Butterfly Diary - field notes by Adrian Hoskins
my earliest sightings of each brood are highlighted in bold type
Sightings policy - details of certain sites where visitor pressure or trampling may pose a threat to butterflies or alienate landowners are excluded from these pages.
Jan | Feb | Mar | Apr | May | Jun | Jly | Aug | Sep | Oct | Nov | Dec
Sunday 29th March
Cool, breezy and generally cloudy weather resulted in a virtually butterfly-free day at West Wood near Winchester. The only species seen was a Peacock which had been roosting among fallen branches until my dog charged through the drifts of fallen leaves and frightened the butterfly into the stratosphere !
Saturday 28th March
I spent about 2 hours in Stansted Forest early this afternoon, but the cold breeze was enough to deter even the hardier butterflies from flying. However as I drove home a female Brimstone flew across the road at Havant. Moth species reported this week include Early Thorn in Berkshire; Blossom Underwing, Pale Pinion and Red Chestnut in Oxfordshire; also Brindled Pug and Powdered Quaker in Bucks.
Sunday 22nd March
I headed west today, first visiting a Marsh Fritillary site in west Hampshire. The caterpillars have now dispersed from their webs and are feeding solitarily. Numbers were very low - just 5 found after an hour of searching, whereas the same site produced several hundred last year. Parasitism levels in 2008 however were very high, reducing the population of adult butterflies considerably. Breeding and egg-laying success was also reduced as a result of cool weather during the 2008 flight season. There is some good news however - the cold nights and sunny days we are currently experiencing should be beneficial to the species, allowing the larvae to develop quickly, but delaying the emergence of the Apanteles parasitoids. My guess is that this will result in lower than average levels of parasitism in the current generation of larvae, hopefully enabling the populations to rebuild.
Later in the day I visited Ballard Down, a site where most butterfly species appear very early due to the site's warm and sunny coastal location. I saw a male Brimstone, 9 Peacocks and 4 Commas - one of which, unusually, was nectaring at daisies. I also added 2 personal 2009 firsts - a Speckled Wood seen flying in the shade of trees at the bottom of the hill, and 3 Small Whites. The latter were seen flying in off the sea despite the wind blowing from the north.  I failed to find any Small Tortoiseshells, but a friend tells me that he saw no less than 4 today near Dorchester, providing further evidence that the cold winter has been beneficial, allowing the small numbers that emerged last autumn to make it through to the spring successfully. We can only hope that we get good spring weather that will allow the butterfly to recover from it's current precarious position in southern England.
Additional sightings for 21st March have now been reported, including a male Orange tip at Farlington Marshes. Far more exciting however is the news that 3 people reported seeing Large Tortoiseshells on the Isle of Wight.  Photos indicate that at least 2 recognisably different butterflies were present. By about 1990 the butterfly was considered to be either extinct or on the verge of extinction in the UK but it now seems more likely that it maintained its presence as a breeding resident along the south coast, but that numbers were so low as to be unobservable. Sporadic sightings over the last 4 years strongly suggest that it is now re-establishing itself as a breeding species on the Isle of Wight and possibly also along the Dorset / Hants / Sussex coast, although it has not been established for certain whether these colonies originated from wild, bred or migrant stock.
Saturday 21st March
Following a week of warm sunny days I had expected to see good numbers of Brimstones today but a mid-morning visit to Noar Hill produced just a solitary Comma.  Later, at around midday I visited the Butterfly Conservation reserve at Magdalen Hill Down but again there was very little activity - just a single Peacock and another Comma. I had better luck in the afternoon at Stansted Forest where I saw 2 Peacocks and at least 5 Commas along a 200m stretch of footpath, but again no Brimstones. Earlier in the week when temperatures were a degree or two higher there were reports of a Small White in London, and the first Large White, Small Copper and Green-veined White of the year were seen along the Hampshire coast.  On 18th March a Holly Blue was recorded in East Sussex. On the same day there were encouraging reports of Small Tortoiseshells from Hampshire, Dorset, Bucks, Surrey and West Sussex. Moth "2009 firsts" reported this week included Early Tooth-striped, Brindled Beauty, Engrailed and Orange Underwing from West Sussex; Dotted Chestnut and Light Orange Underwing in Bucks; and Water Carpet in Berkshire.

