Butterflies on Salisbury Plain

John Solomon, 08/06/2021

          I’m not too familiar with Salisbury Plain but David visited there last year and, so he told me, saw huge numbers of Marsh Fritillaries. A plan was hatched. He knew where they were and I had the toy, a small, two-seater sports car with rather too much engine, endearingly known as “Psycho”. He would give directions while I would provide the mobility. In spite of a rather overcast sky, off we went, west out of Andover to Everleigh. We then turned south for half a mile before leaving the road, on a sharp right-angle band, and setting off along a track south. Half a mile across the Plain, on what used to be called the Marlborough Road, we parked underneath the spreading branches of a clump of trees and headed off to hunt. The sun had come out and it was not only somewhat humid but rapidly getting very warm. A track headed east out of the car park, wooded along the north side but on the south opening up to miles of rolling chalk grassland. This was to be my hunting ground for the afternoon.

          Chalk grassland is a rare habitat in this country and supports very specific flora, which, in turn, support very specific fauna, including insects. The magic ingredient for the Marsh Fritillary is the Devil’s Bit Scabious plant, which, later in the summer, will pepper the grassland with its soft-blue flowers. We left the car, checking the camera gear and heading for the east-bound track.

          Immediately David found a Small Blue. I zeroed in to check it out, but it was elusive and flying around with great gusto, then we turned our attention to the open Plain to our right. There was definitely a lot of butterfly action and we quickly spotted Small Heaths and the target species of Marsh Fritillaries. Before long we were also seeing Adonis Blues. We spent a while hunting together, but David was keen to turn his attention towards finding his own speciality – orchids. He left me to my own addiction.

          I always find the problem with hunting things with wings with a camera is that they have an annoying tendency to fly. The thermometer had ratcheted up considerably over the short time we’d been there and the butterflies around me appeared to have limitless energy. I persevered, but after half an hour or so I was beginning to feel that I would have absolutely nothing to show for my efforts. The problem with these beasties, and dragonflies, is that when the sun is out they are easy to find, but impossible to photograph, while when the sun is in they are rather easier to photograph, but impossible to find.

          Such is life.

          What I was noticing was that the condition of the Marsh Fritillaries I was seeing varied enormously. Some were so decrepit you half wondered how they flew, and must have emerged perhaps 4-6 weeks ago, while others seemed to have popped out of the box yesterday. While it is normal for there to be insects of obviously different ages, it seemed that the disparity was rather more marked than usual. As the afternoon wore on I found a similarly large range of age in the Dingy Skippers I saw. I wondered if the poor spring we had experienced, where a couple of very good days would be followed by an overcast and rather cold week or so, had led to the emergence period being extended.

          Finally the butterfly gods smiled down on me and a light cloud cover moved across the sun. It was still warm, but the temperature quickly dropped a degree or two and the difference on the flightiness of my quarry was marked. Having noticed the widely varying ages of the individuals I set myself the task of collecting photos to show it. The very first shot of a Marsh Fritillary I managed was this venerable old male:

          He was very patient with me and allowed me plod around after him as I tried to get a clear view through the grass. Butterflies don’t have a great life expectancy once they take to the wing, around 4 weeks or so is pretty good, but he really looks as if he’s been stretching this out to the max. I hope he had many liaisons during that time and his sons and daughters will be filling the air with their fluttering wings next summer. I then managed to find this one, an other male, which seems to have lived a little but still has a reasonable amount of its life still before it:

          Then I managed to get this shot of a female, who has the lovely, bright colours that make this butterfly one of our most beautiful:

          I then turned my attention to Adonis Blues. The food plant is horseshoe vetch and the place was close to being carpeted with it, so there was no surprise that this nationally rare insect was well represented here. Eventually one sat for me and I rattled of several frames in the hope that one might prove acceptable. I ended up with this:

          I always find that blues rarely photograph as blue as you see them with your eyes, but this one had come out very nicely. Once you’ve seen an Adonis you can’t mistake them for anything else. If you told a child to draw a blue butterfly this is how it would look. BLUE!!!!! Gorgeous. Obviously, then, I started looking for a female. If their male counterparts are glaringly unmistakable the females are anything but. I honestly didn’t see any butterfly there that I would say was definitely a female Adonis, although there must have been some. It seemed as if there were no Common Blue males there, so, working on the assumption that any female I saw was quite possibly an Adonis, I succeeded in tracking and snapping this one:

          Unfortunately, having had a good chance to look at it I am very sure this is a female Common Blue … that’s life.

