If you go down to the woods today.. Falling, fluttering and flitting

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On Monday I took a walk along the South Downs way which goes through a golden leafed Friston Forest towards Litlington.. and on this sunny November day as I crunched through the fallen leaves, I still managed to spot some butterflies.

This speckled wood was still flitting around quite happily, settling on these fallen leaves! Velvety brown the spots are quite a bright cream colour.

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( 12 Speckled wood, pararge aegeria)

The first one I spotted this year was near Rye harbour, just as I was coming out of a bird hide. Another week in the Summer I took a walk from Falmer across to Ditchling, and where the path passed woodland, there were dozens of them, mostly chasing each other!

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The other thing I didn’t really expect to see was dragonflies (or perhaps damselflies?) They were flitting everywhere in the forest, and then there were dozens down in the rushes by the Cuckmere river.

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What a glorious spot it was. I sat on the river bank and enjoyed a snack at my half way point before I followed the river back to the coast, on an almost deserted path.

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The red admirals still seem to be everywhere at the moment, rushing around with their beautiful wings, far too busy to have their photo taken! The red admiral is a migrant to Britain and can be seen in many months of the year. Though some survive in this country, most arrive from continental Europe  from  May to early Autumn. In the 17th century some naturalists called it the “Admirable” rather than the Admiral.. and I can see why. It really is rather splendid with those scarlet markings.

One Summer day I went out for a walk spotting butterflies, and didn’t see any red admirals, but as I sat down in my living room later, one came right up to my window and on stopped my balcony to rest.. Thank you beauty.

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(13 Red Admiral, Vanessa atalanta)

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      Oh, Autumn! why so soon
Depart the hues that make thy forests glad;
Thy gentle wind and thy fair sunny noon,
      And leave thee wild and sad!

 

Autumn Woods, by William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878)

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Still chasing the blues – searching for my adonis!

 

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I was still on the hunt for the Adonis Blue. I read somewhere that Malling Down was a good place to try, so I took a chance, and decided to spend my Monday off walking from Glynde over to Lewes via Mount Caburn and Malling Down. I’d not been up this way for a number of years.

It was not an encouraging start. Drizzle all the way up Mount Caburn and very little wildlife in view except a few sodden sheep. I reached the top and headed north and into Southerham nature reserve. It’s perfect butterfly habitat rich with wild flowers, if only the sun would come out and warm a few butterfly wings. The best I could find were a few moths and a beautiful lacewing in the meadows.

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galium carpet moth

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common carpet moth

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lacewing

I backtracked, trying my best to avoid the golf course where I always seemed to end up dodging golf balls, and carried on around the hill. I ended up rounding the back hill on a path that turned into sheep trails that seemed to get steeper and wilder as I went on! I disturbed a number of pheasants which flew off in noisy protest and also watched a bird of prey (probably a buzzard) hunting in the fertile grassland. It was still gloomy and drizzly and I ate my sandwich walking along.  I eventually came to the edge of a chalk pit, which looked very promising butterfly spotting ground down below (in fact I could see a couple of likely butterfly spotters and their cameras!) However it looked like a steep descent and  I really wanted to start heading back towards Lewes. So I took another path westwards. It’s always a bit difficult to work out exactly where you are on these nature reserves which are open access.  I suddenly came across a sheltered clearing, thick with wild marjoram and vetch, and there at last were some butterflies. Not just any butterflies, but blue butterflies including the one I was looking for!.

Looking at the books the Common blue and Adonis blue can look very similar. However in the field, my first Adonis blue took my breath away. There really is no doubt – what a brilliant blue it really is! Looking more closely, the distinctive black lines that stripe through the white margin and blue wings that also distinguish it. These lines are even visible on the side of the wings.

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Absolutely stunning. You can keep your Greek gods, I was very happy with my Adonis blue butterflies!

The path started a steep descent and I was soon back in a lane on my way back to Lewes to warm up in front of an afternoon film in the new cinema.

(11 Adonis Blue, polyommatus bellargus)

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Adonis – a divine figure in Greek mythology, portrayed as a beautiful youth and associated with fertility

I’m feeling good – searching for the blues

 

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What does the colour blue mean to you? To me it is a happy colour, of serene skies and calm azure seas, of peaceful lagoons and woods full of scented bluebells. It’s peaceful and relaxing colour. But if you are feeling blue.. you’re the opposite of happy. All those blues musicians sure have the blues!

