In the last few years I have been awakened to the attraction and fascination of moths, and I have found that in many ways they are of greater interest than their cousins the butterflies. Yet despite this, butterflies still hold a power over me, there is something simply magical about them which is hard to put into words and which sets them apart somewhat from moths, even though they are essentially the same thing. It isn’t that they are prettier than moths, indeed many moths are more colourful and beautifully patterned than any of our butterflies, perhaps it is due to how strongly I associate them with warm summer days, with blue skies, golden sunlight and fields of wildflowers.
Whatever the attraction is, I still love butterflies, despite being side-tracked by moths, and I regularly find myself wandering through woods and fields and downland in search of these fairy-like insects. On one such wander a few days ago, up on Wolstonbury hill on the South Downs, I had the unexpected and very special blessing of finding three butterfly species that I had never seen before, and they were corkers.
The first I had hoped to find at this location, it being the right time of year, good weather and a known site for them, but knowing my luck I was still pleasantly surprised to actually be successful in spotting these gems. Skippers are atypical butterflies, being of a form somewhat in-between a moth and a butterfly. They fly in a slow, buzzing, dopey way much like some moths, they have a coat of fluffy hairs, they possess short, thick abdomens and they are predominantly brown in colour. There is one skipper species, the Silver-spotted Skipper, that is rather more prettily patterned and coloured than the others, although it has a more restricted range. It was this beauty that I managed to find in good numbers on the hill.
What struck me first about the Silver-spotted Skipper was how much larger it was from other skippers I was familiar with, its abdomen was much wider and it flew with an audible hum which I do not recall hearing in any other UK butterfly species. When it landed the upperside of its wings were the colour of burnt toast, being a lighter golden-brown in the center and fading into a dusky black on the edges, punctuated with small square-shaped windows the colour of caramel. The best part was when I managed to get a view of the underside of its wings, which were a gorgeous gold with two rows of pure-white square-spots.
The second species was one which is very closely associated with chalk downland and is much sought-after for reasons that quickly became apparent to me when I caught a glimpse of its wings. It is often said that you will know an Adonis Blue when you see one, and I hadn’t quite believed that until I saw one and instantly knew what it was. The shade of blue that adorns this stunning butterfly is genuinely indescribable in words, it is like no other blue on Earth and seems to radiate its own glow independent of the sun. I was pretty pleased to finally see one in the flesh.
The third species was a genuine shock, it is not particularly rare or restricted in range, but it is renowned for being particularly difficult to see, being active only at certain times of day on certain species of shrub or tree and rarely venturing low enough to allow decent views with the naked eye. So imagine my surprise when a Brown Hairstreak landed on a low blackthorn hedge right in front of me, within touching distance and gave me superb views of both its remarkably-coloured underwings and upperwings as it basked on the sun.
Hairstreaks are quite a special group of butterflies, possessing some of the brightest and most unusual colours of any British insect and combining that with a natural shyness and restriction to very specific host plants. I have previously seen both Green and Purple Hairstreaks which are aptly named, but as I looked at the Brown I was struck by how poorly it was named, it should really be the orange hairstreak. The underwings are a jaw-dropping shade of Bambi-orange with an outer border of brighter citrus orange, criss-crossed by two clean white lines. The uppersides are predominantly a dark brown but are highlighted by a crescent of orange on each side, this butterfly also has lovely fluffy white legs striped with black.
I have now seen 40 of the 59 UK butterfly species so new ones are going to be increasingly hard to come by, but the hunt after all is most of the fun. I still wonder what it is about butterflies that makes them so alluring, after all they are just as eagerly hunted by butterfly-enthusiasts as birds are by birders, I’m sure there’s a few factors at play. At the end of the day I just hope that I can see most of them before they are lost forever.