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The Last Butterfly

The recent spell of good weather had my thoughts drifting away from our avian friends and towards what many folk call creepy-crawlies; invertebrates to us naturalists! These cold-blooded creatures need a bit of warmth, and often direct sunshine, to start living their lives to the full and show themselves in their full glory to us bug hunters! One of the invertebrate groups that everyone knows, and has been familiar with since their childhood is butterflies. As a kid I hung around near buddleia bushes with my pals and caught these unsuspecting insects in a net and carried them home in a big jar to proudly show my mum! I was a good lad though, even then(!!), and took them back to release where I’d caught them. In recent years, rather than capture them physically I have captured them in picture form and slowly and surely built up a portfolio of the UK species. A few years ago, I realised that I had seen all the regular breeding species bar one, and then with a bit more effort I revisited some and digiscoped the ones that I hadn’t photographed before. My digiscoping is old school with a digital compact camera (Contax U4R) attached to my Leica APO 77 scope; primitive compared to today’s Bridge and DSLR cameras, but it does the job for me.

The last species that I had left to see and photograph, ‘The Last Butterfly’ of my title, was a difficult species to catch up with due to its only surviving ‘wild’ population being on the Isle of Wight. A few years ago I became aware of another population, one much easier to ‘twitch’ and one that has been self-sustaining and relatively stable for c.10 years. Then, as I started planning my visit, we entered the last couple of years of different levels of lockdown due to COVID-19 and everything was put on the back burner. So, with the easing of travel restrictions and the improved situation due to vaccines, my planning started again. I decided that this would be my next Pro Birder challenge, backed by Focalpoint Optics who through tree planting offset the carbon footprint on my twice-monthly trips far and wide. Good weather and positive news from the colony made me decide to strike quickly, especially as the flight season was in its latter stages for 2021. So maps were printed, supplies gathered and the car fully fuelled up, and I was ready to seek out The Last Butterfly!

Waking at 5am, I got everything ready and was on the road at 6am just as the sunshine was starting to show; the weather looked set fair and I was on my way. Just under 3 hours later, and after a couple of stops on the final minor roads to check the maps (I don’t have a SatNav!), I pulled up in Farleigh Dean Crescent in the Greater London borough of Croydon, not far from the Surrey border. Here at the dead end was an entrance to my destination, Hutchinson’s Bank Nature Reserve, and the sun was shining; things looked good for my quest!

As I walked through the first gate I entered a cutting leading to the more extensive part of the chalkland reserve. Something made me linger a while, my instincts said that this first cutting looked good and worth a search even though it was a tiny area compared to the whole reserve. Never having visited before, I really had no idea where the butterfly areas were and which species preferred which parts. However, a couple of Speckled Woods tumbling in combat near the Nature Reserve interpretation sign and then, even better, a Small Blue butterfly flitting about in the longer edge vegetation, all gave me hope that this cutting could be good. Then a small orangey coloured butterfly caught my eye, its rapid flight looking interesting, I just prayed that it would land close by. Luckily it alighted on a dock stem and I got straight onto it with my trusty Swarovski binoculars. Strangely as I focused I didn’t get the rush of excitement that I had anticipated, no eureka moment either, more of a satisfaction and relief that here I was, looking at a Glanville Fritillary - my Last Butterfly!!

Then as I was taking all this in, another small orangey-brown butterfly flew in and engaged my butterfly in combat, both insects shooting off supercharged in the hot sunshine to disappear from view. Another Glanville Fritillary? No, not this time, it was a Small Heath that had done the dirty and ‘scared’ my butterfly off before I could even set my scope up to try to digiscope it. I continued to search this area near the Reserve sign and picked up a second Glanville Fritillary, this one having a small nick out of its hindwing, so definitely a different individual. Both looked a wee bit worn, testament to the species being late in their flight season. I felt that I had come down to see them not a moment too soon, more relief! This one, like the first, didn’t play ball and settle for long enough for photographs and again disappeared behind the longer vegetation and wasn't seen again. As I searched several more Small Blues showed really well. This species is scarce and localised in the UK, favouring chalk habitats such as the one I was on just now, and with its larvae just having a single food plant, Kidney Vetch, which was abundant at Hutchinson’s Bank NR.

