Aconites, winter flowering buttercups shine through grey days

Aconites are one of the showiest flowers out at the moment. I caught sight of a bunch as I walked up St Mary’s church path, shining yellow alongside a group of snowdrops. By flowering now they are living up to their latin scientific name (part of which is derived from Greek!) Eranthis hyemalis which literally means ‘Spring flowering in winter’ (ear – spring, anthos – flower, hiemalis – of winter). Aconites were brought here from Southern Europe to decorate our gardens as early as 1596. They gradually spread into the wild and are now common across central England and the eastern side of Great Britain. Despite coming from the Mediterranean, they clearly cope well with our colder winters!

Sepals form an outer ring and protect the flower in bud. They are often quite small and green, illustrated by this primula.

Aconites belong to the buttercup family – no surprise you would think, given the similarity of their yellow petals with the glossy yellow petals of the buttercups that flower later in the year. Except what looks like their petals are not petals at all. A flower usually has two whorls or rings of leaf like structures that circle the flowers’ female and male organs. The structures in the outer whorl are the sepals. These are often small and green. Their role is to protect the flower in bud.

Petals are often large and coloured to attract insects to the flower, as on this primula.

The petals sit inside the whorl of sepals. Their role is to attract insects to pick up pollen from the male organs and transfer it to fertilise the female organs, preferably of another plant. As petals’ role is to attract, they are usually larger than sepals and brightly coloured.

Only when I read up about aconites and looked more closely at their flowers did I discover that their yellow ‘petals’ are actually the sepals. Looking closer I realised there is no ring of green – or any other colour – leaf-like structures where the sepals should be. I then was pointed to tiny tubular structures that are round the inside of the base of the flower and blow me down, there are the petals, but much reduced in size and acting as nectaries. Instead of attracting insects by their size and colour, aconites’ petals do so by secreting sugary nectar. Just what hungry insects are desperate for in this freezing weather.

In many ways, who cares whether the yellow ‘petals’ are really petals or are actually sepals? Yet if we understand this, we are able to appreciate that by looking at an aconite we are seeing evolution in action. Aconites have so much of the simplicity of the earliest flowers – each sepal is separate, not fused in any way to the others; lots of anthers and carpels (the male and female parts). Yet the tubular petals show that aconites have moved on a bit from buttercups in the evolutionary journey – a journey that has produced the complex flowers of orchids.

If there is an aconite that you can pick, put it in a small jar on your table and you have evolutionary history in front of you. And a little bit of winter flowering sunshine that also smells lovely!

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Ivy provides an ever green feast

A profusion of ivy berries on Newmarket Road, provide a banquet for wildlife

Ivy flowered in the autumn, its small yellow flowers providing pollen for hoverflies, moths and many other insects well after other flowers had gone to seed. Now, when so many other berries and fruit are long gone, and it is bitterly cold, ivy berries provide birds and small four-legged creatures with vital carbohydrates. (Note: they are poisonous to humans, causing nausea and vomiting if we eat them. Not nice!)

I say ‘provide’, as a parent would a child with its tea. I am not entirely anthropomorphising this plant. Each berry contains several seeds. Each creature that eats these berries absorbs the pith around the seeds, but the seeds travel straight through its digestive system and out the other end. By this time the chances are that the creature will have travelled at least a little distance from the parent plant. By making the berries stuffed with carbohydrate and so attractive to creatures to eat, each ivy plant is maximising the chance that its seed will be spread.

Ivy tempts birds and other creatures with high energy food, and so its seeds are spread.
Look closely at clumps of ivy berries and you will see where creatures have been feasting – only one berry left on this clump!
Two different shapes of ivy leaves, those on non-flowering (left) and flowering (right) stems.

I’ve been puzzled by the ivy that grows at home as its leaves are of two very different shapes. Have you spotted this? I had wondered if I had two different species of ivy. Reading up, I now know that the ‘ivy-shaped’ (!!) leaf is on non-flowering stems. The stems with flowers (and then berries) have leaves that are oval.

