Friday 28 July 2017

The Lady and The Admirals 27th July 2017

We share a private and unmade drive with our neighbour who lives at the bottom of the drive, while our house is half way down the drive. It is not a long drive, about forty metres but has a large high holly hedge and copious ivy which is good for Holly Blues and there is a border of sorts that runs along part of one side of the drive. Our neighbour planted several Buddleias in the border a couple of years ago  to provide some attractive foliage and flowers during the Spring and Summer. 

The Buddleais, which are cut back each year to keep them manageable, are in flower now and are of several colours, white, the traditional mauve and a deep wine red and all, without fail, are proving irresistible to butterflies which unerringly home in on them to feed.

The Buddleias cover no more than twenty metres but today at lunchtime as I walked down the drive in warm sunshine I was escorted by at least half a dozen Red Admirals and a Painted Lady. These are large butterflies with a powerful flight and they swooped and glided around me, just above head height, as they took alarm at my passing close to where they were feeding on the Buddleias.

Red Admiral

Painted Lady
I confess to getting immense pleasure from seeing them. I feel as if I have my own little private butterfly reserve, literally on my doorstep, for  the few weeks the Buddleias are in flower and if I stand still by the Buddleias the butterflies soon settle to once again creep over the conical flower spikes, probing for nectar into each of the many little flowers that make up the cones. In fact I  get quite possessive and protective about these insects and am relieved that they will not be disturbed by people passing by, only myself and my neighbour.

The Red Admiral is slightly larger than the Painted Lady but the latter has just as powerful  a flight, hurtling around at high speed on a veering, crazed and ever changing course to sometimes come back to resume feeding on the Buddleias or at other times flying off at speed and not returning for some time.

Occasionally both the Red Admirals and the Painted Lady would settle on the dry stone wall at the back of the border where the stones were warmed by the sun and with open wings would bask in the sun absorbing the heat from the wall into their bodies. 

There were other butterflies present, also come to share the bounty. Commas, Gatekeepers, Meadow Browns, Large Whites and even a Holly Blue all visited during the time I spent watching.

Large White

Both the Red Admiral and the Painted Lady are migrants coming to us from southern Europe or even as far as North Africa concerning the Painted Lady and neither can survive our winter. In the case of the Red Admiral the earliest arrivals can get here by late January or early February but most arrive from April to June in  a series of influxes and in numbers that vary from year to year. They mate, lay eggs and the caterpillars become butterflies which then repeat the process so that sometimes two generations can breed in northern Europe. The Red Admirals that were here today on the Buddleias varied in appearance, with some looking absolutely pristine, unmarked and richly coloured, being predominantly black with a red band across each upper fore-wing and another red band at the lower edge of each hind-wing. This is complemented by a white square and smaller spots of white at the tip of each upper fore-wing and at the inner edge of each hind wing are two pale blue spots. It is an attractively coloured insect looking predominantly dark as it flies around but when it settles the bold colours are striking and eye catching. Other individuals were faded and with torn wings and the red bands on one individual were more orange than red which is a recognised variation in this butterfly's colouring

Pristine Red Admirals

These faded and torn examples were probably earlier migrants while the pristine individuals were doubtless the result of a later breeding generation and could even be, if I was being fanciful, the progeny of the worn individuals but I doubt it. 

Faded and torn Red Admirals
In autumn, on those last sunny days, I have got used to seeing numbers of Red Admirals feeding on car crushed fallen apples from the tree at the end of our drive but as the temperature falls they disappear, migrating back to southern Europe and not as was previously thought hibernating through our winter. For their southward migration they await clear, still conditions and then fly south low to the ground but others will ascend to high altitudes, using thermals to gain height and then strong following winds to aid their progress southwards. Red Admirals from Britain and northern Europe fly to central and southern Europe in autumn, making one non stop flight that can take up to two or three weeks.

Painted Ladies undertake an even more phenomenal migration than Red Admirals, coming to us from North, West and sub Saharan Africa and arriving in influxes from April onwards. They are unable to survive anywhere in Europe through the winter and on arriving in Europe including Britain they immediately begin to breed and typically three generations breed in northern Europe before the adults and progeny from the final generation to breed here migrate back to Africa where they breed again for another two or three generations.

When I was in Morocco in November a couple of years ago, where it was hot and sunny, I saw many Painted Ladies feeding on flowers in a vast expanse of saltmarsh and possibly these were migrants that had returned from northern Europe to breed.

It is, with the knowledge of their extraordinary life cycle, that I look upon any visit from a Painted Lady to our garden with a mixture of delight and awe. Undoubtedly the individual I saw today on the Buddleias was from a migrant parent that bred here earlier in the year. It was pristine and perfectly formed and obviously had not been subject to the ravages of a long migration, likely being hatched only a few days ago. It was a joy to observe it.

The numbers of Painted Ladies that reach our shores each year  vary tremendously but in certain exceptional years they can reach almost plague proportions. As recently as the year 2009 there was a major influx, as eleven million arrived here in late May and I can clearly recall walking down a lane for a mile or so near to my home, in late May of that year, and counting in excess of two hundred. It was estimated that in the following autumn when the progeny of successive generations that had bred in Britain migrated back to Africa, no less than twenty six million departed our shores

This butterfly can also be found undertaking similar migrations in all continents of the world apart from South America and numbers can also be huge in certain years, such as in California, where a swarm of these butterflies contained a staggering three thousand million individuals 

The Painted Lady is less boldly marked than the Red Admiral, being a warm tawny orange colour on all four upper surfaces of its wings, with large black tips  and white markings to its upper forewings and a chequering of black markings across all four upper wing surfaces. In flight it appears quite pale.

Both butterflies show an intricate and subtle patterning to the undersides of their wings to render them inconspicuous to predators. I have always subscribed to the opinion that the undersides of butterflies wings are much more attractive, with their many shades of colour and complicated markings, than the upper surfaces of their wings.

Red Admiral underwing-upper two images

Painted Lady underwing - upper three images

Butterflies, from the supreme Purple Emperor to the lowly Ringlet are beautiful insects made all the more appealing by the fact that they have such amazing lives which are concluded in a matter of weeks if not days. Every year I look forward to renewing my acquaintance with them as they bring me such great pleasure.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Ewan further to the silver spotted skippers, I visited Aston Rowant on the 1st with success. Images on my blog on the HOME page under the heading 'Oxfords Double Whammy' Brian