Sunday, March 4, 2012

"In Search of the Two-tailed Pasha"

This article on my Portuguese trip last October has now been published in Butterfly Conservation Ireland's 2011 Annual Report. One of the highlights of this trip for me was the surprise discovery of a wonderful Borboletario or butterfly house in Lisbon's Botanic Gardens where I was surrounded by beautiful Monarch butterflies. The migration cycle of this butterfly in North America is one of the most fascinating phenomena in Nature. They overwinter in Mexico and then move northwards in Springtime in a wave that goes all the way up to Canada - a journey of almost 3000 miles! I was talking to someone last Wednesday night who lives in Toronto and he was telling me how they await with joyful anticipation the arrival of the Monarch in their garden every year. It has greatly extended its range since the middle of the 19th century, colonizing New Zealand in 1840, Australia in 1870 and Canary Islands in 1880. It was first noted as a resident in Southern Iberia in 1980 and this photograph is courtesy of Simon Wates.


We have our own remarkable migrant in the Painted Lady which comes all the way from the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. I didn't see any last year, in fact their last big year was 2009 which was when I took the photograph below of a Painted Lady on a Corn cockle in my garden. This flower used to be a weed of cornfields before the advent of herbicides but it is now virtually extinct in the wild. I sow it in my own miniature herbicide free 'cornfield' or annual bed and I have a small quantity of self-saved seed if anyone would like some. The 10 butterfly species I recorded in my garden last year is also referenced in the Garden Survey Findings in the 2011 Annual Report. Overall, I have seen 13 different species in my garden and my immediate aim is to get this up to 15 or 16. This will require planting specific larval foodplants and providing the right conditions.

October 2012. I'm not long back from 10 days in the Algarve and although it was a few weeks earlier than my 2011 trip, the variety and numbers of butterflies I saw were very similar. My new Samsung phone enabled me to get some photos of the main species such as the Spanish Brown Argus, Lang's Short-tailed Blue, Speckled Wood (European variety) and Crimson Speckled moth. A new discovery was the False Mallow Skipper which I was able to get quite close to, on my last day in Lagos, as it was sunning itself on a footpath. I discovered later surprisingly that it is quite rare in the Algarve where it seems to have a small presence separate from its more widespread relative the Mallow Skipper with which it cannot interbreed. The real joy for me however was to discover an area outside Lagos where I was able to sit and watch some beautiful Clouded Yellows flitting around. It was quite an open scrubby arid area and I couldn't believe it one day when a Two-tailed Pasha flew past me. It was unmistakable - as big as a small bird, a powerful flyer and was so close to me that I could clearly see its striking colourings and patterns - search over!

Lang's Short-tailed Blue
False Mallow Skipper

Small Tortoiseshells on buddleia
November 2012. The Clouded Yellow, along with the Painted Lady, is our other great periodic migrant but hasn't been seen in any significant numbers in Ireland since 2006. A couple of Painted Ladies actually turned up in my garden in early September when I had something of an explosion of butterflies, most spectacular of which was up to 50 Small Tortoiseshells on my autumn flowering buddleia - a late and welcome reprise to what was in general another poor summer for butterflies - this photo is courtesy of my friend Tom Buckley from Kildare Bat Group who is an amazing wildlife photographer. I didn't see any Orange Tips on the wing in my garden this year (although their larvae were on the Lady's Smock) but the return of the Ringlet and aforementioned Painted Lady brought my number of species up to 11 this year.   

Holly Blue on runner bean

Orange-tip larva on Lady's Smock


I also carry out a weekly butterfly count on the Royal Canal here in Maynooth as part of the Irish Butterfly Monitoring Scheme which is co-ordinated by the National Biodiversity Data Centre. There are about 150 volunteers all over the country and I've just sent in my data for 2012. I recorded 14 different species compared to 12 last year - Wood White and Small Copper were the new ones - but overall numbers were down which is not surprising I guess given the bad summer. The picture is somewhat complicated though as some species had increased numbers while others were down. However, the really significant development was a near collapse of the colony of Common Blues which was my most numerous species last year. I took both of these photos this year though so there is hope for next year - the one on the left is a male and the female on the right is on its larval foodplant Bird's-foot Trefoil.


April 2013. After the coldest March on record butterfly activity is very slow to get going so here's a couple of vido clips, taken in my garden, to keep us going (this is my first YouTube effort - click on the captions!). 


June 2013.   I was lucky to get a place on a dragonfly workshop earlier this month which was held in the Clara Bog Visitor Centre under the auspices of the National Biodiversity Data Centre. Our course tutors were Eugenie Regan and Brian Nelson, two of the leading experts in the country. The weather was beautiful and we managed to identify all the early season species of damselfly and dragonfly in the field. Subsequent to this, by coincidence, I discovered that there are two species of damselfly resident in my garden - the Blue-tailed Damselfly (left) and the Common Blue Damselfly (right) - which are a delight to observe.


