Sunday, 13 July 2014

Hunting Butterflies On The Chalk Hills Of Hampshire

I know I've said it lots of times before, but I am a Chalk Girl at heart, and although we don't actually live on The Chalk it is only a matter of a handful of miles away and it calls to me, so I need to get out on it frequently. Most of the ecology volunteer stuff I do is Chalk-Based: the Water Voles live on the Test which is a chalk-river, the Glow Worms are in chalk woodlands, the Butterflies are largely on Chalk Downland. The dog's and my favourite walk just happens to be across chalk fields and through ancient chalk woods.

Chalk Downland is poor in nutrients, thin in soil, exposed to the elements and steeper than steep,which is why most of it has never been farmed or improved. The most it has usually had on it since it first began life millenia ago, is sheep and rabbits grazing, so it is a pretty rare habitat here in an island where most of the land has been used for farming. This has produced, over the years, a unique habitat that supports specific species of flora and fauna that you generally don't find elsewhere (apart from on dunes, but then the basis for dunes is crushed seashells, as chalk).

I've done a few wildflower and chalk downland species courses with our local wildlife trust over the last month, and Very Interesting they have been too. I've learnt some new plants- Red Bartsia, Rest Harrow (which smells of human sweat- mmm, nice), and Hound's Tongue (which smells of mice- lovely), as well as some poisonous ones such as Wild Parsnip, the sap of which reacts with sunlight to blister your skin. Our tutor told us the tale of an amorous couple whose bodies got covered in blisters after a romp on a local Down among the wild parsnip. It's scratchy stuff so Lord knows why they chose it, but I doubt they'll do it again :-)

No romping when we were up there yesterday, just lots of beautiful flutters and lovely, ancient plants. I saw my first Chalkhill Blue of the season (early, as everything is) as well as a female Brown Argus, a tiny brown butterfly that is actually a member of the Blue family. Both are relatively rare, although the Brown Argus which suffered badly last century has now recovered and looks to be expanding its range Northwards, which is great news. The Chalkhills are in comparison are confined to chalk-based habitat scattered through the South. Ploughing has destroyed many of the colonies- they rely on the caterpillar food plant Horseshoe Vetch, so autumn and winter grazing by sheep or cattle which prevents the food plant being over-grown by other species, rather than ploughing which hoicks the plant out of the ground is the management tool now favoured to ensure their survival.

Chalkhill Blue Underwing

Chalkhill Blue nectaring on Scabious


CHB for Leanne, to be of Good Cheer xx
Brown Argus Underwing (very similar to many of the Blues, but has some diagnostic differences in the pattern of the spots)

Brown Argus
The fate of one Blue butterfly aptly demonstrates this close relationship between species and habitat. The Native Large Blue is now extinct in the UK and has been since the 1970s. The reason for this is because they rely on one species of red ant, Myrmica sabuleti, and their ant hills. The Large Blue lays a single egg on the food plant (wild thyme), the caterpillar goes down into the anthill where the ants milk it for honeydew and the pillar feeds on the ant's grubs. There it remains until the following May when it emerges, pupates and eventually hatches out into a butterfly, which only lives for about five days, just long enough to mate and lay its eggs.
This is such a precise relationship and the Large Blue so utterly dependent on it, that when people destroyed the anthills during the last century they also unknowingly destroyed the butterfly.

Swedish Large Blues have now been introduced to a handful of closely-monitored sites in the West of England and so far they are doing well.

The Motto of this story is: everything is interconnected and nature has so many connections that we can not possibly know all of them, so we do well to respect her and let her get on with it.

 Susan (my tutor for the day yesterday) and I got Very Excited when we thought we'd seen a Chequered Skipper. That would have been Quite Something, given that they've been extinct in England since 1976 (the farming practices of the last century have a lot to answer for) and now they only exist in specific colonies in Western Scotland. We are on the South Coast, about as far from Scotland as it's possible to get in the UK. We calmed down and decided it was a Silver-Spotted Skipper instead, which was almost as exciting as these flutters are rare having declined drastically since the 1950s and are now localised in a handful of sites across the South.

It wasn't that either; it turned out to be a strikingly marked female Large Skipper. Oh well. Lovely flutter she is anyway...

Large Skip
These Fritillaries also caused some puzzled head-scratching as we got the books out and wondered if they could be Silver-Washed. I'm fairly sure they are faded Dark Greens. We observed them mating and egg-laying. They have a preference for violets, of which there were plenty (in leaf form) among the grasses, so it made sense that the butterfly was in that particular section of the reserve.....

I found a few moths (of course). 

Crambus Perlella (miniscule)
And these 6-Spot Burnet moths who were Otherwise Engaged and therefore didn't notice me snapping away. I won't tell you what M calls me when I take pictures of mating insects. It would make your ears turn pink :-)
These are easy to ID- you just count the spots. The 5-Spot Burnet has 2 spots at the base of the wing, 2 in the middle and one large one at the top near the head, whereas the 6 spots below are easy to see.

