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Emperors, Dukes and Hairstreaks, our butterfly year

Updated: Oct 11

Some butterflies this year seem to have had a hard time, emerging late and often having a short flight period. This seemed especially true for our local Dingy Skipper. In contrast locally it’s been a bumper year for Common Blue and Small Copper. This maybe a portent of how things will change as our climate moves to wetter winters and springs and drier and hotter summers. Overall though, it’s been a superb year for butterflies for us, although things started very slowly. Our first butterflies were a series of Peacock, newly emerged from hibernation starting from the 15th March. That’s an unusual first species for us, and Peacock seem to have had a really good year. Towards the end of March the Peacock were joined by several sightings of Comma and Small Tortoiseshell.

Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell and Comma


Obviously for us, the first Speckled Wood is a highlight of Spring, but it wasn’t until the 3rd April that they started being seen in our garden. It then went rather quiet with colder and duller weather, however from mid-April we started to see more species, Green-veined White (14th), Red Admiral (15th), Large White (18th), and a lovely male Holly Blue (19th). Then things picked up further with Orange Tip and Brimstone on the 22nd April. The show was stolen though on the 24th by a moth, stunning views of Emperor Moth at our local patch, Blaenserchan.

One of the first Speckled Wood in the garden in 2021


Things really picked up in May, and we started our trips with Ewyas Harold for Pearl-bordered Fritillary. This stunning Fritillary showed beautifully for all of us, with at least 30 patrolling males seen and a few egg-laying females. This was by far the most numerous butterfly on the day, with only a few Orange Tip, Large White, Green-veined White, Peacock and Speckled Wood.

Male and female Pearl-bordered Fritillary


May 16th saw us head to Rodborough Common for our next trip. The weather was changeable and that an understatement. The sun came out and we started hunting, finding a few Dingy Skipper and Small Heath. Eventually we found the target, the lovely small Duke of Burgundy, which amazingly posed for all to see for about 15 minutes before flying up into the bushes. It took a lot of searching to find our second Duke. He perched for longer, even when the rain started again! Eventually the rain was too heavy and he flew into a hazel bush to shelter, still visible and surprisingly still quite exposed.

The lovely Duke of Burgundy


It was time for an ice cream, traditionally British approach, eating one whilst sheltering under an umbrella or the boot of the car. The sun came out and we headed to another part of the common in search of Adonis Blue. No luck as it was too early this year, but we did have a lovely Brown Argus. Otherwise very quiet with just Peacock, Speckled Wood and more Small Heath.

An acrobatic Brown Argus at Rodborough Common


The beginning of June saw us head to Scotland to look for a favourite species, Chequered Skipper. This proved to be an excellent trip for wildlife, with some lovely dragonflies (see our other blog), eagles and best of all, loads of Chequered Skipper. This lovely butterfly is restricted to Scotland in the British Isles (pending success of a recent release in England). I have fond memories of finding them at Spean Bridge with my parents back in the 1980s! Back then the weather was awful and we only saw a handful all week, but this year we found them in large numbers (50+) at the famous site of Glasdrum wood, as well as at Shian Wood, Glen Creran and Appin.


Stunning Chequered Skipper on bluebells at Shian Wood

Underside of a Chequered Skipper at Glasdrum Wood

Chequered Skipper sipping from the sphagnum moss at Glasdrum Wood


We also saw the Scottish subspecies of Green-veined White (thomsoni) and Speckled Wood (oblita), lovely Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary and some old Pearl-bordered, plenty of Orange Tip, Small White and Large White, Small Copper, Peacock, Red Admiral, and Small Heath. A fabulous trip and worth the long journey!

Green-veined White (thomsoni) and Speckled Wood (oblita) in Scotland


Back home in Wales, our local patch was picking up, with Dingy Skipper, Large Skipper, Green Hairstreak, Small Copper, Common Blue (lots!), Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary, Small Heath and Speckled Wood on the 9th June. We also saw a Painted Lady, a rare sighting in 2021 as it wasn’t a good year for this species.

One of only a few Painted Lady this year and a balancing act by a lovely Green Hairstreak


On the 12th June we made our annual trip to Aberbargoed for a real speciality of wet meadows in Wales, Marsh Fritillary. Another superb trip with over 30 males seen and a few egg-laying females and one mating pair. This stained-glass-window patterned butterfly is a real stunner and we enjoyed sitting and watching them on the Heath Spotted Orchids. Quite a few other species today as well, including Dingy Skipper and Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary.

Stained glass window wings of Marsh Fritillary


Work took me down to Somerset in mid-June where I was lucky to see some Wall Brown at Brean Down, but our next proper butterfly trip wasn’t until the 26th June. This was a low point of the year as the massive tree-felling at Slade Wood had destroyed our sites for White Admiral and Silver-washed Fritillary. We didn’t stay long, but we were relieved to hear that both species were seen later in the year at another part of the wood. Blaenserchan cheered us up on the 30th June with the first Dark Green Fritillary of the year and our first Ringlet, both much later than in previous years for this site.

