Archive for ‘Butterflies & moths’

June 8, 2014

Robins don’t make it but dragonfly emerges

8 June 2014

I forgot to say in the last entry – sadly our Robin chicks didn’t make it. When we became suspicious and investigated, there were only two chicks left in the nest, one of which was very under-size, and both were dead. We think the most likely cause is the heat in the greenhouse, which can be intense early in the day. Luckily, the parents don’t seem to be thinking of re-building in the same place.

Nature is prolific, though, and in compensation, we’ve had a Broad-bodied Chaser female emerge from the pond. She’s the only one we’ve been aware of, but there may have been others: there were several larvae in there last year that I think were this species.

Female Broad-bodied Chaser dragonfly clinging to reed

Female Broad-bodied Chaser dragonfly

There are still several big, but slimmer, dragonfly larvae in the pond, which I’m guessing are Southern Hawkers; in the past we’ve seen this species emerging around the end of May, so we’re keeping a very good eye on the pond. Our new pond has a few tadpoles which we moved from the old pond to keep them safe from the newts, and they are doing well, starting to grow their back legs. It’s fascinating to see what else is turning up by itself – all sorts of small water creatures.

The other thing that has especially pleased me is seeing a female Brimstone butterfly investigating the buckthorn bush I planted as food for Brimstone caterpillars. I can’t see any eggs, though a lot would be too high to see, so I’m waiting to observe whether any damage to the leaves becomes obvious so I can see if there are caterpillars present; I’ve had one pointed out to me in the past, and their camouflage is so good, it still took me ages to actually spot it.


May 29, 2014

Crab spider versus butterflies

29 May 2014

My garden seems to be a dangerous place for butterflies at the moment. I’ve got some periwinkle out, and there is a crab spider hiding in it, which has killed both an Orange Tip and a Wall Brown.

I didn’t realise what was going on at first. I saw the Orange Tip on the periwinkle and just thought “Oh good, another Orange Tip”. It was when I walked past again about an hour later and saw it was still on the same flower that I thought something odd was going on and stopped to have a proper look, and all became clear. This sort of spider likes to lurk in a place likely to be visited by the insects that are its prey, and when they land, will grab them and sink their fangs into the body, injecting them with a venom to kill them, after which it will suck the goodness out of them.

Orange Tip hanging under the periwinkle flower while crab spider sinks his fangs in

Orange Tip being killed by crab spider

I didn’t like losing the butterfly, but spiders have to eat too. However, I walked past again a week later and spotted a Wall Brown butterfly on the periwinkle. I stopped to take a better look immediately, but mainly because I wanted to verify it was a Wall as this would make it the first one of the year, only to find it was also the victim of the crab spider. Within about half an hour the spider had disappeared and the remains of the butterfly were on the ground. This was rather more upsetting, as the Wall is becoming a less common butterfly: it is disappearing fast from inland areas and only hanging on around the coast.

Wall being killed by crab spider

Wall being killed by crab spider

One final photo, to show you a Brimstone which had the sense to keep away from the periwinkle and stick to the honesty close by – as far as I know, it lived to fly away and maybe mate with a female which will lay eggs on the buckthorn I’ve planted at the far end of the garden: it’s about time one did!

Brimstone on honesty flower

Brimstone on honesty flower



May 6, 2014

It’s a Robin’s nest

5 May 2014

We’ve now had a sighting of the bird on the nest in our greenhouse, and it’s not a finch, it’s a robin. Our bird book said robin eggs were blue, which is what led to our confusion, but checking on the internet, they often seem to be brown. We’re just as pleased to have her! You can just see her in the photo, peering over the edge of the tray to see what I’m up to.

Robin sitting on her nest

Robin sitting on her nest

The eggs have just hatched, and we managed to get in while she was off the nest for a quick look – all four eggs have turned into baby birds and all four reacted to us by opening their beaks, so they seem healthy enough. They should fledge in about two weeks apparently – it seems so quick.

We’ve also had the first green-veined white in the garden, as you can see below – the green veind on the under-wings are clearly visible: these are not present if the butterfly is a Large or Small White. It is on the honesty called ‘Corfu Blue’ that I have mentioned before.

Green-veined White

Green-veined White

And just to finish off – a lovely clump of bugle (ajuga reptans) in full flower, which is attracting lots of bees. It is one of those plants that spreads quite rapidly if it finds the right spot, and makes for good ground cover – it can get a bit over-enthusiastic, but its dark leaves are so attractive, I forgive it. The white behind is a lovely perennial viola called ‘Ivory Queen’.

Clump of buge in flower

Clump of buge in flower

April 11, 2014

Orange Tips arriving

11 April 2014

After a few not-so-good days, the sun has come out again, and with it the first of the real spring butterflies: the Orange Tip. The male who appeared moved around my forget-me-nots for a while before flying over to a flower on my perennial wallflower (erysimum). He was quite distinctive, having a notch taken out of one wing, presumably by a bird; it is amazing how much wing a butterfly can lose and still keep flying (see my blog from last July for an amazing photo of half a Speckled Wood).

