John Solomon, mid-May 2021
So here we are, still grinding our way through the coldest spring I can remember with those long, hot days of summer feeling like a foreign country that we shall never reach. With the welcome exception of a stray warm and sunny day it seems to have been a relentless parade of grey skies and cutting northerly winds. The striking white blossom of blackthorn appeared late around Hampshire fields, many ducks were seemingly so depressed by the terrible weather that they gave mating a miss, and insects, too, have been reticent when it comes to emerging and taking to the air.
The first butterflies to be seen were those that hibernate over winter, being drawn out by warmer spring days, but there was precious little to see in March. The occasional Peacock or Brimstone, but I had to wait until nearly April before I found my first Comma, let alone Small Tortoiseshell. Having hibernated through the winter many of these butterflies are not at their best when they greet the new year. The exception is the Brimstone, which always looks to be freshly emerged as it takes to the wing.
The butterfly comes out of hibernation and the female lays her eggs on buckthorn, common in the hedgerows. After 10 days or so the tiny caterpillar emerges and feeds up through the first half of the summer. After pupation the adults emerge at the end of the season and feed up, ready to hibernate over the ensuing winter. This is a female laying eggs on buckthorn on Stockbridge Down:
The condition of the other hibernators can vary enormously depending on how long the butterfly had been alive and flying around the previous year. This is something of a favourite photograph of mine as it shows just how decrepit an insect can sometimes be:
This Peacock was still happily flying around, apparently completely unaware that it barely had any wings left!
The first real signs of spring, of course, are the small Bee Flies, buzzing low over the ground. There are several different species but the Dotted Bee Fly, Heath Bee Fly and Mottled Bee Fly are all rare and confined to specific areas. The one seen in large numbers around here is the common Dark-edged Bee Fly:
These herald the emergence of the ubiquitous Orange Tip butterflies. The male is a welcome splash of bright colour after the cold grey of winter:
The female is rather less striking, being easily mistaken for a Small White or Green-veined White, unless she sits with her wings closed:
Now the mottled underside of the hind wings can be clearly seen. A clue, if the butterfly is sitting with wings spread open and flat, is that there is a firm black crescent round the edge of the tips of the forewings. In the Small White this is more grey and noticeably less distinct, while a Green-veined White may have little discernible dark marking at all. Unfortunately, I don’t have a photo of that to show you … yet!
Towards the end of March the season normally gets seriously underway. The geology in this neck of the woods is chalk, or calciferous, grassland. This supports plant types that like an alkaline soil, and that determines the species that are here. Two local stars are the remarkably small Grizzled Skipper and the Dingy Skipper. Both are considered rare, but any decent untouched hillside around Andover will usually be found to be supporting modest populations of both. We had a warmish break of several days, barring the northerly breeze, around the middle April and I visited Stockbridge Down in anticipation. On the first afternoon, 19 April, I saw a Grizzled Skipper and also, to my surprise, a Duke of Burgundy. By 24 April I got 2 Dingy Skippers and 1 Grizzled, then the weather turned for the worse, but I managed to snatch a couple of photos. This is a male Grizzled:
And this the female:
Notice that in visual terms that at a glance the male has more background colour than the female.
If the weather turns cooler while you are out hunting these don’t turn your back and go home. These butterflies will usually not decamp to roost in the bushes but will stoically remain out in the open. They will fold their wings up over their backs, and if you can find them … be warned that they are barely the size of the fingernail on your little finger … they are actually rather charming:
Just for good measure this one of the Dingy Skippers I saw:
By this time, I was also beginning to broaden my search to include Damselflies. Usually, the very first can be found in the first few days of May, but the weather remained stubbornly cold and overcast. Undeterred I kept on searching and hoping. Supposedly the first one to emerge around Andover is the Large Red Damselfly, so I concentrated my search in the two main sites for them. Day after day I plodded around staring into the reeds in vain, but, at last, yesterday I had some luck at a large pond on private property that I have written about before, my “secret” pond.
This is what is known an exuvia:
When fully grown and ready to emerge the larvae, or nymphs, move into shallow water, near reeds, and what until they feel the time is right. They then climb a stalk, usually to a point around a foot, or 30cm, out of the water and make their way out of the exoskeleton they no longer need. They then pump up their bodies and their wings and wait while their new exoskeleton and wings dry and harden. They are aware of their vulnerability at this stage, they cannot fly and there are plenty of things out there which see them as lunch, so they remain hidden in the reeds until they can fly. They then take their maiden flight, which may take them well away from the pond that has been their home for the last year. They will return later and busy themselves with the mating game. In the meantime, they leave this behind.
The freshly emerged insect doesn’t look as it eventually will. Areas which are black in the adult form will be black on this insect, but those which will take on the adult colouration are a straw colour. This stage of the insect is known as teneral. Over a day or so the insect will colour up. This male Large Red I found has probably been out of the exuvia for a couple of hours:
I also found Azures, Common Blues and Blue-tailed, and all were that same straw colour. I didn’t manage photos of all of them, but this is a female Azure. She can be recognised by the Coenagrion Spur on the side of the thorax and the lack of colour on sections 8 -10 of the rear of the abdomen:
In a week or so the reeds will once again be busy with the fluttering of wings, males and females will pair up and mass on floating vegetation to perform crowd egg-laying. The summer will have arrived, and the next generation will already be on the way … weather providing, of course.
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Rhamnus cathartica, the European buckthorn, common buckthorn, purging buckthorn, or just buckthorn, is a species of small tree in the flowering plant family Rhamnaceae. It is native to Europe, northwest Africa and western Asia, from the central British Isles south to Morocco, and east to Kyrgyzstan. In the UK it is often found in hedgerows.
Guide to dragonflies and damselflies of Britain. Natural History Museum / Field Studies Council. This is a handy field guide leaflet.
Dragonfly courses held by the Field Studies Council.
British Dragonfly Society – http://www.dragonflysoc.org.uk