July 2013. It's turning out to be one of the best summers in years. Lucy and I spent an afternoon in Hortland (N794357) recently surrounded by a wealth of wildlife. Here's a few pics:


After a slow start to the year, I'm getting record numbers on my two butterfly transects; I now have a second official transect at Stacumny (N997318) where Lucy and I have our allotment. There's lovely natural meadow full of wild flowers adjacent to the allotments and I counted 161 butterflies there last week on my designated transect walk - this included 83 Meadow Browns and 41 Ringlets. Meanwhile my Royal Canal transect yielded an all-time high of 54 which included 29 Ringlets and 11 Meadow Browns. These two butterflies are single-brood midsummer stalwarts which have been doing well despite the recent bad summers.
February 2014. I didn't know it at the time but my mother had suffered a heart attack that sunny summer afternoon last July so I'm afraid I have bittersweet memories of that day now. When two of my brothers found her semi-conscious in her yard her faithful dog and cat were sitting one each side of her head and remained there until the ambulance arrived. Although she also suffered a subsequent stroke, she made a good recovery and is now in a nursing home. I think I got my love of wildlife from my mother and father and I have wonderful memories of magical days in Pollardstown Fen with my father who had grown up nearby - the fen was being drained at the time (and in danger) but it was much easier to move around in than it is now.
I couldn't continue my night-time activities with Kildare Bat Group last summer but I did manage to keep my butterfly counts going.  My garden sightings get a mention in the Garden Survey Report of Butterfly Conservation Ireland's recently published 2013 Annual Report.
I am presently participating in Birdwatch Ireland's Garden Bird Survey for the 11th time. As I therefore have 10 complete surveys, and this is usually a minimum period for statistical significance, I carried out an analysis of my data over the Christmas period. I'll put a link to what I've written up as soon as I figure out how to do it so for now here's a graph of four species which I find interesting.
January 2015. Butterfly Conservation Ireland's Annual Report 2014 is now available online. It includes an article of mine entitled 'My Butterfly Garden' and I get a few mentions also in the Garden Survey Report. There was no room in either the printed or online versions of my article for these two graphs which are produced by the Transect Walker software package into which I put my garden butterfly counts. In the 2013 graph on the left, the first peak is strongly influenced by Small Whites and the later peaks in September by the build-up of Small Tortoiseshell numbers. The first peak in the 2014 graph on the right is dominated by an early surge in Small Tortoiseshells in July and they are complemented by Red Admirals to produce the second peak in September.
(click to enlarge)
(click to enlarge)
A piece on my plum feeding Red Admirals was posted on Butterfly Conservation Ireland's website last September including this YouTube video clip.

30 June 2015. Lucy and I were out on the high bog at Ballinafagh yesterday at a location north of Prosperous suggested by Tadgh of IPCC. Our main target species was the Large Heath - this is the only Irish butterfly on the European red list. Its larval foodplant is Hare's-tail Cottongrass (which I think is also called single-flowered bog cotton). The temperature was about 20C but it was quite cloudy. So there were no butterflies on the wing but as we walked across the remarkably dry bog we put up four Large Heaths. Lucy chased one down and netted it just to confirm identification (see pic).

We moved on then to Timahoe. There was no sign of its unique resident the Small Skipper but there was plenty to keep our interest even though it was still cloudy. We like the Peacock caterpillars shown here and it would be fun to come back in a few weeks time to look for their pupae. It should be noted that Jesmond and Andrew Harding recorded the first Small Skippers of the year here today - I was busy counting my two transects, the temperature was in the mid-20s in Stacumny this afternoon!

Things have been fairly quite in my garden so far this year which is pretty normal. However, the ragwort in my back garden and the buddleia in my front garden are close to flowering and the first second-brood Small Tortoiseshells have just appeared on my catmint so I'm hoping that numbers will take off soon.

Peacock caterpillars
Large Heath butterfly

2 July 2015. Temperatures in recent nights have been in the mid to high teens - great conditions for moths. So Philip Strickland set his trap in my garden last night. We got a good haul which will take a while to process but it included some exciting new firsts for me such as a Poplar Hawkmoth literally hanging on the ragwort adjacent to the trap, a Swallow-tailed Moth also caught outside the trap and a beautiful Peppered Moth to add to the Elephant Hawkmoth which I found in my long grass last week. Pat

Elephant Hawkmoth
Poplar Hawkmoth
Peppered Moth

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