Orange Tip male on purple perennial wallflower

I’d highly recommend the perennial wallflower for attracting butterflies to your garden – this is one which is easy to get, called Bowles Mauve. They tend to flower on and off all year, so they often supply nectar early and late when it is really needed.

The forget-me-nots seem to me to attract more small bees and flies than butterflies, though the butterflies will use it. I’ve got an area of garden I reserve for annuals, and I let the self-seeded forget-me-nots come up under the annuals so I’ve got a show of them for the following spring. It is not really accepted gardening practice, but it works for me – they do form a lovely haze of blue once they get going.

View of the garden looking out from the patio

You can see the forget-me-nots in the photo above, behind the red tulips. The purple behind them is a variety of honesty that is confusingly called lunaria annua, so you expect it to be an annual, but actually it is at least semi-perennial, and very easy to grow – it’s name is ‘Corfu Blue’. I’ve also got the perennial honesty called lunaria redeviva, and that is now out (Corfu Blue was out before it), but I don’t think the butterflies like it as much as Corfu Blue.

I’ll leave you with a shot of the garden from the other direction, so you can see the marsh marigolds out in the pond and the two cats by the bench. Happy gardening!

View of garden looking over pond towards cottage

View of garden





March 26, 2014

Watch out for caterpillars, even in March

26 March 2014

It feels rather early in the year to be seeing caterpillars, but if you think about it, they’ve got to be around soon, as the birds will be having their young, who will need food, and caterpillars are a moist morsel full of goodness for a young bird. I was picking some narcissi a couple of days ago, when I realised there was a bright green caterpillar on one of the leaves.

Bright Green Caterpillar

Bright Green Caterpillar

I’m fairly sure this is the caterpillar of the Angle Shades Moth, a very pretty moth which is quite common, so you might well see it or its caterpillar. Unfortunately, some people regard the caterpillars as a pest in the garden and kill them: I think this is because they not only eat the leaves but also the flower buds. Unless they get to plague proportions in your garden, though, the amount of damage won’t be huge, and they need to eat, too.

This is how the adult moth looks:

Angle Shades Moth on a leaf

Angle Shades Moth

Isn’t it pretty – what a gorgeous, subtle combination of colours. Very good camouflage for the moth, too.

Moths are pretty impressive close-up:

Close-up of Angle Shades Moth

Close-up of Angle Shades Moth

With eyes that size, it’s no wonder they can see you coming and get away quickly. And look at that crest – looks like something on the helmet of a Roman gladiator.

So – keep an eye open for caterpillars and don’t kill them. Not only are many moth species struggling to survive, but they form a major part of a young bird’s diet. Blue Tits, for example, will have 8-12 eggs, and each chick will eat 100 caterpillars per day (wonder who counted that?). What incredible senses the adults must have to find all that food – and I feel pleased with myself when I see one!







March 10, 2014

Early nectar plant for butterflies – Honesty ‘Corfu Blue’

10 March 2013

I know the year is getting underway – I’m sitting here with the sound of my printer churning out this year’s edition of “Counting Dorset’s Butterflies” behind me. The Dorset Branch of Butterfly Conservation encourages butterfly recording by offering people a range of schemes for counting, varying from very formal methods such as transect walks to just noting butterflies in your garden. I have produced a booklet explaining them all, which I update every year – it’s available via our website if you are interested.

There are many signs of the year progressing outside, too. Several days of reasonable weather have enabled us to get out in the garden to admire the butterflies also tempted out by the early sunshine. It is important that these early risers can find something to eat, so having plants for early nectar in your garden is important. I’ve previously found honesty difficult to keep in this garden: it is supposed to self-seed, but that doesn’t seem to work here. However, there is a new variety on the market that is at least semi-perennial (despite its name): lunaria annua ‘Corfu Blue’. As you can see from the photo below, taken yesterday, it is in full flower now, and being appreciated by the Small Tortoiseshells.

Small Tortoiseshell on honesty 'Corfu Blue'

Small Tortoiseshell on honesty ‘Corfu Blue’

You can also see it is more lilac coloured than blue – why do plant breeders try to insist so many flowers are blue when they are not?

There is a truly perennial honesty called lunaria redeviva, which I’ve also got, but that’s not in flower yet.

The sunshine was making a couple of the Small Tortoiseshells feel a bit frisky: the one behind the other in the photo was definitely very interested in the one in front, and I’m assuming that’s a male interested in a female, but I could be wrong. They got a bit fed up with my camera pointing at them, and whirled off together.

Two Small Tortoiseshells together

Two Small Tortoiseshells together

There’s definitely a lot of newt activity in the pond, too: maximum count so far is 13, but there will always be some we can’t spot – when disturbed, they dive into the loose earth at the bottom of the pond so you can’t see them. Photo of two of them below.

Two common newts in the pond

Two common newts in the pond

What a wonderful time of year!