A male Brimstone buzzed by, this large ‘blowsy’ species is always a treat to see and photograph, but this one was camera shy and shot though without stopping. By now a few other lepidopterists (or geeks as the public call us!) were arriving and a couple of locals confirmed that the cutting where I was, was the place for Glanvilles; my instincts had been correct. More pairs of eyes resulted in more sightings and in total I saw c.6 individual Glanvilles.

Two of these were particularly faithful to one section of the cutting and it was those two that let me finally achieve my goal of photographing all the regular British breeding species of butterfly; all 58 of them (for those lepidopterists out there that includes Large Blue, Painted Lady and Clouded Yellow but omits Real's Wood White which is in Ireland only)! This was my moment of elation, I now really had achieved my goal and, finally in my head I celebrated! As we watched, a Comma (a common butterfly I see at home), landed next to a Glanville Fritillary and it was a bit of a wow moment as it dwarfed the latter species. Commas aren't that big, as British butterflies go, but it showed just how small the Glanvilles were, not my expectation at all.

A few other species were seen as I took in a bit more of this impressive reserve; all the better for it being a green space within Greater London. These included Large Skipper, just starting their flight period, as were Meadow Brown which was in its ideal grassland habitat here at Hutchinson’s Bank.

A single Common Blue was seen close to where the double figures of Small Blues were flying investigating the Kidney Vetch and each other, chasing off rivals and seeking out mates. A single very tatty looking Small Copper was in the first cutting which was proving to be the best area for butterfly sightings, despite it being a fraction of the total reserve in area. To complete the species count, I also noted Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock and Large White on the wing, all butterflies that I would have seen on those buddleia bushes back in my childhood where this interest was kindled.

With a long journey home, and the dreaded M25 London orbital motorway to brave again, my time on the reserve all too quickly drew to a close and, with thoughts of a return next year at the peak flight time for Glanvilles, I headed back to my car. As always I breathed a sigh of relief as I exited the M25 onto the M40 and headed back north leaving the Big Smoke behind. So that was that on my lepidoptera adventure, or was it?

At home I run a moth trap and record the moths in our garden, submitting the records for science to the Cheshire Moth Recording scheme, and as usual I turned on my trap just before dusk that evening. Three of the moths caught, and subsequently released, were definitely ‘up there’ with the butterflies for how spectacularly beautiful they looked. Most people dismiss moths as grey and boring, but these species, and many others to be honest, are far from that stereotype. These three lepidoptera rounded off my excellent day searching for and enjoying this order of insects. The pictures below show how gorgeous and varied they are. The first is the predominantly pink Elephant Hawkmoth with its delta-winged shape, vibrant colours and large size which make it a favourite of moth trappers and enthusiasts.

The second species is the spectacularly speckled Peppered Moth. This has a pattern which it uses as camouflage when settled on tree trunks amongst lichen, making it hard for birds to find during the daytime when it is at rest.

The final species highlighted from the many caught that evening is the cunningly cryptic Buff-tip. To all intents and purposes when first seen this is a broken birch twig, which is exactly what this master of camouflage is trying to achieve. No bird foraging for insects would dream of taking a twig back to the nest to feed to its young. But this really is a moth, and potentially the best camouflaged of all the UK species.

These three species show the variation and beauty that can be seen in moths, they aren’t grey and boring, well, some may be grey, but boring – never!

So if you want to expand your interests give insect hunting a try. Start with the easy to ID ones like butterflies, take on a challenge like dragonflies and then make it harder with moths of which there are over 2,500 species in the UK!! Photograph your finds, a camera is easy, a mobile phone even easier (as with my moth pictures above) and even digiscoping as I did with the butterflies. Get out there soak up the sunshine and get into invertebrates!

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