Autumn migration: Red admiral

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During my walk along the coastal path near Penarth earlier this week, I saw more than 20 Red admiral butterflies. Now, it may be that they had gathered in such large numbers in that particular location because the ivy flowers had recently opened and they fancied drinking deeply of their nectar (as did a huge number of bees and hoverflies) but it may also be that they were heading south on their autumn migration to southern Europe and north Africa.

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The Red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) was once known as the Red admirable – a bit of a mouthful, which is probably why the name changed – and has a surprisingly ominous history. In Bugs Britannica Richard Mabey reviews the evidence, in various texts and old paintings, and concludes that the Red admiral was once thought to represent sin or temptation:

The flickering band of scarlet on the butterfly’s forewings, vivid against a dark, smoky background, suggests the flames of a smithy – hence its French name, le Vulcain, after Vulcan, the blacksmith of the Gods. But, to Christians, it also suggested the flames of Hell … This surprisingly hellish image of the Red admiral was gradually forgotten during the Enlightenment, when artists started to draw butterflies for their own sake. But perhaps the story of a ‘red butterfly’ said to have been hunted in the north of England and the Borders as a witch is an echo of a previous, more sinister characterisation.

How anyone could imagine something as beautiful as this harmless butterfly could be so malevolent is beyond me!

170921 Red admiral (2)

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Autumn migration: Chiffchaff

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Although this little warbler can be seen all year round, most of its kind migrate in August and September, which is why, during the past couple of weeks, I’ve been seeing an awful lot of these pretty birds in my local parks and nature reserves. They’ve been fattening up on flies and other insects before they head south to the Mediterranean and west Africa.

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This is the Chiffchaff, Phylloscopus collybita. As it has a tendency to nest low down amongst brambles and evergreen shrubs, it has earned itself such vernacular names as bank-bottle and bank jug, but I have no idea where most of its other common names originate from: feather bed, feather pokel, huck muck, lesser pettychaps, Peggy, sally picker, thummie, and wood oven.

One thing I have learnt about the Chiffchaff, however, is to try to get a good look at the colour of its legs because if it’s not singing its distinctive ‘chiff chaff’ song, then its dark-coloured legs are one way to tell it apart from its look-alike, the Willow warbler.

Shaped like a fallen leaf

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170919 Comma (1)

In Fauna Britannica, Stefan Buczacki describes this butterfly’s ragged outline as being the ‘shape of a fallen leaf’ and its colours, too, are quite autumnal. This is the most grammatically correct of Britain’s butterflies, the Comma, Polygonia c-album.

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Though I have no personal experience of this, the Comma is, apparently, one of the three butterflies most likely to be found hibernating in sheds and outhouses – the other two are the Small tortoiseshell and the Peacock. Adult Commas can usually be seen flying between March and September so maybe these ones I’ve seen recently were having their last feeds before looking for a cosy spot to snooze away the cold months of winter. If I had a shed, they’d be most welcome.

170919 Comma (4)

Oak galls: ram’s-horns and silk buttons

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I can’t resist just one more post about oak galls, because I’ve just this week found one that’s not commonly recorded. So, today we have one that’s uncommon and one that’s very common. Let’s start with the former.

First identified in eastern Europe in 1859, the Ram’s-horn gall wasp, Andricus aries, has slowly been heading westwards and finally reached Britain in 1997. Since that first sighting in Berkshire, it has spread over much of southern England and into Wales. Though there are only a few records in the Aderyn database of Welsh biological records, two of my friends have also found Ram’s-horn galls in the past week so I suspect it’s more common that records suggest.

Like other gall-inducing wasps, Andricus aries lays its eggs on various species of oak and its larvae cause the oak to produce a gall, in this case with an elongated, sometimes spiralling shape, hence aries and its common name Ram’s-horn. Not much is yet known about this wasp, so if you see the gall, please do record it.

