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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Holly blues on the wing

Holly Blues have been flitting across our gardens throughout this month. We have three main blue butterflies in the south of England: holly, common and chalkhill blues. I used to feel unsure about which was which – all were quite small, all dashed about and all looked much the same! Actually, telling if it is a holly blue is quite easy.

Holly Blue showing the distinctive light blue colour of its underwings

For a start, only holly blues have been flying this last month, so if you have seen a blue butterfly it will almost certainly have been a holly blue. Also, only holly blues have light blue underwings. Common and chalkhill blue butterflies’ underwings are a light brown. As holly blue butterflies often rest with their wings folded, this is a really useful feature for ID.

In addition holly blues have a chequered black and white pattern to their wing edge. Common blues’ wing edge is plain white.

Holly blues have a chequered white and black edge to their wings.

Common blues will start flying soon so we will soon be able to have fun spotting which is which. Good luck!

Orange-tips flutter by

Have you seen an orange-tip flutter across your garden or along a hedgerow yet? Orange-tips are an early spring butterfly that emerge after being in a chrysalis for 10 to 12 months. Males emerge first and are the ones with the bright orange tips to their wings. This bright splash of colour is thought to warn predators that they are nasty to eat – as well as attract the females. For us, the orange makes them easy to identify – and to remember their name! Two wins in one…

Orange-tip male feeding on a daisy in an uncut patch of lawn

Females are less showy creatures – as in so much of nature. White on top, their underwings, as with the males, are dappled light green, which provides a brilliant camouflage. Seeing their dappled underwing is the best way of distinguishing an orange-tip female from other species of white butterflies.

I had the good fortune to spot a female orange-tip just after she had emerged from her chrysalis. She spent several hours drying her wings, sitting on an aquilegia plant at the front of our house.

Newly emerged female orange-tip drying her wings, ready to fly

In our gardens, orange-tips lay their eggs on honesty and garlic mustard, known more familiarly as ‘jack-in-the-hedge’ plants. Keeping some of these plants in our gardens gives us a better chance of seeing them.

Honesty plants, with their purple flowers and garlic mustard, with white four petalled flowers and leaves that smell of garlic when you rub them, are favourite egg laying sites for orange-tips and provide food for their hungry caterpillars.

Butterflies are great fun to paint. Cut out a butterfly shape – two large upper wings, two slighter small lower wings and a long thin body down the middle. Fold the paper in half along the long body. Open the paper out and splash some bright paint on one wing. Fold the paper in half again, along the crease you made, so that some of the paint transfers onto the other wing too. Open the paper back out and you have a symmetrically coloured butterfly. If you have pipe cleaners you could stick these on for antennae. Stick them to a front window with blu tac to cheer everyone who passes. Or turn them into a butterfly mobile to flutter in your room.