My butterflying diary entry for yesterday –

Tues April 23rd   St George

Cloudless and very warm, 20C, contrary to an iffy forecast.  Calm till 2pm when a L-M W breeze developed. 

Walters Copse & Newtown Meadows, Newtown, IOW.  9.50-4.50. 

Long and largely frustrating day, though it became ultimately successful, in pursuit of the Large Tortoiseshell.  A small number of Large Tortoiseshells were seen here last early spring, only I failed to visit before the weather collapsed at the start of April.  Then, this last Friday one was seen and photographed by IOW resident butterflyer Peter Hunt.  Neil Hulme visited on Saturday and saw and photographed two males, and nearly trod on a probable third, larger specimen.  The butterfly was also seen here on Sunday, before the cloud came over at lunchtime, and between cloudy spells yesterday.  Neil may well have visited on the day of peak activity.  Nearly all these sightings were made in two coppice bays close together towards the middle of the wood (go along main ride from gate, turn left after 75m down first ride, look in the 2nd and 3rd of the 3 coppiced linear bays there).

Copy of Walters Copse 23.4.13

Today was hard work, with lengthy periods of inactivity and just a few brief appearances, most of which I unfortunately missed.  I ceaselessly patrolled the ride system here, hanging around in some of the bays for a while, and also spent an hour in Newtown Meadows nearby, from 12.30-1.30.  Four other butterfly people were present throughout my visit, and all told 15 visited in search of the butterfly. 

The first Large Tortoiseshell was disturbed on the ground ca 10.30, and promptly shot off in a huff.  This was in the 3rd bay where most of Neil’s sightings were made on Saturday.  No more sightings occurred until about 1.15, despite constant vigil by a small group of observers in bays 2 and 3.  Then, one worn and slightly battered male appeared several times in bays 2 and 3 over a period of some 25 mins, flying down to settle on the ride surface or in the litter of the recently re-cut bays, before flying up into the trees to the west.  He may have been disturbed by photographers, for this is a decidedly wary beast at the best of times.  I arrived in time to see his final departure – a speck flying up into the trees, with several people pointing towards him.  A few rather fuzzy photos were obtained, seemingly a worn but untorn male.

That was frustrating, not least because at 1pm I nearly trod on a much larger butterfly, which must have been a female, in the central area of Newtown Meadows, to the SW of Walters Copse.  It flew off in a fury, high and into the sun.  Such butterflies do not return.  This drama took place in a corridor between a large patch of flowering sloe and a block of taller woodland.  I’d visited the meadows to check for the presence of elms and sallows, on which the butterfly may be breeding. 

At 3pm two Large Tortoiseshells were seen in the bottom of the 3rd bay down on the favoured ride, settling to bask a metre or so apart, before shooting off and up.  One of these was photographed, an intact male in reasonable (unfrayed) condition, which I think was different to the one photoed at 1.30. 

At 4pm one male finally acceded, being active in recently coppiced bays off the main ride for 45 mins, some 200m from where all the earlier dramas had occurred.  This was a frayed male, missing much of his hind wings, behaving rather like a territorial male Comma.  I spent 30 mins with him here, by far the longest I’ve ever seen this elusive butterfly for.  He was basking on litter, sticks and a tree stump, wings open or nearly closed, and launching himself at various passing hoverflies etc – including, gloriously, chasing off a Great Tit.  He was very wary of Mike Gibbons and I, necessitating considerable respect.  At 4.30 he moved westwards into the next bay, where he had major altercations with 2 resident Comma males and a male Peacock.  These he pulverised, through aerial combat.  At 4.45 he flew up and off into the sun and was seen no more. 

Copy of LT m 2 Walters Copse 23.4.13

Copy of LT m 1 Walters Copse 23.4.13

I then left to catch the ferry.  This necessitated a detour as the A road at Shalfleet was closed due to a major dig up, so I had to head up towards Calbourne and then turn west through Newbridge.  All this was most fortuitous, as was the petty traffic snarl-up involving a horse box, something agricultural with a big bale, a displaced double decker bus, and various folk hastening towards the Yarmouth ferry.  What should appear in the midst of this chaos but a female Large Tortoiseshell, huge and bold, flying low along the hedge!  I leapt out of the car to see her fly up and off westwards through a garden near Elm Farm, SZ 423884. 

