The Big Five – time for a local safari

Peacock butterflies have just emerges from chrysalises, so are at their most stunning now

Five distinctive butterflies are fairly commonly seen in flight now around Burwell, most freshly emerged from their chrysalises? The colours of their wings are at their deepest, not yet faded by exposure to sunbeams; their exquisitely scalloped wings not yet tattered from getting caught on vegetation, or having to dodge hungry predators. I’ve been making myself look at these butterflies as if I had never seen one before – and wonder how I could have taken such beautiful, delicate, yet strong creatures for granted.

I find knowing which species they are helps me to ‘see’ and appreciate them. I use clues and invented links to help me learn and remember their names. Do you do the same? So Peacocks (photo above, that I wrote about in the last blog), are instantly recognisable for their breath-taking purple ‘eyes’ on their wings. Peacock birds after which they are named have eyes on their elaborate feathers, making this butterfly’s name straightforward to remember.

Red admirals with their smart black wing tips with officers ‘pips’ on their shoulders

Red admirals have black, white and red/orange patterns. I read they were originally known as red admirables – and admirable is what they are. Taking the modern version of their name – admiral – I like to think of the white on the edge of their wings as the stripes a navy officer has on the shoulders of their uniform.

Small Tortoiseshells are a favourite of mine, recognisable by the delicate scalloping of the bottom edge of their wing, edged with bluey-green like the translucent inside of a shell. These butterflies’ delicateness is an illusion – the males soon end up in a twirling, spiralling fight if another comes near their territory.

Small tortoiseshell, with wings edged with blue, like the inside of a shell.
Inside of a shell

When most butterflies shut their wings they become difficult to see, looking like a piece of browny bark, leaf or lichen blown onto a flower. However, comma butterflies are named for the grammar inscribed on their dull wing undersides: a white comma-like mark standing out clearly against the dark of the wing. Commas’ wings are deeply scalloped, their edges almost like exaggerated commas themselves. As a comma opens its wings, its rich copper colours can be seen.

A painted lady feeding on sedum

Painted lady’s make up the set. Their black and white wing tips have similarities with red admirals, however, painted ladys have more complex orangey-brown patterning, with black blobs and blotches across the main body of their wings. If I get confused, I think of an artist having fun painting this complex patterning. You may think of something better!

Painted ladys are migrant butterflies. If you see one that is faded, with its wing edges tatty, you will know you are seeing one that has flown here from North Africa, its colours bleached by the sun, its wings frayed after flying so many miles. Once these butterflies arrive from North Africa, they lay their eggs on nettles, mallows (see earlier post) and thistles. These hatch into caterpillars, which in turn form chrysalises, suspended in a tent of leaves. If you see a fresh looking painted lady, you will know it has recently emerged from a chrysalis here. When the autumn comes, many of these will complete the migration cycle, flying to North Africa for the winter. Approximately every ten years we have a ‘painted lady year’ when vast numbers of painted ladys arrive. The most recent was in 2009. I was lucky enough to see them come: I was out early one morning surveying birds near Wimpole and wave after wave of painted lady butterflies flew across the field I was in, travelling north.

The Big Five: on safari ‘the big five’ are known as the lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhinoceros. A well-known challenge is to try to see all five. Only the very lucky manage to do so on one trip. How about going on a local ‘safari’, taking on a Butterfly Big Five challenge: to see a peacock, red admiral, small tortoiseshell, comma and painted lady in a week. In their own way, these butterflies are just as remarkable as the creatures that make up the better known Big Five!

Many thanks to Sue Pennell for making this post possible – all the beautiful photos of butterflies in this post are hers.

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