          I was also seeing day-flying moths out there. One of the first David and I saw, just after leaving the car, was a striking Cinnabar. This one isn’t that striking, but it’s the one that actually sat for me:

          The food-plant is that bane of farmers with live stock, ragwort, and the larvae the vibrant black and orange caterpillars so often found on it. 5-Spot Burnets were everywhere, and I stumbled on a large number making sure that there would be more next year:

          The food-plant is bird’s foot trefoil, which it shares with the common blue butterfly. The very similar 6-spot burnet emerges later, usually beginning in late June and running through July into August, and also has bird’s foot trefoil as its food-plant, along with horseshoe vetch. I also saw a number of the Burnet Companion moth:

          This one was rather tucked away, but the yellowy-orange of the hind wings can made out. A fresh moth can be quite vibrant in colour, especially in flight when the similarly coloured underside can be seen. They’re very difficult to catch with a camera as they are ceaselessly restless, no sooner landing than taking off again. They also have an annoying habit of burying themselves right down in the undergrowth. Again, the favoured food-plants are legumes such as the various vetches. Older specimens, which lose that yellowy-orange, end up being a drab brown:

          This discoloured they are easily confused with the Dingy Skipper:

          This is a very old one that sat nicely for me, but, just as with the Marsh Fritillaries I found a great range of age in different individuals, some appearing very fresh. There were also plenty of the very localised Cistus Forester moth:

          I really don’t know why this moth is so uncommon. Its food-plant is common rock rose, which is present all over chalk grassland hillsides, and which it shares with other species such as the Green Hairstreak and Brown Argus.

          It was late in the afternoon and shortly after I took this photo that I caught a glimpse of something hovering to nectar at flowers, moving sharply from one bloom to another. I know an insect whose flight pattern matches that exactly, the Hummingbird Hawk moth, but this didn’t have the tell-tale checkering to the rear of the abdomen. I moved quickly closer and, for a moment, thought it might be some kind of bee. Then the penny dropped and I realised what I was seeing and dashed closer, urgently readying the camera just in case. I never got the shot, it was moving around too much for me to even find it in the viewfinder let alone click the shutter, but I had around twenty seconds watching an example of the rather rare Narrow Bordered Bee hawk moth.

          That made my afternoon.

          I turned and began to retrace my footsteps towards the car. I decided to follow the track that led up to where we were parked as I had explored the chalk grassland and wanted to have a look along the verge that edged the woodland. I stopped at the first big clump of grass I came to as a Small Blue caught my attention. Then I saw another, then a pair engaged in courtship … in all, this small clump of grass about 2-3 yards long, or metres if you prefer, had no less than 8 of the butterflies. There was a lot of pre-mating manoeuvring going on, but, unfortunately no pair actually indulged however much my itchy camera trigger finger wanted them to. Nevertheless, they did give me one nice shot:

          The food-plant is easily identifiable kidney vetch, and there was plenty around. It was just gone five as I began to wander unhurriedly up the track and I noticed a change in the air. A coolness. Around me the activity suddenly stopped. It’s surprising how marked this change is. There suddenly comes a time when everything, altogether, almost as one decides that the day is done. There is still movement, if you search for it, but the time for dancing in the sun, courtship, mating and egg-laying is done. Now that movement is about finding a place to roost for the night. The calming gave me a chance to snatch this quick shot of a Small Blue with its wings closed:

          There is a marked similarity with the underside of the wings of the Holly Blue, and it’s quite common for me to meet people with the less experience who claim to have seen Small Blues when I know this uncommon butterfly is not present at that locale. I wandered unhurriedly up the track and counted a couple of dozen of this tiny insect, there were clearly plenty here. This is definitely a site I shall be looking to return to next year, while praying for a rather better spring, and hoping for another sighting of a Narrow Bordered Bee Hawk moth … and perhaps a realistic chance of a photo.

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One thought on “Butterflies on Salisbury Plain

  1. Lovely account… what a wonderful day out.

    All good wishes Lynn and Tim



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