Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Fritillary Fervour

The wettest June on record has followed the wettest April in a hundred years, and we’re already being warned about the potential devastation this will wreak on our butterflies. It happened this way merely five years ago. After the floods of 2007 washed out the breeding season, butterflies were at their lowest ever recorded numbers in 2008. This year we’re witnessing it again. Each day of heavy rain, clouds and low temperatures is another frame in this slow-motion car crash of a season.

And yet the spread of the Silver-washed Fritillary into East Anglia appears to carry on unabated. A few pairs first appeared in 2009, a few more in 2010, and now they seem to be fairly regular in certain woods in west and east Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and Essex too. And, contra to how these things usually happen, their Suffolk stronghold seems to be a little wood, just ten minutes drive away…

Sun. Solid golden sun and a clear blue sky. Heat felt odd: odd enough to trick a few birds into singing again, late this Sunday afternoon. The path led up a long grassy slope (what’s known as a hill in Suffolk) behind the village of pink, picturesque cottages, tennis courts, and a church perched imperiously high above the rest. This is high Suffolk: the Suffolk as imagined by the city dweller. The Suffolk where comedian Mark Steel observed the local accent to be ‘well it was just a barn when we bought it’. Threading our way through a barley field we found the wood: at this time of the afternoon it was dark, densely shaded: an odd combination of oak and pine, and filled full of bramble. Ringlets, my first of the year, flitted through the bramble leaves, as dark as the shadows surrounding them. Speckled Wood were about too: a positive sign. Underfoot the rain had taken its toll, turning the path to a slippery bog from which baby frogs hopped into puddles, out of the way of stray feet. A Chiffchaff sung.

It’s exciting this: the discovery of a new place, twinned with the search for an exciting animal. And there is no doubt that this fritillary is an exciting animal. The biggest British fritillary by a centimetre may be one of the more common examples of its type, but it’s also eye-poppingly orange, with tiger stripes by the body and two rows of cheetah spots on the edges. This checkered orange and black pattern gives them the name – the same as the similarly marked plant family. I’d seen them before: Surrey, Northants, Hungary, and they hadn’t lost their wow factor after three iterations.

Our walk was more of a cautious stalk – each foot weighted regularly as our eyes darted wildly across the brambles, waiting for a powerfully flying flash of orange. The path widened out in the middle: bisecting the wood in a wide belt of mud and brambles. The sun still beat down strongly. A man’s head emerged from the undergrowth, peering intently through a camera at the brambles. A flash of searing orange above his head raised pulses – only for it to come from an incredibly fresh Comma. On the next tree along sat a White Admiral basking. In front of the next, a fritillary flew. A male. Brighter, it seemed, than the sun.

The next few hours were spent in front of these bramble bushes, with up to five fritillaries, three White Admirals, two Commas, plenty of commoner butterflies and a Common Hawker, absorbed in their movements and taking nearly two hundred photos. Butterflies are utterly captivating, and fritillaries are particularly diverting.

[The following photos were taken with a handheld 400mm zoom lens in harsh light conditions. The ISO level was high to compensate for light and shake, so the details are not as fine as they could've/should've been.]

Male Silver-washed Fritillary. Note the sex brands, which are the four thicker black lines on the forewings, that burst during courtship and 'shower the female in scent scales'*. It is also the only anatomical part of the butterfly (that I am aware of) to draw in unsuspecting google hits. The female, which I failed to photograph, lacks the sex brands, and has fewer stripes, more spots and is a slightly duller orange. [Update: Stephen Menzie has kindly let me use his photo of a female Silver-washed Fritillary to illustrate the difference. NB: this individual is of the argyrorrhytes subspecies.]
White Admiral. Admiral is a corruption of 'admirable' and not a comment on its seafaring abilities.

*See p.217 of The Butterflies of Britain and Ireland, by Jeremy Thomas and Richard Lewington for further information.


  1. Lovely post Steve, and interesting to hear about the spread of fritillaries in East Anglia. I discovered a few years ago that they visit my in-laws' small garden in Hampshire. Have spent some happy times watching them in the woods nearby, they're fantastic butterflies.

  2. Cheers Charlie, and thanks for the first ever comment on this blog. I can still remember being bowled over by my first fritillary. As Nabokov said 'Literature and butterflies are the sweetest passions known to man.'