I’ve been asking that question myself all summer long. After a very bright start to the year in spring and early summer, these magical insects suddenly seemed to disappear from our gardens. This always happens to some extent as these early arrivals then lay eggs and it’s weeks later before their young emerge. I’ve despaired at seeing large bushes of buddleia (the butterfly bush) with lots of colourful blooms but no butterflies. These bushes are at their best now all over the country, but sadly just a few butterflies, usually small tortoishell. So where are all the butterflies? We could probably say the same for other flying insects too. Although our garden remains full of nectar filled flowers, as I write on 19th July, sightings this weekend have included just a female brimstone, 2 small tortoishell, a red admiral, several large & small white and a holly blue.
This weekend as part of my contribution to the Big Butterfly Count I was determined to look at known special sites where I might photograph butterflies, and we were not disappointed. We’ve found butterflies, hundreds of them, but we had to take long walks in the warm, even very hot sun. However walks on the Meadows along the River Dee in Chester, and on the special heathland Nature Reserve at Prees near Whitchurch, have produced the butterflies we were searching for.
One 800m stretch of the Meadows in Chester produced 50+ meadow brown, 25+ small skipper, 10 large skipper, 2 red admiral, 2 common blue, 10 small tortoishell, 3 speckled wood, 4 comma, 2 small copper, and lots of large & small whites.
At Prees we recorded 25+ silver studded blue, 4 holly blue, 50+ meadow brown, 10+ small heath, 20 small skipper, 10 large skipper, 1 red admiral, 3 small tortoishell, 2 mating ringlets, 5 comma, 2 small copper, both large and small white, and lots of six spotted Burnet moths. We also saw 3 Emperor, 1 blue spotted skimmer, 1 southern hawker and 1 brown hawker dragonflies, together with hundreds of common blue and blue tailed damselflies at a very secluded and productive pond at the A41 end of the reserve. The stars of the site are the tiny silver studied blues which fly in the second half of June and early July. The old airfield site has been specially prepared for them. The adult butterflies live for just a few days, spending time mating and taking nectar from flowers close to the ground. They lay eggs singly on heather, birds foot trefoil, or gorse, and when they emerge in spring during April and May their tiny caterpillars feed on the plant’s new growth. The caterpillars then produce a sugary secretion which attracts black ants, and this protects the caterpillars from predation by spiders and wasps. The caterpillars then pupate underground in the ants nest for six weeks before they emerge as a butterfly, usually early in the morning. Even when they emerge on short flowery stems they are protected by the black ants until their wings are dry and they are ready to fly.
The Prees reserve, an SSSI a site of special scientific interest, is managed by Butterfly Conservation and is just under half of Prees Heath Common (148 acres) on part of the old RAF airfield. The former Control Tower is now an information centre and stands in a colourful restored heath and acidic grassland. The dominant flowers at present are Bell and ling heather, St John’s wort, common ragwort, evening primrose, rosebay willow herb, and lots of varieties of thistles. We were on the reserve in the heat of the day (car thermometer read 34C) , so there were only few birds present. We saw some starlings, goldfinches and linnets, but we listened to the beautiful song of the yellowhammer sitting on top of a bush near the pond, and the exciting call of a reed warbler, whilst a lone buzzard circled above our heads.
Towards the end of July we had some exciting sightings in the area. The first Painted ladies appeared at Croft Close and Walk Mill, whilst the Legion meadow provided a good number of small copper sightings and small skippers. Holly blues also appeared along some hedgerows at the beginning of August. A small number of peacock, red admiral and small tortoishells also put in an appearance, and I was delighted to photograph a pair of ringlets feeding on plants adjacent to the footpath from Walk Mill to the Hidden Lake. This is now one of our favoured summer butterfly walks. Despite the scarcity of butterflies generally, both small copper and ringlet butterflies seem to have established colonies in our area.