Comma Polygonia c-album, male, Stansted Forest, West Sussex
Sunday 15th March
I awoke this morning to be greeted by a beautiful sunny day which held the promise of butterflies, and within 5 minutes of setting off in the car I spotted a female Brimstone in flight. I headed for Stockbridge Down, and along the route saw several male Brimstones flying along the roadsides. On arrival at Stockbridge the first butterfly I saw was a Peacock - my first of the year. There were also several Brimstones and at least 5 Commas in the valley, including 2 pairs of territorial males seen engaging in aerial sorties. One of the Commas decided to give chase to a male Brimstone which had entered his territory, and quickly saw it off. Battles with other male Commas tended to last for about a minute, with the pair spiralling up to a height of about 15m, at which point the intruding male flew off, and the "owner" of the territory returned to reclaim his original perching place. On the way home I dropped in to spend half an hour at Crab Wood. By the time I arrived the sun was getting hazy, temperatures had dropped, and the butterflies were beginning to go to roost. Nevertheless I was able to add 2 more Brimstones, 3 more Commas and another Peacock to the day's sightings.
Saturday 14th March
Sallow catkins, blackthorn blossom, coltsfoot, primroses, dandelions, daisies and even a few early violets are now in flower, but despite mild conditions and the odd sunny spell, I failed to find any butterflies on my walk around Stansted Forest today. There were several bees flying however, and plenty of evidence of Stigmella aurella leaf mines - the larva of this micro moth burrows into bramble leaves and spends its entire life living and feeding between the upper and lower membranes, leaving a characteristic trail as it weaves its way about between the membranes. When fully grown the larva emerges to pupate on the surface of the leaf.

Friday 6th March
Last nights frost was followed by a day of gorgeous sunshine, so I visited Crab Wood this afternoon hoping to see a few butterflies. Unfortunately with patches of snow still lying on the ground there was nothing flying, but the trip was made worthwhile by the appearance of a friendly muntjac deer which casually walked out from a forest clearing and began munching at foliage less than 3 metres in front of me.  Unfortunately my camera was still packed in my rucksack so I missed what would have been a magical shot.
Although I failed personally to see any butterflies, I received a report from a friend at Leatherhead in Surrey of a Small Tortoiseshell nectaring at heather in his garden this morning.
Monday 2nd March
The Small Tortoiseshell has declined dramatically in recent years, to the point where this formerly abundant and ubiquitous species is now considered a great rarity in southern England ( although it is still fairly common in parts of northern England and Scotland ).
The cause of the decline is unknown, although there is speculation that it may be linked to the arrival in Britain of a parasitoid Tachinid fly Sturmia bella. This fly however does not lay its eggs directly on the caterpillar. Instead it lays them on nettle leaves which are then ingested by caterpillars. The parasitoid grubs later hatch in the caterpillar's gut, and slowly devour it from within.
If the eggs are ingested by Small Tortoiseshell caterpillars, they must also be ingested by other nettle-feeding species including Comma, Red Admiral, Peacock, Small Magpie and Mother of Pearl. This raises the question - why has the Small Tortoiseshell suffered so badly while the other nettle-feeding butterflies and moths have maintained or even increased their levels of abundance ?
While it is far too early to start celebrating, there do seem to be signs that the Small Tortoiseshell may be making a minor comeback. There were several reports of the butterfly appearing in one's and two's last autumn, and hibernated adults seem to have survived the winter quite well - several records of singletons were received from Somerset, Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire, East Sussex and West Sussex last week.



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