The term “blues” may have come from “blue devils” meaning melancholy and sadness from a one-act farce “Blue Devils” in 1798 or from Britain in the 1600s when the term referred to the intense visual hallucinations that can accompany severe alcohol withdrawal.

When I was searching for the blues under the Summer skies, I was on the hunt for butterflies.

The common blue was satisfyingly common. At Seaford Head, Crowlink and the Seven Sisters I spotted a good many. Beautiful blue they are too when they finally stop long enough for you to take a look at them! The common blue is found in a wide variety of habitats and the male has a wonderful bright blue appearance.

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(9 Common blue, Polyommatus icarus)

The female is mostly brown, but the underside markings are similar (though remarkably like other several butterflies which can make identification tricky!) This (I think!) is a female common blue

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So once I was getting confident with my ID of the common blue, I was on the hunt for some different blues. The first one on my list was the chalkhill blue.

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(10 Chalkhill Blue, Polyommatus coridon)

Not surprisingly, this is a butterfly found on chalk and limestone downland which is the only habitat that supports the larval food plant, the horseshoe vetch. So the plan was to walk along the chalk cliffs of the Seven Sisters and look out for the horseshoe vetch! Though there has been a long term decline of this butterfly, in the right sites, thousands can still be spotted.

The meadow fields between Crow Link and the South Downs way along the Seven Sisters was definitely one of the best places and in among the clouds of butterflies flying,  I finally managed to spot some sitting still long enough,  for me to get some photos and a positive ID!

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The male seen here on a fine scabious flower, has an underside that is a lot less colourful than the common blue. When open, the dark fringes of the males, make it clearly different to the common blue.

 

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The females are mostly brown and harder to spot.

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And a favourite picture of the little lovers together, this time at Malling Down. What a lovely pair

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To be continued…

Dragonfly out in the sun you know what I mean, don’t you know Butterflies all havin’ fun you know what I mean Sleep in peace when day is done that’s what I mean And this old world is a new world And a bold world for me It’s a new dawn It’s a new day It’s a new life For me

And I’m feeling good

Written by English composers Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse and recorded in 1965 by Nina Simone, and others!

Golden Brown, basking butterflies

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No not the dismal rather drab soggy brown of this Autumn because I’m still working through my photos the butterflies of Summer! To help me on my quest I invested in a rather nice book “Butterflies of Britain and Ireland by Michael Easterbrook” Apparently one of the first English books of English butterflies was compiled by Merrett in 1666 which included 21 species with obscure latin descriptions but no names. The collecting of butterflies as a hobby began at the end of the 17th century and the first names were given by a James Petiver.

The browns were a bit more tricky to learn. It took a while, but I think by the end of Summer I could tell my meadow browns from my gatekeepers as long as they weren’t flying off too quickly!

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The gatekeeper (sometimes known as the hedge brown) is generally a lovely bright orange and brown, in July there were quite a few around.

(4 Gatekeeper , pyronia tithonus)

When they are perched, its a little harder but it seems the double white eyespot is a bit of a giveaway. I think the one above is a male, which is a little smaller than the female with dark smudges of scent scales across the orange wing. The species was first described by Merrett in 1666

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So the other common one flying around is the meadow brown. This one is actually also bigger, so a good identifier in the field, though not so good once I get an image home and have nothing to compare it too. The male really is quite a dull brown, with a tiny eye spot.

(5 Meadow Brown, Maniola Jurtina)

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The female is a bit brighter. These butterflies are one of most common, often seen in large numbers. I spotted the most between Crowlink cottages and the South Down’s way, where the meadow fields were teeming with butterflies on a mid Summer stroll. Just an amazing sight, hundreds and hundreds of butterflies – most of them on the move!

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Another orange and brown one that I spotted a few times, is the tiny small copper, which favours warm dry sites such as downland and coastal dunes. In 1699 Petiver described it as the “small golden black spotted meadow butterfly”, or later the “small tortoiseshell”

 (6 Small copper, lycaena phlaeas)

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Another rather lovely orange and brown, is the Wall Brown, spotted once at Seaford head, and once on holiday on the Yorkshire coast. Once common, this butterfly has disappeared from much for central and Southern England. It loves to bask on walls, rocks and in this case bare earth! First described by Petiver as the Golden Marbled Butterfly with black eyes, then later the London Eye.

(7 Wall Brown, lasiommata megera)

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The last one of this group, seemed to become more common as the season went on. By September the Small Heath seemed to be only butterfly I spotted up Seaford Head. This tiny butterfly was surprisingly easy to capture with my camera, most obliging!