Feed your birds – make your own special bird cake:
With the current cold, wet and snowy weather, birds will be hungry. If you have ivy berries, avoid cutting them back unless you have to. You can also make your own special bird feed mix to put out for the birds – and enjoy the chance to get thoroughly messy! Mash some vegetable fat, eg Trex, or lard, with a mix of any of sultanas, currants, oats, crumbled plain biscuits, nuts, and seeds and push into a fir cone, or old yoghurt pot and hang where you can enjoy watching the birds come to your offering. Top tip: attach string for hanging the cone or yoghurt pot before filling with the mix – less messy (by a narrow margin!).

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A miniature rainforest in the wood

I was walking in Priory Wood and noticed mosses hugging the trunks at the bottom of each young tree. Going on hands and knees to look closer I felt I was entering a miniature rainforest, of minutely divided fronds and dripping with moisture.

Mosses create the look of a miniature rainforest in Priory Wood.

As a child I used to love visiting old houses or castle, with the sense they gave me of being in touch with history. Looking at the mosses in Priory Wood sends shivers down my spine as I realise I am looking at one of the very earliest plant forms to develop and so am seeing survivors from early evolutionary history, taking me back, as it were, millions of years.

St Mary’s church wall is covered with moss, at just the right height to appreciate their intricate design.

As the most primitive of land plants mosses have no roots, no flowers or fruits. They have no vessels (or vascular system) to carry fluid around their structure. Yet they are so well adapted they are immensely successful, occurring across the world and have approximately 22,000 different species. As I continued my walk I started to look out for mosses and I realised how many moss species can be seen growing on the tops of walls – and you can get a great view of them without getting damp knees from kneeling on wet ground! I suddenly aware how alive the church wall around St Mary’s is.

Moss species grow low in the form of cushions in exposed areas.

As I started writing this post, I looked out of my window and realised moss was right in front of my eyes – all over our garage roof. The moss on the roof is tightly compact in a form known as ‘cushions’. As mosses have no roots and no vascular system they are dependent on the moisture in the air. Where they are exposed, as on our garage roof, they need to stay tight and compact, in ‘cushions’, to reduce evaporation from their cells. Staying low down they are growing on what is called ‘the boundary edge’ between the ground and air. We know when we are in a windy place and lie down, it is much less blowy close to the ground. Mosses in exposed places lie low to keep out of the drying wind.

Mosses grow stems from the top of which their spores are launched into the wind.

However, a problem comes when mosses want to reproduce. Mosses have no seeds, but produce spores. These need to find a suitable new patch of bare ground on which to grow. They need to fly! Yet the moss is growing low down out of the wind. The solution: the moss grows stems from which to launch their spores into the more turbulent air above. The length of the stem depends on how out of reach that turbulent air is. In a forest the stems will be longer than those from moss growing on our exposed roof.

Leaves of mosses are single cells structures, so are translucent – and have no protection against air pollution

Mosses play a vital part in our ecosystem. Their leaves have to be wet for the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide and so photosynthesis to be possible. They are therefore adapted to soak up and retain moisture for as long as possible. Their dampness creates a micro climate of humid air which benefits other plants and creatures that live in their vicinity. Mosses are also an indicator of air pollution. Their leaves are only a single cell thick and they don’t have the protective cuticles that so-called ‘higher’, more evolved, plants have. When sulphur dioxide or nitrous dioxide from car exhausts mixes with this water it turns to acid killing the leaves and so the plants.

Mosses have adapted to survive periods of drought. To demonstrate this, collect some moss fronds and gently dry them out, for example in the airing cupboard. Then put them on a plate with drops of water underneath. You will be able to watch the fronds revive, with renewed colour and shape.

I recently read Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book ‘Gathering moss: a natural and cultural history of mosses’ which has introduced me to the extraordinary world of mosses and much of the above comes from what I have learned from her book which is a beautiful description of her lifelong study and awe of mosses.

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Robin song lights up dusk

Through the grey, I heard a robin singing

Yesterday, it was damp and foggy at dusk as I walked round the village. Utterly depressing. Then as I passed garden after garden I heard song. Robins’ wistful notes were penetrating the grey with music. I expect many of us have had robins on Christmas cards up in our homes. These have come down, yet the real birds sing on.