We also saw some Frog Orchids. I don't know about you, but I can't get excited about these. Is that a terrible thing to say? I don't want to upset any Orchid-Lovers out there because I know these are relatively rare plants and I should feel blessed to have seen them, but I thought they were a teeny weeny bit boring..... :-0

Other flutters seen Out And About this week include.....


Another Large Skip
Fairy Longhorn Moth Adela cuprella
Essex Skipper
The next few pics are of a Large Skipper with whom I built a Bit Of A Relationship. We sat and stared at each other for Quite Some Time and then had a Lovely Chat. He let me get close enough to touch him and just stat staring right at me for several minutes. I didn't touch him because he was happy on his flower and I was happy just talking to him....
Pay Particular Attention to his Tongue from the third photo down...... 

Marbled Whites are having a fantastic year. I have recorded huge number of this butterfly of grassland in various sites locally....

Marbled White

Also the same for Ringlets, which are coming up to their Busy Time in terms of numbers (mid July)

Ringlet wings open

Ringlet wings closed

Cinnabar Moth Caterpillar feeding on Ragwort. They take the plant's poison inside and then become bitter tasting to put birds off eating them (along with the colours- an eg of Mullerian Mimicry)
Gatekeepers are Doing Well this summer too. They look a lot like Meadow Brown's with wings closed. The way to tell them apart is to look for the white spots on the lower wing. In the Meadow Brown these spots are dark.


Gatekeeper (note the small white dots on the lower wing)

Meadow Brown with wings open

Mecyna flavillis (a moth)

Pupa on dogwood.
The Small Heath (below) is another dead-ringer for Gatekeepers and Meadow Browns when you see them with wings shut in a photo. In reality they are absolutely tiny little flutters with a wing span of 29-34mm.
Small Heath
Here is a Drinker who I found in the greenhouse, just to Even The Balance a bit with all the lovely flutters. He was extremely grumpy about being moved and went off in a huff, only to come back at night with a friend and lead me and M a merry dance round the kitchen while we tried to put them both out. M's moth catching skills are worth watching if you're in need of cheering up....:-)


I hope you've enjoyed all the flutters. I am putting together a post on wild flowers which I hope to publish some time this week. Tomorrow Dave and I are off to look for Purple Emperors in the morning, then Glow Worms after dark; Weds is Bat Watch and I've another Water Vole survey to do this week too, so time is short at present.

I'll leave you with a photo I took yesterday at the bottom of the Down. M says it is a classic 'think up a caption' photo, so I'll leave you to mull that one over and leave it with your comment if you'd like to. 

Wishing you all a peaceful Sunday and a lovely week ahead,

CT x

(please excuse any errors- I've run out of time to check) :-)


  1. You had a great day with masses of finds!!! Now, the caption!

    Oh no, it's the moth woman again.........


    1. I think they must all feel like that when they see me coming, Amy :-) xx

  2. "Mary..Mary come and look at this lady...she's on the floor again looking at grass...just eat it woman..."

    Amazing butterflies and photos, you are so lucky to see such a rage of flutters.
    Would love to go on a wild flower corse , ether to much or to far away. So have been learning more my self. Had a good night with moth box, photos coming soon.
    Amanda xx

    1. M would heartily approve of that caption, Amanda :-)

      My butterfly count for this year currently stands at 30 species. Given that there are only 59 in the UK and some of those are not found in the south I reckon I'm doing pretty well. They are beautiful things xx

  3. Your photos capture such exquisite and interesting little creatures. I wouldn't know they existed if i didn't pop over to your blog.

    jean x

    1. Thank you Jean. So glad you enjoy looking at them :- 0 xx

    2. ps- that was meant to be :-) not :-0 !! x

  4. Wow - absolutely stunning pics CT! X

  5. Great finds especially that Chalkhill Blue - I need to find some chalk! Spent years gardening on it and cursing it.... the grass is always greener, isn't it?! I finally saw one Gatekeeper, but it's a bit quiet here on the butterfly front. Looks like Oregano that yours is feeding on - mine isn't even flowering yet. :-)

    1. Wild marjoram over here :-) There's lots of it on the Chalk, just coming out now as in mine in the garden. Interesting you're quiet for flutters in France, they seem to be having a fantastic year here in the South UK across all the species.

  6. A wonderful selection of butterflies and moths CT and some great photos. So wonderful to see the species of "Blue" that we don't get here.

    One of these days I'll find the time to go and look for Large Blue - the re-introduced colonies are a couple of hours from here but it would be well worth the trip :)

    1. I'm tempted to make the pilgrimage into the West to see the Large Blues too. No sign of the Emp today, I did, however, see a White Admiral resting on some bushes and got lots of pictures, as well as some Silver-Washed Frits so it was well worth going.

  7. Thank you. That warmed the cockles of my heart. I do tend to go into rant mode a lot. Yesterday was better and today is quiet which I like. I am off out out in a minute to try and photograph colours inspired by Alfred Wallace. It's a hard life sometimes.....
    Leanne xx

    1. Good. I am glad you are feeling better. Getting it all off your chest is a good thing. I'll look forward to seeing your Wallace Colour Photos :-)


Thank you for leaving a comment. I always enjoy reading them and will try my best to reply to every one. CT x