Butterflies and a few other sightings in Wales, 2019
Work travels got in the way in 2019, but when I could I got out looking for butterflies locally in Wales. There are about 40 species of butterfly that breed in Wales and I managed 37 this year. So here are my highlights.
It was over 20C on the 25th Feb, the hottest day ever recorded in Wales in February and I got home from work to find a Comma nectaring on the cherry blossom in our neighbours garden. Too high up for the camera and despite waiting, it never came lower. But a stunning site against the pinky-white blossom. A mix of seasons as on the bird feeders were Brambling, Redpoll and our near resident Marsh Tit!
I had to wait until the 21st of March for my next local butterfly, a gorgeous Red Admiral in the garden. I stood watching it whilst a Goldcrest was singing and the Marsh Tit came to the feeder less than 10 feet away. A special moment for sure! Over the next week, more Red Admiral, Comma and a few Small Tortoiseshell seen.
Our favourite family butterfly is obviously the Speckled Wood, and on the 29th March we saw our first newly emerged ones in the garden, two chased it other endlessly suggesting territorial males, often towering up in to the trees. Still a few Brambling coming to the feeders with the Chaffinches, but the males are moulting in to summer plumage, so it’s certainly Spring.
On the 6th April, the first real highlight of the year, although it was in Jersey, Channel islands during leading a rocky shore survey with students. It was dull, but warm and I was simply stunned to be standing on the shore when a stunning Swallowtail flew up to me, circled twice and then slowly moved off down the shore. I hope this was genuine wild continental specimen of the gorganus subspecies, but can’t rule out some idiots released them for a wedding.
Back in Wales and Brimstones and Orange Tips were on the wing by mid April. I lucked-in on a Bonaparte’s Gull in Cardiff Bay on the 19th April, and enjoyed watching Green-veined Whites, Large White, Orange Tip, Brimstone, Peacock, red Admiral and Speckled Wood around the Wetlands Reserve.
A real special species on the 22nd April: Pearl-bordered Fritillary. This stunning and rare Fritillary is a firm favourite of mine and this was my earliest ever sighting thanks to the warm Spring this year. T-shirt weather, could even be shorts! I walked to my favourite part of the common and my first butterfly was a Pearl-bordered! In all I saw 5 territorial males, with individuals sunning themselves on the dried bracken leaves, before patrolling sheltered hollows in search of females. When they encountered each other a dramatic aerial battle ensued, with both males dashing away over the ground, before towering up, sometimes until they were almost tiny dots in the sky. Sitting quietly, I got close views as they returned to their own patches, before patrolling again. Red-letter day! I got home to see three Holly Blue in the garden, icing on the cake!
My local patch, Blaenserchan, Pontypool had come alive by late April. Always a little later than elsewhere as it’s quite a cold site. Green Hairstreak and Dingy Skipper were the highlights on the 23rd. Having Green Hairstreaks 5 minutes from the front door is wonderful, however I do think our poor dingy Skipper is misnamed; it’s beautiful when newly emerged.
Things get busy in May, especially as it’s my birthday! A weekend treat was a picnic down at Merthyr Mawr and the butterflies duly obliged with lovely views of one of my favourites, Grizzled Skippers galore! This is a stunner in my opinion; easily overlooked as they dart in a grey blur and are easily lost to the eye. But once perched, the males can often be approached slowly and then can be admired in their fine detail.
A highlight for the year for me is to visit the reserve at Aberbargoed to look for Marsh Fritillary. We are so lucky in Wales to have some superb sites for this butterfly. It’s a stunner too, even older imagos are lovely, but the newly emerged males are amazing. I saw about 15 in a short hours visit, watching them fly amongst the Heath Spotted Orchids. You really have to watch where you put your feet here.
May 25th and back on my patch the Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary were out. This is truly a superb site: I’ve seen 31 species of butterfly here, not to mention a wealth of birds and other wildlife. The Fritillaries were spanking new adults and glowed orange as they perched and patrolled the paths and gaps between the bushes. At one point it clouded over and eight landed to rest in the grass right next to me, fabulous!