Robin singing from a garden bush at the corner of Parsonage Lane

I did not learn to pick out robin song from all other birdsong until I was an adult. To me all birdsong sounded the same. Yet robin song is actually one of the easiest to distinguish – and helpfully robins are one of the few birds singing at the moment so now is a good time to get to know it. Robins’ song is flutey, they sing in verses, and each verse is different with a gap of about six seconds between each verse. I used to confuse blackbird and robin song (this will horrify those of you with an acute ear, as blackbird notes are mellower, but I did!) until I learned that blackbirds always finish their song with a few squeaky notes, almost like they have run out of breath.

Robins are unusual for birds in that both males and females sing and they sing through the autumn and winter. This is because they are holding territories. Their song is saying, ‘This patch is mine.’ We humans so often think a patch belongs to us, whether through ownership or paying rent. These birds turn this upside down. Our gardens are theirs. I smiled as I walked, thinking of how these robins were seeing me, making my way through their territory.

Robin feeding chicks copyright BBC Wildlife

In recognition that we are on their territory, as we tidy our gardens we can leave piles of leaves or dead wood tucked under a bush to provide homes for all things creepy-crawly. These piles will act as food cupboards for robins and other birds. We will be rewarded with song and maybe a nest in the spring. That thought will help get me through the coming grey days.

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Mrs Tiggywinkle snuffles through at dusk

Eating outside at dusk, enjoying the warmth of the evening, we heard a rustling coming from low down in our hedge. Too loud to be a blackbird, too quiet to be anything huge. we held our breath in hope. The rustling moved closer towards where we were sitting. “There it is,” we whispered to each other in delight as a snuffling nose, followed by a round body of prickles emerged out of the garden border onto our grass. The hedgehog, which may have been Mr rather than Mrs Tiggywinkle – it was the stories of Mrs Tiggywinkle that I read as a child and so I continue to think of all hedgehogs as female – snuffled towards us on her (his) little short legs.

Mrs Tiggywinkle looking for food under the bird feeder

Snuffling is the only term possible to use for this creature’s movements, for without doubt it is lead by its nose. Terribly short sighted, it was unaware of us and took no notice even when we briefly turned on a torch to see it better. Encouraged by this, Ian took a photo.

Hedgehog hole cut in hope back in spring. Clearly our hedgehog can read!

The hedgehog’s interest continued to be focussed on finding edibles under our bird feeder. After around ten minutes, it lifted up its body on its four short legs and scuttled across the lawn. Guess what? It followed the fence along that side of the garden and made its way through the hedgehog hole we had cut for its use. Bingo!

RAMBLES FROM MY CHAIR: Littletown Farm Guest House

For four consecutive nights now, this lovely little wild mammal has followed the same pattern, appearing nearly on the dot of 7.45pm, finding what it can in our garden, then moving on to our neighbours. I was going to headline this post saying we had had ‘a prickly evening visitor’. Evening would be correct, prickly certainly so. But not a visitor. We are as much visitors on this creature’s land as it is on ours. Just as Beatrix Potter named the hedgehog in her story ‘Mrs Tiggywinkle’, and so I think of all hedgehogs as Mrs, so too if I call this creature a ‘visitor’ I continue the myth that this land is ours, when I believe it belongs to all who in any way live, or move across, on, under or over it.

Now is a great time to see hedgehogs as they feed up ready for winter hibernation. Leave dead leaves under hedges; when pruning, put some piles in corners to encourage insects, and you increase your chances of being visited. Put a saucer of water out. You can buy hedgehog food. (Never put out milk, it is bad for them.) Cut a hole in the bottom of your fence, so their world stays as large as they need. Then go out at dusk and listen for rustlings. I’d love to know if you see one.

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A chance to see females who have males for breakfast…

Spiders’ webs come into view at this time of year, strung between grasses, dead flower heads, or washing lines; improbable distances joined by fine threads, linked to form carefully designed webs, visible only when caught by early morning dew or frost. Have you watched fishermen preparing their nets before leaving harbour? Imagine spider webs as fishing nets, carefully crafted to maximise their catch… for that is what they are. Thinking this, I realise outside my front door, there is a major harvesting operation going on.

