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The Only Way is Essex

July sunshine means only one thing to me, butterflies. This July, however, was changeable to say the least. At times wet, overcast, windy and even cold, but just occasionally we have had a sunny day here in Cheshire and the butterflies have fluttered by.

My ‘go to’ place to do my butterflying since 2016 is my local patch – Newchurch Common. July was an exceptional month, both for numbers of butterflies seen and the number of species recorded. In total 18 species were seen on the wing in July and, on my best day, I saw 15 of these with several days where I recorded 12 or more species flying.

Early in July, Large Skippers were still seen, but only in week one, with Small Skippers also emerging, so that these two similar species overlapped by just a few days. Later in the month Small Skipper counts were the best I’ve ever had here, with 20 seen in one very small area of meadow on several occasions; every one scrutinised carefully – but more of that later! On 1st July an uplifting sighting was my first Purple Hairstreak of the year in a small oak near Big Pool. At least 2 individuals flitted around up in the canopy of the oak as they always do but they showed really well through my scope, even showing the purple on the upperwings. This was the second hairstreak species seen on my ‘patch’ this year following on from Green Hairstreaks which were last seen in May. Two adjacent oaks were seen to be used by the hairstreaks, but they were hard to see on every visit; typical of butterfly species that favour the treetops.

One of my more recent colonists, Ringlet, was still flying after being seen first, albeit in ones and twos, in June. Numbers of Ringlets built up until I was getting good double-figure counts on each visit, all concentrated on the meadows east of Sandiway Big Pool. Meadow Browns, which like Ringlets, had emerged in early June were also seen in good numbers in the same meadows. Speckled Woods were seen on most visits all across my recording area and the fourth of the ‘brown’s that I get in my area, Gatekeeper, emerged in the second week of July. The single individuals seen on my first couple of visits soon became double figures by the end of the month with every bramble patch having several sunning Gatekeepers on it.

Right from 1st July, three of my four common vanessids were seen on most visits, namely Red Admiral, Comma and Small Tortoiseshell. It was the third week before the Peacocks emerged again; predictable given the large numbers of caterpillars in the nettle patches in June. Numbers increased and late in July double figures were nectaring on thistles in just one tiny area of meadow.

Another emergence was the second -brood Holly Blues, first noted on 12th July, with the odd ones and twos seen thereafter. Like hairstreaks I get two ‘blue’ species on my patch, the other one, Common Blue was last seen on 22nd June, so didn’t quite make it into this round up, although it was seen again in early August! Another emergence was of Small Copper, pristine adults being seen from 10th July, peaking in the last week of the month with 4 seen in a meadow north of Big Pool.

One species that was seen after a long absence was Brimstone, a lone female being seen on quite a dull day at the end of July, following my last sighting on 28th May. Thereafter, the next few days saw several male Brimstones nectaring on thistles around the meadows. All three common ‘white’ species that are seen on my patch in summer were well represented in July. From the first week in July to the last, Large White, Small White and Green-veined White were all on the wing, the former being the least common of the three. Towards the end of July, Green-veined White sightings dominated, the meadows being close to pools favouring this species of predominantly damp habitats.

They always say “leave the best ‘til last”, and what better than adding a new species of butterfly for my recording area? Every small Skipper that I had been able to look at through binoculars had been scrutinised for the past couple of years and, up to this July, these had all proven to be ‘bog-standard’ Small Skippers. However, on the morning of 12th July I spotted what I expected to be another Small Skipper that landed in the long grass in the meadow by Big Pool. A quick photo was taken on my phone as the antennae looked suspiciously black-tipped and when I examined the picture at home on my PC I could see the clearly demarcated black ends of the antennae and its ID was clear – female Essex Skipper. This was my first ever on my patch and it was was followed by an even better specimen and photo on 26th July. In an area close to the first record I spotted another skipper which, as always, I checked and as soon as I lifted my bins I could immediately see obvious pale orange antennae with ‘dipped-in-ink’ tips both on the uppersides and crucially the undersides. The cut off between orange and black was clean cut and I knew that I was looking at another Essex Skipper on my local patch. This time a head on photo showed the diagnostic antennae tips much better, albeit as a record shot on my phone. After only three shots the skipper zoomed off and was lost in the long grass of the meadow. Essex Skipper has been spreading north-west and was recorded first in Cheshire as recently as two years ago. With 2020 being a bumper year in Staffordshire and Cheshire, I had been searching particularly for this species this year. Finally finding it was fantastic, this is what local patch watching is all about, they were ‘my own’ Essex Skippers and I was elated!

To find a new species of butterfly on my own patch is hard and to find one that has only expanded northwards to Cheshire in the last two years is even better. I urge everyone to get out and search your meadows and rough ground. Essex Skippers are out there; ID may be tricky but it is worth it, and who knows what else might be found. I found an Elephant Hawkmoth caterpillar, my first on patch too, on the same day as the second Essex Skipper, so keep exploring!

Species of Butterfly recorded on Newchurch Common, July 2020:

Essex Skipper, Small Skipper, Large Skipper, Large White, Small White, Green-veined White, Brimstone, Speckled Wood, Ringlet, Meadow Brown, Gatekeeper, Red Admiral, Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell, Comma, Small Copper, Purple Hairstreak, Holly Blue. (18 species)

Species of Butterfly recorded on Newchurch Common, 2016-2020:

Essex Skipper, Small Skipper, Large Skipper, Orange-tip, Large White, Small White, Green-veined White, Brimstone, Speckled Wood, Ringlet, Meadow Brown, Gatekeeper, Red Admiral, Painted Lady, Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell, Comma, Small Copper, Purple Hairstreak, Green Hairstreak, Holly Blue, Common Blue. (22 species)

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