edges and the white banding that gives them their name), and they live mainly, and often in small colonies, in the tops of their host trees. This is why they are spectacular not so much for their looks as for being difficult to find.

The adults are flying from the end of June through to August, feeding on honeydew in the tops of the elms. The best chance (still not good) of seeing their pretty pirouetting flight from the ground is early in the day or in late afternoon when they sometimes come down to nectar on flowers, in particular their favourite privet and bramble. My 1968 book suggests standing under a host elm and looking up, to catch sight of the fully-grown caterpillars silhouetted against the leaves – definitely written when they were more numerous!

Egg (after hatching) of the butterfly Satyrium...
Egg (after hatching) of the butterfly Satyrium w-album on an elm (Ulmus sp.) twig Scale : egg width = 1mm (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The eggs are laid singly, usually at the scar marking the join between old and new growth of the twig. They look a bit like flying saucers, and you’d have to be an expert to spot them with the naked eye. The caterpillars emerge between late-March and June, a timing that coincides with the emergence of the elm flowerbuds on which they feed before moving to the leaves. They pupate, attached by a single silk girdle, between May and July, and adults can be seen from June.

Nationally, there is some evidence that White-letter Hairstreaks have been increasing, though it is difficult to separate actual increase from increased recording effort [UPDATE 26/3/2013 – see note at end of this post]. They remain nonetheless a priority species under the UK’s Biodiversity Action Plan, and this is why it is so special to find them back here in Cornwall. Here’s hoping they go on to make a good recovery.

Cornwall Butterfly Conservation members will be surveying elms for White-letters later in the summer. If you’d like to help with the search, contact them via their website here – they’d love to have as many people involved in this exciting project as possible.

UPDATE: The day after I published this post, Butterfly Conservation released (on 26/3/2013) the 2012 figures – see this link to the report in the Guardian. After the terrible summer we had last year, butterflies have fared extremely badly, including White-letter Hairstreaks which are now down by some 70%. This is a sobering thought after its rediscovery in Cornwall, and bad news for all our butterflies. Let’s hope for a better summer this year. And see the Cornwall Butterfly Conservation page (link below) for advice on how you can help butterflies.  

References

Butterfly Conservation 2011. The State of the UK’s Butterflies, 2011. Butterfly Conservation, Lulworth, Dorset.

Mansell E, Newman LH 1968. The Complete British Butterflies in Colour. Ebury Press, London.

Links

White-letter Hairstreak: priority species factsheet

Cornwall Butterfly Conservation website

UK Butterflies