We saw the swallows gathering in the sky
And in the osier-aisle we heard them noise …
The pilgrims of the year waxed very loud
In multitudinous chattering.
~ George Meredith, Modern Love, sonnet xlvii
In 2019, when I began keeping records of all my sightings and focused seriously on searching for and recording butterflies, I saw my first local Dingy skipper on 30 April and my last on 10 June. This year, I spotted my first on 6 May and what I thought was the last on 26 May, a relatively short season.
Then, remarkably, on 24 July, I saw a pristine, obviously newly emerged Dingy skipper, and I’ve seen two more this week, one on 4 August and another the following day. These are second brood butterflies, the product of the breeding of the butterflies seen in May.
In his brilliant book Life Cycles of British & Irish Butterflies, Peter Eeles write that ‘Good summers may … result in a partial second brood in southern England that emerges in late July and August (a second brood is the norm in Southern Europe), and this may become a more frequent and widespread phenomenon in Britain and Ireland with a changing climate’. It seems, here in south Wales, that phenomenon is already happening.
It’s two weeks today since junior Lesser black-backed gull flew the coop – or, in this case, the nest amongst the chimney pots, and I’m pleased to report that it seems to be thriving.
I’ve spotted it on neighbouring shed and house rooftops several times, and I’m sure it’s the same bird, as one or both of the adults sit on the nest site while junior screeches at them for food from somewhere nearby. It’s so nice to be able to report a success story.
I’ve been trying, very slowly, to learn the names of more wildflowers so, when I couldn’t put a name to this plant at Grangemoor Park a couple of days ago, I made sure to take lots of photos of it. And today I found out this straggly, nondescript wildflower is not just any old plant, this is ‘The Herb’!
Vervain (Verbena officinalis) was so valued by herbalists in Anglo Saxon times that it was considered ‘The Chief Herb’, and was ‘a venerated plant, valued not just as a panacea (it was trumpeted as a cure for the plague in the Middle Ages) but as a magical charm, which could both protect against witches and demons and conjure up devilry of its own’ (Flora Britannica).
Last week we had a closer look at a couple of butterfly eggs; today we have some Lepidoptera larvae. First up, the caterpillars of the beautiful Small tortoiseshell butterfly, which has two generations of eggs and larvae each year – these will be second generation. The eggs are laid in batches and, when they hatch, the caterpillars stay together to create a communal web where they shelter when they’re not out basking in the sun or munching on nettles. The caterpillars go through five stages (instars) before pupating – these look to be 3rd instars.
In total contrast to the Small tortoiseshell larvae, which are subtle and subdued in their colour and patterns, the larvae of the Cinnabar moth are vibrant, even flamboyant. Their bright orange and black stripes are designed to be seen, warning predators not to eat them as they are poisonous.
Red bartsia (Odontites vernus) is an unobtrusive wildflower that I have tended to overlook until now but it’s very common in Cosmeston Lakes Country Park, one of my local haunts, so I thought I should take a closer look at it.
The Wildlife Trust website says Red bartsia can be found growing on low-fertility soils – places like waste ground, brownfield sites, along the edges of roads and railway tracks, and it survives in these more barren places because it’s semi-parasitic on the plants around it, tapping in to their root systems to gather extra nutrients.
Its scientific name is interesting: Odontites comes from Ancient Greek ὀδούς meaning tooth and apparently refers to the fact that Pliny the Elder used this plant to treat toothache; vernus refers to springtime, presumably when this plant comes to life for the year. It flowers for several months over the summer, providing a good nectar source for many species of bee and wasp.
Or it might be Mrs Warty – I’m not sure how you tell the gender of a Common toad, and this one wasn’t hanging around to let me have a second look anyway. Those warts aren’t really warts, of course – they’re swellings above glands in the skin that can secrete a poisonous substance that acts as a defence mechanism.
Though they’re not the most attractive of creatures, toads are, according to my Fauna Britannica, ‘highly intelligent, learn quickly and can be tamed, and they are extremely long-lived (40 years at least)’. Apparently, they also have ‘a marked homing instinct and will return to the same resting spot in some damp corner time after time’, so perhaps I need to go back for another look at this one.
This Painted lady is only the fourth individual I’ve seen this year but she was by far the best, not because of her appearance, which is a little ragged around the edges, but because she was laying eggs … and I’d never seen a Painted lady egg before.
At just 0.65mm high, the egg is tiny and, in my reference book, it’s described as green but, to my eye, this one is more of a pale turquoise – the plant stem is green. And the plant is a thistle – Creeping thistle, I think, though it was a young plant with no flowers, which makes it harder for me to identify but probably more nourishing for the teeny tiny caterpillar to munch on when it emerges. Now if I can only find this exact plant again in approximately a week’s time …
And following hot on the heels of finding that Painted lady egg, today I spotted a female Common blue butterfly laying her eggs in a sheltered clearing. You can perhaps see in the photo how she is angling her body to deposit an egg underneath the foliage.
So, once again, I was able to find the newly laid egg and take some photos. According to my book, these eggs are usually 0.5mm in diameter and just 0.25mm high, so really tiny. I have no chance of finding this egg again but I’m really glad I had the chance to see it.
As well as the lovely Grayling butterfly spotted on Wednesday’s walk in Aberbargoed, we had a wonderful surprise when my friend Sharon spotted these two tiny reptiles, basking on a wooden boardwalk in the Grasslands National Nature Reserve.
The reptile known as the Common lizard and also the Viviparous lizard, once had the scientific moniker Lacerta vivipara but is now Zootoca vivipara. Viviparous is a zoological term meaning ‘bringing forth live young which have developed inside the body of the parent’ (Oxford Dictionary), though what apparently happens in this lizard’s case is that the young hatch from their eggs as they are deposited outside the body (Fauna Britannica).
As their name suggests, these lizards are common in Britain, though I’ve only seen them twice in my five years’ residence in Wales, which is why Wednesday’s sightings were such a delight. You can find out more about them on the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust website.
I had big plans to see more of Britain’s butterfly species this year but, in the immortal words of Robbie Burns, plans and schemes ‘gang aft agley’. The Covid 19 lockdown put a stop to all the butterflying plans I was hatching and I’ve missed seeing an awful lot of species this year. But, yesterday, I did manage one more species for 2020, that master of camouflage, the Grayling.
I have a friend who lives not far from Aberbargoed, with its Grasslands National Nature Reserve and the neighbouring coal spoil tip, so I was able to combine a delightful socially distanced walk with some butterflying. It was a little late in the month – last year I visited the tip in mid July – but we got lucky, with wonderful close sightings of just one individual.
In his Life Cycles of British & Irish Butterflies, Peter Eeles notes that the Grayling was once known as the Rock Underwing, a testament to its ability to blend in perfectly with the surrounding earth and pebbles when it lowers its forewings. Fortunately, when the Grayling is feeding, it raises its forewings and we were able to see more clearly its two eye spots.