Female wasp spider with prey, she has trapped in a cocoon of silk

Wasp spiders are great spiders to spot. We have many species of spiders in the UK, and they are often difficult to identify, beyond knowing, by virtue of their 8 legs, that they are a spider. However, wasp spiders can be both easily spotted, and identified, thanks to their bright yellow and black stripes and unique (for the UK) web design. This species of spider are fairly new to the UK, the first being seen in Rye in 1922, but are now fairly common across the south of England.

Wasp spider webs have a zigzag of white threads from the centre. The fuzzy bundle at the top of the zigzag is prey that was deceived by the light from these threads and trapped.

Wasp spiders’ colouring is to protect themselves from potential predators by deceiving predators into thinking they have a wasp like sting. As well as looking out for the bright black and yellow body of the female, also look for the zigzag white threads in the web, which is unique to this species in the UK. The purpose of these threads is debated; it is possible they reflect UV light and so attract the attention of flies, bees and moths, who are drawn in, mistakenly thinking that the light comes from flowers.

Grasshoppers are wasp spiders idea of dinner

Wasp spiders’ favourite food is grasshoppers, so to find these spiders, look in grassland that has not yet been cut so still has plenty of grasshoppers. As I watched the spider that prompted this post, a grasshopper bounced into her web. She whipped across and rapidly wrapped the unfortunate creature with silk she exuded from her body so it could not escape. Her dinner sorted!

Males often have a hard time in the spider world and this is certainly so for male wasp spiders. Male wasp spiders are much smaller than the females, and are inconspicuous brown creatures. When they try to mate with a female they take their life in their hands: a female is quite capable of eating them alive as they are mating! So a male hangs about on the edge of a web, trying to pick the moment when a female is mature, as then her jaws are soft, and he has a chance of surviving her bite – many don’t make it… (Thanks to Buglife for this information!)

Try working out how many different species of spider there are in a patch of garden or land near you. Our attention is often drawn to spider webs, not so often to the spiders who make them. When you see a web, often a spider is not immediately visible. Start taking a look around the edge of webs and you will see all sorts of different spider species, of different sizes and shapes, often with intricate markings.

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A visitor with the most fantastic legs… cricket is on

Our cricket visitor, with its incredible back legs and long antennae.

Yesterday we had a visitor with the most fantastic legs! We have been listening to the Test match, now – quite literally – ‘cricket’ came alive in the kitchen…

As I went closer our unusual visitor leapt. At his best, Olympic gold medal winning long jumper Greg Rutherford jumped 8.51m. That is four and a half times his body length. To achieve this he needed a long run up and lots of clapping from the crowd. Our visiting cricket was 2cm long and was leaping 60cm from a standing start, a distance 30 times its body length. Phenomenal.

Crickets’ legs are covered with spines and spikes to capture small prey. They are also very well camouflaged, disappearing when seen against grassy vegetation.

Do you know the difference between a grasshopper and a cricket? I was delighted to see this cricket as I had recently been told that the length of antennae distinguishes them – grasshoppers have short antennae, crickets long. However, what counts as ‘long’? Well, once I had seen this cricket, I realised ‘long’ is seriously long – its thin, intermittently waving and curling antennae were longer than its body. In comparison, grasshoppers antennae are short and stubby.

Another difference between the two is that crickets are usually nocturnal, while grasshoppers are about in the day. I was lucky to have such a good view of this cricket: usually you need to go out at night with a torch to see them. Crickets’ legs are covered with spines and spikes, used to strike and hold down smaller prey insects. Gardeners will be pleased to have them as they eat aphids! Grasshoppers on the other hand only eat vegetation. Both – unfortunately for them – are important sources of food for larger creatures, including birds.

A cricket is well camouflaged in vegetation.

The Orthoptera society produce a great guide to crickets and grasshoppers. My visitor turned out to be a Roesel’s bush-cricket, easily identified (once you know) by the creamy-yellow or green horseshoe shape mark on each shoulder. One of ten species of bush-cricket in the UK, Roesel’s bush crickets used to be confined to the south-east coast, but have spread across the south of England in the last few years. It likes damp meadows and rough grassland and may have used uncut road verges to spread further north.

