Butterfly & Moth Highlights of 2020
When it comes to butterflies and moths, five of the last six years highlights have been holidays to the likes of the Julian Alps, Pyrenees and the Picos de Europa to see butterflies by the 100s, including Apollo, Swallowtails, masses of blues, fritillaries and hard to identify skippers. Of course 2020 brought all that to a halt, but I’d have been amazed if you’d told me at the start of March, just what an awesome butterfly and moth year we’d have, despite the lockdown.
Moths have simply been stunning, with 160 macro species recorded this year in our Pontypool garden. That included some stunners, such as Buff Arches, Ruby Tiger, Elephant Hawkmoth,, Garden Tiger and right up to the end of the year, some of my favourites such as December Moth. We even found a Northern Winter Moth on the living room windows amongst the far more usual Winter Moths this last month.
From top-left to bottom-right: Elephant Hawkmoth, Northern Winter Moth, Garden Tiger, Ruby Tiger, Buff Arches and December Moth.
But the highlights of the year were both day-flying moths, one in the garden, and one just down the road on my local patch in Blaenserchan. The first was a third ever county record and the first since 1936 of the rare, but increasing Narrow-bordered Bee Hawkmoth. A silver lining to working at home, when looking up from the computer, I couldn’t resist a walk in the sunshine back in May. I stopped to look at the apple tree blossom and a moth buzzed past me nectaring on the blossom. Initially I thought it was a Hummingbird Hawkmoth, a moth we’ve seen in the garden a few times most years, but returning armed with the camera it was obviously something else entirely – my first ever Narrow-bordered Bee Hawkmoth. Gorgeous views for about five minutes or so as it nectared on the blossom, which made for a lovely sight. Then it whizzed off, not to be seen again. As the foodplant is Devils bit Scabious’ we’ve hunted suitable local areas with this plant (especially as this is also the foodplant for Marsh Fritillary, which I recorded in Blaenserchan a few years back, first record since 1928!), but no luck year!
Narrow-bordered Bee Hawkmoth, first in the county since 1936!
And that brings us nicely on to the second highlight of the year, the stunning Emperor Moth, coming to a pheromone lure in Blaenserchan. On a local walk, a large moth flew past fast and disappeared, looking just like an Emperor. It came back a few moments later and despite its fast flight, it clearly was one. I’ve never seen an Emperor perched, so we came back the next day and placed a pheromone lure on top of the heather in the light breeze. We were stunned when a male Emperor Moth came to the lure within five minutes! He flew around for ages, before finally perching on the heather. Simply a stunning moth and what a privilege to get such views. We quickly returned the lure to its bag and the moth soon flew away patrolling for a “real” female.
Stunning Emperor Moth
Butterflies were not to be beaten by the moths and amazingly in 2020 I managed to fulfil two ambitions, finally getting decent pictures of White-letter Hairstreak and also seeing the last mainland butterfly subspecies, the Silver-studded Blues on Portland in Dorset. The former was thanks to the lockdown, as we explored more local sites this year and visited Dixton Embankment GWT reserve near Monmouth. This stunning reserve has a wealth of floral and invertebrates and we spent a fabulous few hours slowly walking around photographing orchids, butterflies and moths. Then I spotted a small butterfly near the top of an elm and, yes, it was a White-letter Hairstreak which gave lovely views, but only through binoculars! The next day we tried again. No sign of any hairstreaks but then I heard Nicky calling and ran over, a White-letter was nectaring low down on flowers, oblivious to us it seemed. Fabulous views as it continued feeding for about 20 minutes, before flitting back up in to the tree tops with its typical bobbing hairstreak flight. Superb, we left very happy.
White-letter Hairstreaks at Dixton Embankment
But, London buses come to mind, when a week later, whilst looking for fritillaries at another local site, a small butterfly nectaring on bramble caught my eye. Another White-letter, and even tamer than the week before – it even let me gently stroke it! This individual was much darker than the last, seemingly a female. It stayed nectaring for almost an hour when I had to leave it and return to the car where the rest of the family were devouring a late afternoon picnic!
White-letter Hairstreak, just a week after our first ones at Dixron Embankment
The last of my four Lepidoptera highlights of 2020, in my butterfly list of 41 species this year, a total I thought I’d get nowhere near in March, was a trip away to Portland when lockdown restrictions relaxed in July. The previous year we had visited Great Orme and seen the endemic subspecies of Silver-studded Blues there. Superb views of this gorgeous butterfly leaving the ants nests under an ant escort for protection, through to watching them roosting at night!
Silver-studded Blue (caernensis subspecies) at Great Orme in 2019
So this year I’d hoped to see the last subspecies of Silver-studded Blue I’d never seen before, those on Portland. However they fly early, and by July I was worried it was too late. We travelled down and I searched Broadcroft Quarry, a known good site. No luck. Consolation prizes were Lulworth Skipper, Small Blue and a big surprise of a Large Tortoiseshell flying off from nectaring on bramble.
Lulworth Skipper and Small Blue
So on to Tout Quarry where we had more luck. It took a while, but in the end we saw about 15 of this endemic subspecies of Silver-studded Blue. I must say a return visit will be needed as they were decidedly old and tatty by the time of our visit.
Silver-studded Blue, male and female, Portland subspecies
The following week saw us at Prees heath where the nominate race argus (although some say these may be yet another subspecies thought to be extinct, masseyi) were far more pretty. However seeing the Portland ones was a real highlight.
Silver-studded Blue, male and mating pair at Prees Heath.
It’s been a tough year, worse for many others compared to us, but keeping us smiling has been the wildlife we’ve been blessed to see this year. From swimming with otters (not planned, but an amazing experience!) to standing in the rain watching a Yellow-browed warbler at Monmouth, it’s been a god year for sightings. But butterflies and moths have stolen the show for me, and the White-letter hairstreak, Silver-studded Blues of Portland, Narrow-boarded Bee Hawkmoth and Emperor Moth are the top four of 2020.
Yellow-browed warbler at Monmouth