Dark Green and Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary


July started well, with Small Skipper, Common Blue, Small Tortoiseshell, Comma, Silver-washed Fritillary, Ringlet, Meadow Brown and masses of lovely Marbled White in a gorgeous orchid-rich meadow near Monmouth. Watching this mix of species amongst the wild flowers was mesmerising and reminiscent of flower-rich meadows in France.

Silver-washed Fritillary, Ringlet and Marbled Whites


Then on the 10th July we took a small group over to Northamptonshire to the area around the famous Fermyn and Lady Woods to look for the highlight species of any butterfly year, Purple Emperor. Arriving early doors on the Saturday morning, we walked slowly through the woods enjoying common butterfly species before our daughter nonchalantly tuned and said, “found one”! A beautiful male Purple Emperor was down on the path sipping salts and showing the glittering blue-purple wings shining iridescently in the sunshine. There were audible gasps as many saw this species for the first time. Things got steadily better over the day and we had Purple Emperors sitting on our hands, heads and binoculars! We saw about 20 really well, with six at one point tumbling around us in powerful flight, all sparkling blue in the sunshine, a stunning memory to enjoy over the winter to come!

The stunning Purple Emperor, highlight of the year.

Blatant publicity! Purple Emperor on Nicky's finger

We returned the following day and had more Purple Emperors down to enjoy, even perching on the logging lorries. The support cast over the two days wasn’t to be sniffed at either with Purple Hairstreak, White Admiral, Silver-washed Fritillary and Marbled White being the best in a list of 15 species of butterfly.

Underside of a Purple Emperor for once not on the ground or someones hand!

The remainder of July produced some nice local butterflies in Blaenserchan, including more Small Pearl-bordered and Dark Green Fritillary, Marbled White and Ringlet and our first Grayling and Gatekeeper on the 16th July, again quite late in the year. As we moved in to August, typical summer species were being seen in good numbers, especially Common Blues and Small Coppers, and on the 1st August we finally saw more Painted Lady, with five at Goldcliff. We found quite a few Essex Skipper locally as well, but this and Small Skipper seemed in very low numbers compared to other years.

Grayling and Gatekeeper


Mid-August we went to Aston Rowant and Otmoor for another group trip for butterflies, dragonflies and birds. The targets at Aston Rowant were Silver-spotted Skipper and Chalkhill Blue, both of which showed beautifully on a sunny Sunday morning once the rain had stopped! However maybe the highlight here was to blank out the traffic noise to just sit and watch a multitude of butterflies feeding on the wild flowers. I’ve never seen so many Brimstone as on this trip, with at least 15 at one point. The Skippers showed really well and the Chalkhills flew around us almost constantly and there were lots of brown Argus to test the identification skills! It was hard to leave and move on to Otmoor.

Chalkhill Blues, Silver-spotted Skipper and Brimstone at Aston Rowant


We had been to Otmoor the day before and had stunning views of the target, Brown Hairstreak, seeing at least five females nectaring and a single male. We had also got lucky and had decent views of Cattle Egret on the RSPB reserve, so we really hoped our group was to have as good a day! It certainly was, with over 20 Brown Hairstreak seen, uncharacteristically not being illusive! Females basking with wings open, males and females both nectaring low down meant that we could all stand and watch different ones at the same time. We even found a tall Ash tree with 5 to 10 spiralling around in the canopy, likely a master tree breeding site. This was simply stunning, backed up by plenty of dragonflies, the Cattle Egrets and a fly-by Bittern!

Upper side of a female Brown Hairstreak

The stunning underside of a female Brown Hairstreak


The rest of August was pretty good as well, with Wall Brown, Grayling and Painted Lady seen on a group trip to Kenfig and Sker Point. The Autumn Lady’s Tresses orchids put on a lovely display as well. Then on the 24th August, a day off work gave the opportunity for a solo trip back to Rodborough Common. Adonis Blue and Chalkhill Blue put on a gorgeous display. At one point a pair of Adonis Blue courted sat on my head before landing next to me to mate. Over 40 males seen and many females. Far fewer Chalkhill Blues, but some still in good condition. Also loads of Brown Argus, but it was a sign of late summer that the Gatekeeper were all looking very worn.


Stunning male Adonis Blues


September was quiet for butterflies as the season shifted quickly to being far cooler and autumnal. However on the 4th September Blaenserchan put on a great show with lots of Common Blue and some late Browns (Small Heath, Meadow Brown, Gatekeeper). Best of all, a lovely Wall Brown nectared on the ragwort. This is only my second sighting at the site in 12 years of regularly recording butterflies here. A nice surprise!

Wall Brown at Blaenserchan


As I write, it’s now October and despite a few Speckled Wood in the garden and occasional sightings of Comma, Red Admiral and Small Tortoiseshell, it’s gone very quite with the wet weather. We’re hoping for some third brood Common Blue and Small Copper. Maybe we’ll get lucky and find a Clouded Yellow. Watch this space!


A montage of butterflies in 2021!

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