Crickets’ and grasshoppers’ sing to attract and court mates. Roesel bush-crickets’ song is described as like the noise from overhead electric pylons. Not so attractive to our ears but obviously works for them! These insects’ song is caused by stridulation – the rubbing of body parts against each other to create sound. To ‘sing’ crickets rub grooves, or pegs on one wing vein against similar grooves on the veins of the other wing – something like having one’s own inbuilt violin. They amplify this scratchy sound by lifting their wings to form a loud hailer, and with a oval device a bit like a drum’s skin in their wing surface, called a mirror. To hear, they have ‘ears’ on their front pair of legs, just below their knees.

Grasshoppers have a set of pegs running down the inside thick part of their legs. They ‘chirp’ by rubbing these pegs against a vein on their forewing. In this recording of a field grasshopper you can almost hear how this sound is created. Instead of being on their front knees, grasshoppers’ ears are at the base and sides of their abdomen. The sound of leather on willow is one of the sounds of an English summer that we have just got back. The sound of these creatures in a grassy field – by day and night – is without doubt another.

The left behind skin or exoskeleton of a young grasshopper or cricket, against a penny for scale. You can see where it has burst out of its skin, so it can grow bigger.

When it is sunny, go to any area of longish grass and look out for grasshoppers – they will start leaping in all directions. Even the small patch of long grass by the pavement at the bottom of Newmarket Road is full of them. Spot their ‘ghosts’: in order to grow, crickets and grasshoppers have to shed their skins – or exoskeletons (external skeletons) – several times. To get the idea, think of a human bursting out of their trousers. Look across the tops of the grasses and you may well see a pale white skin that has been left behind. They look like ghosts, but are actually signs of new life and growth.

Tip: if you want to collect a skin, take a pot as they are very light and easily blown away with a breath of wind.

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White trumpets offer Mediterranean feel

Large bindweed’s white trumpets cover a hedge at Scotred Close

Bindweed or convolvulus is dreaded by gardeners. Its coiling grasping stems throttle and smother less aggressive plants. Plants of this genus have long roots. A tiny section of root left in the soil regrows vigorously. Alongside bindweed the RHS gardening website offers such gardeners’ nightmares as ‘couch grass, ground elder and Japanese knotgrass’ as ‘others you might like to read about’. Yet walking round the village I have been admiring the huge white trumpets of the larger species. If I had been walking along a Mediterranean lane I know I would be enjoying, rather than shuddering at their presence.

Field bindweed has small, white, pink or candy floss pink and white striped flowers.

In this area we have 3 species of bindweed: field, hedge and large. (By the coast you also have sea bindweed.) Field bindweed has small white, pinkish or candy floss pink and white trumpet shaped flowers. Field bindweed often creeps along the ground and so is one of the few flowers which survive when our pavements’ verges are cut.

Large bindweed covers a hedge, Green Lane, Burwell

Hedge and large bindweed are very similar, with large white trumpet shaped flowers. These two species can be told apart by the difference in their flower bases. Large bindweed has huge overlapping brown-purplish bracteoles – leaf-like structures – at the base of the flowers, which almost hide the much smaller pale green sepals. The bracteoles of hedge bindweed don’t overlap, so the flowers’ sepals can be seen.

I mentioned that large bindweed, with its huge white trumpets made me feel like I was in the Mediterranean, I now discover I am not mistaken: large bindweed is in fact a Mediterranean plant that was brought to this country. This often happened as people started travelling: they brought back seeds or cuttings of plants they liked; as with large bindweed, the more vigorous escaped from their gardens or estates into the countryside.

Last time I wrote of how plants have evolved, with buttercups being early in the evolutionary stage with separate petals, and multiple female and male parts. Bindweed is an evolutionary stage further on. Looking closely, it is possible to see where what would have been 5 separate petals have fused, creating the funnel shape. (You could think there were 10 petals, 5 of the lines are creases remaining from where the flower folded in bud.)

A hoverfly is funnelled, literally, towards the nectar, having to pass the fused female stigma (white) and five purple male anthers en route.

Instead of the open flower of a buttercup, now insects have to enter a funnel to reach the nectar at the base of the plant. So the plant need not have so many female and male parts, as the chance of any one insect pollinating each is increased. Instead of the multiple male anthers of buttercups, convolvulus have just five. By looking at such a common – and unwanted(!) – flower, we can see the brilliance of evolution in front of our eyes.