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(8 Small Heath, Coenonympha pamphilus)

I remember in the 80s that brown and orange seemed to be the height of fashion. We had brown wallpaper, and brown and orange curtains. Tasteful! It’s quite out of fashion now of course, but looking at these little beauties I can now quite see the appeal of the combination. It seems that brown is anything but boring.

“I almost wish we were butterflies and liv’d but three summer days – three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain.” 
― 
John KeatsBright Star:

Summer, so many things that I have never seen

Summer, so many things that I have never seen

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(1 Marbled White)

And so one of my resolutions for the Summer was to slow down. Get outside whenever I could weather permitting, and not to rush, but instead to stop and look closely, and photograph. Then to learn something I didn’t know last year. Trying to identify, names of birds, butterflies, flowers, insects and more. To learn my landscape as it changes through the year. I’ve made a good start, but this is the sort of journey, cultivating my curiosity, that takes a lifetime, and is never finished.

So if I come across a snail on the chalk path leading up the hill, I should resist the temptation to tread on it (my garden ones are never spared!) and instead wonder about whether there are many varieties of snails, and whether the snail shell always curls the same way. What do the snails eat on the thin chalky grassland? In my garden they managed to climb several layers of copper tape, slide across sharp gravel and chew their way through every stem of zinnia every time… The stem of the struggling remaining one, has been repaired several times with sellotape. Which seems to work, and the poor flower is battling on valiantly. Not that I’m bitter.. well not that bitter..

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Anyway I still don’t know the answers about snails (I’ll get there, but they are not exactly top of my list) but I have enjoyed my way so far. Be patient, as my travels so far may take a while to tell, and if the weather is good, I won’t be typing, but outside instead.

According to the Sussex branch of the Butterfly Conservation society there are 52 species of butterfly found in sussex, 43 entirely native to Sussex. So I wonder if it’s possible to spot (and photograph all of them?) It seems worth a try. Second I want to be identify the flowers and plants that thrive within walking distance of my house. I already belonged to a couple of facebook groups for birdwatchers, and recently joined one for wild flowers. I haven’t yet dared post any photos (although it is mostly friendly enough) but I have learned just how many flowers there are , and just how difficult it is to identify them, especially from just one photo! I have a lot to learn!

You have to start somewhere, so I’ll start with my first butterfly of the year, the marbled white. The first ones I saw were up Seaford Head on 3rd July, in the long grass near the golf course, and they are normally pretty common there. This year I was also very pleased to find one in my garden on the verbena bonariensis, which I’m encouraging to run rampant anywhere it pleases.

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“The Marbled White is a distinctive and attractive black and white butterfly, unlikely to be mistaken for any other species. In July it flies in areas of unimproved grassland and can occur in large numbers on southern downland. It shows a marked preference for purple flowers such as Wild Marjoram, Field Scabious, thistles, and knapweeds. Adults may be found roosting halfway down tall grass stems. 

Found in unimproved flowery grassland with tall sward but may stray into gardens. The strongest populations are found on chalk or limestone grasslands but other habitats such as; woodland rides and clearings, coastal grassland, road verges and railway embankments are also used.

Caterpillar Foodplants- Red Fescue (Festuca rubra) is thought to be essential in the diet of larvae but Sheep’s-fescue (F. ovina), Yorkshire-fog (Holcus lanatus), and Tor-grass (Brachypodium pinnatum) are also eaten. It is thought that several other grasses may be used, but the full range is not known.

There’s a lot of knapweed up on Seaford Head, and you don’t have to peer at many heads before you spot some wildlife. Bees, soldier beetles and butterflies are all fighting over it! In fact I think knapweed will be on my list of things I really want in my garden next year!

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But of course nothing is that easy.. Knapweed – well is it greater knapweed, lesser knapweed, common knapweed, cultivated knapweed? Well according to the couple of books I have, I’m going to plump for greater knapweed. But I’m always happy to be corrected, as it’s in the process of being wrong, that we learn something. I have a terrible memory too, so the harder the journey is to answer the question, the more likely I am to remember this time next year when I’m out with my camera again, and checking what’s new.

“I sit beside the fire and think
Of all that I have seen
Of meadow flowers and butterflies
In summers that have been

Of yellow leaves and gossamer
In autumns that there were
With morning mist and silver sun
And wind upon my hair

I sit beside the fire and think
Of how the world will be
When winter comes without a spring
That I shall ever see

For still there are so many things
That I have never seen
In every wood in every spring
There is a different green
J.R.R. Tolkien