170918 Neuroterus numismalis Silk button gall wasp (3)

My second gall today is one many people will have seen, I’m sure, as its beautifully crafted silk-like button-shaped galls are very common on the undersides of oak leaves during the summer months. This gall contains the agamic generation (females needing no males to reproduce) of the Silk button gall wasp, Neuroterus numismalis. The galls fall to the ground in autumn and the larvae within pupate over the winter months. When the all-female wasps emerge in springtime, they lay their eggs on the edges of oak leaves and on the male catkins, where their larvae cause a different blister-shaped gall – that’s another one for me to seek out next spring. It is the female and male wasps of this second, sexual generation produced in the Blister gall that go on to mate and lay the eggs that result in the silk buttons. And so the cycle continues …

What’s on the scabious?

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Perhaps it would be easier to ask ‘What’s not on the scabious?’ because it seems that almost every type of fly, bee, butterfly and beetle loves this plant, though that may also be because the Devil’s-bit scabious flowers in late summer – early autumn, when most wildflowers have finished flowering, and so it provides a last delicious taste of summer’s sweetness.

Devil’s-bit scabious

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There are several species of scabious – and I love them all – but the scabious I’m seeing most in my local nature reserves is the Devil’s-bit (Succisa pratensis).

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Apparently, the scabious name is due to the rough stalks of these plants and dates to times past when scabious was used to treat scabies because people believed in the ‘signature of all things’ – not Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest book but that of Jakob Böhme, who presented the idea, in 1622, that God had imprinted prescriptions for human ailments in the shapes and forms of medicinal plants – thus, rough stalk = rough skin. The ‘Devil’s-bit’ comes from the fact that this plant’s roots have a short, bitten off look.

Massed displays of Devil’s-bit scabious lend a purplish tinge to the landscape but it’s the flowers I love best. They begin as fairies’ pincushions and bloom into luscious globular gloriousness.

Wheatear

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I went looking for Whinchat and Redstart but came home with Wheatear. I’m talking about birds, of course, and I didn’t actually bring the bird home, of course, just photos – and not particularly crisp photos at that, as the bird was perched on a fence post some distance away and I couldn’t get closer without spooking it. But what a lovely little bird it was!

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This was at Cosmeston, my local country park and nature reserve, which, as it sits very close to the Welsh coast adjacent to the Bristol Channel, is perfectly situated as a sort of springboard location for migrating birds – and the autumn bird migration is well and truly underway now. The Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe) breeds in upland areas of northern and western Britain but then, come the cooler days of late summer – early autumn, it wings its way south to spend the winter in central Africa.

The name Wheatear intrigued me so I consulted my trusty copy of Stefan Buczacki’s Fauna Britannica. It appears that many people assume, as I did, that the name comes from the bird’s tendency to consume ripening wheat. However, the etymology is older and seems to come from a Middle English word meaning ‘white arse’!

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Small tortoiseshells

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I’ve just realised that I haven’t shared any photos of Small tortoiseshells (Aglais urticae) this year – how very remiss of me!

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My excuse is that I’ve hardly seen any and, now that I’ve checked my photos, I’ve also realised that I’ve only seen them on three occasions this summer, the first on 21 August and the most recent on the 27th (though on that last date, at Aberthaw, when I was out with my bird group, a total of fifteen were seen).

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It’s still a worry though, as the population of Small tortoiseshells has plummeted in recent years, down 73% since the 1970s according to the Butterfly Conservation website. Speculation about the reasons for such a severe decline vary from pollution and climate change to predation by the grubs of a parasitic fly that’s popped over from Europe and made itself at home, especially in southern Britain. I hope my few sightings this year are not the norm but somehow I doubt it.

170913 Small tortoiseshell (2)

Keeping it in the family

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I was checking out a Burdock plant the other day (I rather like their flowers and seed heads, and they have their own special fly) when I suddenly noticed this Green shieldbug and then another one, and another one, and another one …

170912 Green shield bug family (1)

Turns out there was at least one adult and six nymphs, though more may have been lurking undiscovered. I’m assuming they were all members of the same family, but that is pure surmise.