June 22nd saw the annual Fen Orchid search when my wife gets worried that I’m going to spend all day looking for this diminutive orchid and wonders whets so special when the much prettier Early Marsh orchids are everywhere. I found a few spikes, with seven species of orchid in total and also enjoyed watching my first Dark Green Fritillary of the year. These large Fritillaries are wonderful to watch, but today they didn’t want to pose for the camera at all! A few days later I had better luck back in Blaenserchan and also was really pleased to find two Painted Lady. It turned out to be a really good year for this migrant from Africa.
At the end of June I had one of those perfect days, visiting Slade Wood and Blaenserchan. I wandered down a small path I’d not tried before and found no less than six White Admiral butterflies nectaring on bramble and perched up males. These stunners where simply gorgeous to watch patrolling through the dappled sunlight. At the end of the day I popped in to Blaenserchan and was rewarded by Dark green and Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries flying together, plus more Painted Lady. What a day!
I’d managed to see 30 species of butterfly in Wales before the end of June, which was really pleasing as Id already had to go away on several work trips. Things quietened down a bit now, but I dashed over the border to see Wood Whites in the lovely Haugh Wood near Hereford. I love watching the courtship display, as the males clap their wings and dance with their forelegs, before waving their proboscis and then gently stroke the female. It’s a tough life for the males though, I watch 5 pairs in courtship and only one female said yes!
In July I was away for work before a wonderful trip to Gedre in the French Pyrenees, but between the two revisited Slade Woods. The White Admiral were still flying, but best of all, a few Silver-washed Fritillary were seen. Another species with a wonderful courtship display, the female flying along in a straight line whilst the male circles here in a sinusoidal flight. I sat and watched and melted on such a hot day. Then a quick roadside stop for Essex Skippers. I have a soft spot for these golden skippers, having had them in the garden when I lived in East Anglia, and even had one in my home garden in Pontypool. The species is expanding its range rapidly, thanks initially to the 1976 drought when its eggs were disperse when hay was taken across the country, expanding the butterflies range all the way along the M4 corridor and down in to the south west and in to Wales. Either that or it had just been overlooked!
Also in mid July I visited an old haunt of mine down in the Alun Valley near Bridgend. I got lucky with views, but it was a windy day and nothing was posing for the camera. However a few High Brown Fritillary showed long enough to split from the Dark Green Fritillary. I also got lucky and saw a single White-letter Hairstreak which perched on the bracken long enough for me to gasp, grab the camera but not long enough to aim and shoot the picture! Butterflies seem to do that a lot! How do they know?!
Hendre lake on the 16th July added my second last new species for my Welsh butterfly list this year, some glimpses of pale twinkling Purple Hairstreaks in the top of the oaks and then some luck, with a female coming low down to lay eggs in the leaf buds.
Back from the trip to France (where we saw an amazing 93 species of butterfly, plenty of birds including Lammergeyer, Snowfinch and Alpine Accentor) in mid August and a trip to Dunraven Bay to go body boarding also let me dash round the walled garden. Hummingbird Hawkmoth and masses of Painted Lady, Red Admiral and peacocks on the buddleia made for a stunning sight. A few Meadow Brown and Gatekeeper were still flying and I got lucky and found my last new species of the year, two Wall Brown basking in the sun and out of the wind.
That was it for butterflies in Wales this year, with a few Red Admiral still at Dunraven on the 20th October and, to date, my last butterfly of the year, another Red Admiral on the 30th October from the office window in Nelson. I’m hopeful for a sighting in November, there’s still a few Red Ads, and Small Torts being seen, but I’ll need a gap in the rain that coincides with the weekend and that feels like the real rarity this Autumn!
Next year I’m after the last Welsh species I’ve not seen in Wales, the stunning Brown Hairstreak. Here’s a shot of one I saw in Oxfordshire last year.