February 7, 2014

Photos to remind us of summer and sunshine

6 February 2014

Like most people in the UK, I suspect, I am very fed up with the weather – rain, cloud, wind, cloud, rain, wind. So I’m going to dig into my photographic archive and come up with a few cheer-us-up pics, which I hope work for you.

Young starling being fed by a parent, with three other starlings busy feeding themselves

Young starling being fed by a parent, with three other starlings busy feeding themselves. May 2013.

Close-up of flower of Iris sibirica 'Ewen'

Close-up of Iris Sibirica ‘Ewen’

Carpet of bluebells under trees

Bluebells near Woodsford. May 2013.

Common Blue on yello rudbeckia flower

Common Blue on rudbeckia flower. August 2013.

Small Tortoiseshell on bright pink sweet william flower

Small Tortoiseshell on sweet william flower

Keep smiling – summer will return eventually!

October 31, 2013

Ivy flowers attract wildlife

31 October 2013

I’ve extolled the virtues of ivy as a wildlife plant elsewhere in this blog, and it was good to see a confirmation of it’s value the other day. Despite the gales and rain of the night of 27/28 October, the next day the sun shone, and up the top of the garden, on ivy flowers in the sunshine, I was amazed to see six Red Admirals.

Two Red Admirals on ivy flowers

Red Admirals on ivy flowers

I could only get two at any one time in the photo, but here’s a close-up of one of them – isn’t he gorgeous!

Red Admiral on ivy flower.

Red Admiral on ivy flower.

There were also numerous flies and what I think were small wasps (difficult to tell, as they were constantly on the move) enjoying the nectar. Once the flowers finish, the berries will develop, turning black when ripe, and attracting various birds to eat them: I’ve particularly noticed blackbirds and pigeons eating them. Yet another reason for leaving the garden be now – better to clip the ivy back where necessary after the berries have gone, than deprive wildlife of a good source of food.

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October 22, 2013

October Butterflies – 2

22 October 2013

Well, the weather seems to have turned. It’s still very mild, but a lot of rain and fairly windy, so the only butterfly around now is a Red Admiral, who appears when I disturb him as I walk round the garden. So let’s go back and look at some more of the species I saw on 5th and 6th of this month to brighten us up.

Small Tortoiseshell on Aster Frikartii 'Monch', with Comma in the background.

Small Tortoiseshell on Aster Frikartii ‘Monch’, with Comma in the background.

I’ve now got five clumps of this aster round the garden – it’s one of my favourite plants, and the butterflies and other insects seem to like it too.

Meadow Brown on Aster Frikartii 'Monch'.

Meadow Brown on Aster Frikartii ‘Monch’.

It’s unusual to see a Meadow Brown as late as October, and this one has obviously been out for a while, given the tattered state of his hindwing.

Comma on Rudbekia 'Goldsturm'.

Comma on Rudbekia ‘Goldsturm’.

I like this shot – if you see a Comma with its wings closed like this, usually all you see is a very dark background with the while “comma”; here, the sun is shining through the wings, so you can pick up more of the colouring, and it did pose itself beautifully on the rudbekia.

Red Admirals on pink Michaelmas Daisy

Red Admirals on pink Michaelmas Daisy


This shot shows four Red Admirals – in fact, there were ten, but it wasn’t possible to get them all in the same shot. It was interesting that they seemed to stay faithful to this bright pink Michaelmas Daisy, even when it got quite shady, although there were other butterflies on other plants elsewhere in the garden. I suppose they had found a good nectar source and were happy to stick with it, rather than waste energy flying around in search of alternative supplies. They all looked to be in quite good condition, so it is possible they were on a reverse migration: that is, they had been born here, but with winter approaching, were heading south – how sensible!

October 10, 2013

Butterflies starting to hibernate

10 October 2013

I know I said I’d share more photos of the butterflies I saw in early October in the next post, but I must just show you this – it amused me.

First the close up:

Peacock butterfly wings closed

Peacock butterfly

Now, where it was:

Peacock outside back door

Peacock outside back door

I’ve got a theory that he knew this was a butterfly-friendly household and was waiting to come in to spend the winter in comfort!

That’s only a joke – the house would not be a good place for it to spend the winter, it would be far too warm. The majority of butterflies in the UK spend the winter as eggs, caterpillars or pupae, but a few go through as adults, including the Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell, Comma, Brimstone and Red Admiral. If you find a butterfly in your house during the winter, there is some good advice on what to do with it here.

It’s not the only Peacock looking to hibernate I’ve found this week, either. I was potting up some plants in the greenhouse recently, and got a stack of empty pots from my outside store. I took one of the (black) pots and poured a handful of potting compost into it; as I did so, my brain went “hang on a minute, that looked butterfly shaped”, and sure enough, when I tipped the earth back out, a somewhat disgruntled butterfly was revealed. It seemed unharmed, so I put it in a  sheltered spot; hopefully, in the next sunny spell it flew off and found a new hibernation site.

Moral – when you are working in the garden at this time of year, keep a good look out for butterflies and moths tucked in odd places. It’s a good idea to watch out for them on the caterpillar and chrysalis stage, too…