Small tortoiseshell having a drink of nectar.

To return to butterflies, from the post the one before last. The Big Butterfly count is on from now until Sunday 9 August. To take part, we are asked to choose a spot to watch and count and record the butterflies we see in a 15 minute period and enter this information on Butterfly Conservation’s website. A downloadable poster is provided to help with ID. I hope the description of the Big Five butterflies in my recent post helps too. Our results give Butterfly Conservation important information about how our butterflies are doing. As well as assisting conservation of butterflies, watching a local patch, whether in your garden or elsewhere, gives a good insight into how many insects are dependent on the nectar flowers provide. I will be unpopular for saying this – especially in my own family – but bindweed helps with this too!

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Buttercups, elegant and creeping

Back in April I wrote about bulbous buttercups, that at the time were flowering along the paths and grassy areas of Burwell. At the time I said there are three common species of buttercup found around the village and I frustrated some of you by not describing the other two species. So I will make up for my error now, with my apologies. Bulbous buttercups are finished flowering now, the other two species – creeping buttercups and meadow buttercups – are flowering well – creeping buttercups too well for allotment holders, where they are constantly creeping off the paths into the vegetable growing patches!

Bulbous buttercups’ sepals fold downwards

First a quick reminder about Bulbous buttercups. You may remember these are easily told from the other two species of buttercup as their sepals – petal-like structures under the petals – fold downwards towards their stems. Sepals are usually not as showy as a flowers’ petals – which are often brightly coloured to attract pollinating insects – but they play an important protecting role, often sheltering the petals when the flower is in bud or during rain.

Creeping buttercups form a carpet at Burwell allotments.

Creeping buttercups Ranunculus repens are well named for those who regard them as a menace. Their leaves form thick mats, crowding out other vegetation and as their name implies, they creep – by sending out runners that then root. In this way they quickly and literally, gain ground. They tend to flower low to the ground and their leaves are less intricately edged than the other two buttercups and often have pale blotches.

Meadow buttercups dancing at Pauline’s Swamp

Meadow buttercups are the ballerinas of the three. They stand tall, have elaborately cut leaves and grow where habitat is at its finest for wildlife. I’ve seen a few in Priory Wood and at Burwell Castle; they are rampant at Pauline’s Swamp.

In evolutionary terms, buttercups are one of the oldest flowers. You can tell this by their simple form: they have petals that are separate to each other and multiple male stamens, which circle the inner female stigmas. To be fertilised pollen from a stamen needs to transfer to a stigma, where it travels down a thin tube to the ovary below. The stamens and stigmas on any one flower are fertile at different times to avoid self-fertilisation. Buttercups have a simple strategy for reproduction. The wide open flower aims to attract insects to land. The presence of multiple sexual organs increases the chances of an insect picking up pollen from the anthers, or transferring pollen to the stigmas.

Viper’s-bugloss flowers are evolved to maximise the chances of fertilisation of their seed by visiting insects.

As flowers evolve, their strategy becomes more developed. Petals fuse, creating funnels to draw pollinating insects in. As the strategy for drawing in the insects right into the flower improves, the numbers of stamens and stigmas can reduce, – so reducing the energy costs for the plant. The beautiful bluey-purple tall viper’s-bugloss is in flower now. Look at how clever this species’ flower is. As a bee lands on a lower petal attracted by the prospect of a drink of nectar, the other petals bend and the male stamens brush round the bee, to ensure the bee picks up pollen to carry to and fertilise the next viper’s bugloss flower it visits. To reach the nectar, the bee has to put its head right into the flower. Any pollen it is carrying from another flower has ample chance of being brushed off onto this flower’s female stigmas. The ova in the heart of the flower is fertilised and a seed is formed.

I found learning I could have an idea of a flower species’ place in the evolutionary process just by looking at its structure a revelation. Have a look at all the plants in flower now and see how much they have adapted to attract insects in, to save themselves costly energy and be as effective as possible at reproducing. We are looking at the result of millions of years of development – and also know, when we look at buttercups, we are going back to the very earliest times. In french they are called bouton d’or, buttons of gold. Indeed they are.

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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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