So, a few sightings of at least two (I think three) old males in Walters Copse today, a probable female a quarter of a mile away in Newtown Meadows, and a definite female in traffic chaos a mile to the south…  All this may suggest some loose population structure over quite a large area (with butterfly enthusiasts looking for it only in one spot). 

The males seem to behave at times like male Commas, occupying territories in sheltered warm spots.  But they are also absent for long periods, disappearing up into the trees (I searched hard for high-flying males today without success) – maybe moving from territory to territory over or through the canopy?

As it occurs at such low population density this species much have a highly sophisticated mate-location strategy (or strategies) – assuming it’s occurring on the IOW as a viable population in the first place.  Perhaps it’s overwintering, and perhaps assembling for courtship and mating, in sheltered wooded places like Walters Copse and Woodhouse Copse, where I saw it in 2011? 

But the real question is whether it’s actually breeding on the Island or not?  I suspect so, but whether it’s actually breeding in Walters Copse (and Woodhouse Copse) is another matter.  There is a scatter of tall sallows in Walters (and a few more in Woodhouse) but seemingly nothing else (unless it can breed on aspen, which is quite a ‘weed’ here).  There is a nice scatter of tall bushy sallows in Newtown Meadows, plus a nice avenue of scrub English elm just mature enough to flower.  I’ll come back in 5-6 weeks to search these trees for larvae… .

Rather a paucity of butterflies in the woods.  Paul Davies walked the transect route today and was disappointed by what he recorded.  No Speckled Wood, Orange Tip or Green-veined White (though one Green-veined White was seen in the nearby meadows today).  I regularly went 15-20 mins without seeing a butterfly, and several of the sunny, sheltered and primrose-bedecked coppice bays were all but empty.  Perhaps 6-8 individual Brimstone in all, including a female, active from 10am till about 3pm, and including a vista of 3 – but I regularly went 20-30 mins without seeing one.  Nectaring on the prolific primrose.  No buckthorns present.  About 10 Comma from late morning, with males in the Large Tortoiseshell territories during the afternoon, favouring the main Large Tortoiseshell territory in Bay 3 (three sparring there in late pm).  Good to see a female egg-laying on a small half shaded nettle patch, laying just two eggs at noon before wandering off.  Usual stuttering flight.  About half a dozen Peacock in the bays, including a couple nectaring on male sallow blossom.  At last my first Red Admiral of the year, a worn male feeding on sallow blossom.  I’d expected my first Orange Tip, Green-veined White and perhaps Speckled Wood today. 

Copy of Br m VG Savernake 20.4.13

Other insects: disappointed by the hoverflies (no Criorhina ranunculi or even Epistrophe elegans) – just myriad Eristalis.  Very few mining bees (too early for Osmia pilicornis which has been recorded here).  Loads of Bombylius major and a fair scatter of B. discolor.  A single orange underwing moth which looked like the ordinary one, though there is plenty of tall aspen for Light Orange Underwing. 

The Meadows were virtually void of butterflies.  Apart from stepping on a probable Large Tortoiseshell all I saw were singletons of Comma and Peacock, both on sloe, that Paul Davies saw a Green-veined White.  Delighted by the condition of the meadows – lightly and roughly cattle grazed, with superb hedge regeneration management work, and lovely sloe + sallow hedges.  Also the Golden Eye Lichen Teloschites chrysopthalmus in a hawthorn near the north middle gate, a recent (major) discovery here.

Copy of Golden Eye Lichen Teloschites chrysopthalmus Newtown Meadows 23.4.13

Birds from the ferry: a lone and late Brent Goose, a dozen Eider duck, some godwits, 2 sandwich terns on the way back and a Mediterranean gull. 

Above all, today was the launch of my 50th year of butterflying…  It was also National Orange Tip Day, only I didn’t see one…