The sun has burst through clouds and as the temperature immediately begins to rise by a few degrees, a jewel of a butterfly arrives and opens its wings. Its black wings are bordered by red and it is dazzlingly beautiful contrasting strongly against a pale flower. It is wary and flies off strongly before I can approach it closely. It was a fresh adult with no sign of wear and tear and it was the grand finale of a morning spent in pursuit of butterflies. The evasive butterfly was a Red Admiral.
I had spent over three pleasurable hours photographing butterflies, dragonflies, bumblebees and flowers in a little heavenly patch of wilderness. I was not anywhere exotic. I was in fact in the centre of one of the busiest cities in the world, in central London. Less than a hundred metres away from me a line of cars rumbled along Piccadilly, past Burlington House which houses the Linnean Society. The Linnean Society is famous for being where the two papers on the theory of Evolution by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace were first presented.
The society is named after the Swedish taxonomist Carl Linneaus who introduced the binomial system of classification. This seeming small change was a scientific revolution. Often, seemingly small changes can have a big impact. So it is with the little wild patches the management teams of London’s Parks have introduced over the years. I wish things could become more ambitious with acres of land in the large formal parks such as Regent’s Park being converted to woodland so that Londoners can enjoy wild woodlands more easily and in the centre of the capital. Even the tiny fragments of wild patches in Green Park have a dramatic impact. Suddenly it is possible to see some wonderful wildlife in the heart of the city. The week to follow would see a heatwave as warm air from the Sahara moved into Europe creating temperatures on continental Europe that were at record highs with Paris recording temperatures over 40 degrees Celsius. On the Sunday in July I was out in the park, temperatures were yet to hit the highest registered in London, but it was warm enough for a lot of activity by butterflies, bumblebees, bees, hoverflies and dragonflies.
Several whites were fluttering about Greater Knapweed with their beautiful red flowers with ray florets that extended on all sides. Small Whites sipped nectar moving from one flower to another in quick succession making it hard to track them. I eventually succeeded in taking some good pictures which helped me to identify one as a Small White rather than a Large White. In the field, sizes can be difficult to gauge. Therefore, I needed a photograph that showed the extent to which the black on the forewing tip extended down the outer wing margin (more technically the termen). In the Large White it extends further than in the Small White. An easier identification challenge was the Meadow Browns that were also active. This species together with the Gatekeeper is one of the two commonest butterflies in Britain. The Gatekeeper has more orange in the inner parts of its upperwings. Furthermore, the pale band on the underside of the hindwing is paler and has white spots. Every summer, I need to remind myself how to tell apart one from another. Butterfly watching is seasonal in countries at temperate or high latitudes and there is enough time in the intervening period between summers to forget details.
A beautiful Peacock Butterfly opened its wings to show its large eyes. A fascinating study that looked at Blue Tit predation on butterflies in a controlled environment showed that Peacocks suffer reduced predation because the large eyes they can suddenly reveal, startle predators. Hibernating Peacocks also rub the scales on their wings to make a hissing noise like a snake and emit ultrasonic clicks to drive away bats that may eat them or compete for hibernating sites. As beautiful as the Peacock was another butterfly; a Tortoiseshell which had also arrived to bask in the sun stole its thunder. Both of these are amazingly colourful butterflies which one would associate with the tropics rather than in one of the most populated cities in the northern hemisphere. Also present, in saffron with black markings and ragged edged wings was a Comma. Although they are fragile animals, the resident butterflies do not lay their eggs and die at the end of summer. All three of these butterflies hibernate during the winter in their adult form and in the following spring lay eggs to start a new generation of butterflies.
Not all of the common butterflies seen in London’s parks are resident breeders. The gorgeous Red Admiral I mentioned at the start, is a migrant butterfly. Each year, Red Admirals arrive in Britain from Southern Europe. The individual I saw may have been an immigrant from the Mediterranean. Or it may have been the offspring from an earlier wave of immigrants this summer. Later in the year, the Red Admirals that have been born in Britain leave again to Southern Europe. Next year, their offspring will return again to Britain and continue this amazing cycle of travel of successive generations between Britain and Southern Europe. Most people are aware that every year migrant birds arrive in Britain either to be summer breeders or in winter to escape the cold in more northern latitudes. But outside a circle of wildlife enthusiasts, most people I speak to are astonished to learn that the butterflies they consider native are migrant butterflies visiting Britain. However, increasingly more people are becoming aware of butterfly immigration to Britain. In the summer of 2019, which this article is based on, Britain was seeing a large influx of Painted Lady butterflies which breed in Northern Africa and Arabia on the edge of the desert. This story was big enough to make it the mainstream news on TV in Britain. Although the Painted Lady influx is felt mainly in the south coast of Britain, I was also looking out for any that had made it further north to London. The Painted Lady migrations can be enormous. Jeremy Thomas in his book writes that in the weekend of 23rd to 24th May 2009, 28 million butterflies were estimated to have arrived in Britain. As with the Red Admiral, later in the summer, adults that have hatched in Britain make the return journey to Africa for the cycle of life to resume the following year.
Black-tailed Skimmers were amongst the dragonflies also flying around. I photographed a male and female that had perched respectively on a discarded towel and a piece of paper. The choice of perch may have been determined by both objects warming more than the surrounding vegetation. Female dragonflies are usually difficult to identify. However, the female Black-tailed Skimmer is easy to identify with a black ‘ladder’ pattern on its abdomen. The tiny patch of wild flower meadow in Green Park was buzzing with life. Another buzz and whirr on my smartphone alerted me it was time to leave and join my wife who had arrived to join me for a coffee in a nearby café.
The Butterflies of Britain and Ireland written by Jeremy Thomas and illustrated by Richard Lewington is one of the finest butterfly books I have ever seen. The essays on each butterfly are beautifully written in an accessible style bringing together a rich and varied tapestry of information based on scientific field work. The illustrations by Richard Lewington, one of the best wildlife artists in the world, are stunning. The book was originally published by British Wildlife Publishing who also publish the natural history magazine British Wildlife six times a year. This occupies a space between popular magazines and scientific journals and the relatively modest subscription is worth it for anyone wishing to deepen their interest in British natural history.
The Butterflies of Britain and Europe: A Field and Site Guide by Michael Easterbrook published by A & C Black is richly illustrated with large photographs and is an excellent reference for resolving tricky identification issues. It also contains a wealth of information.
For something that is very portable (and very affordable), Ted Benton’s Naturalist’s Guide to the Butterflies of Britain and Northern Europe published by John Beaufoy Publishing is a lightweight, well written and well-illustrated pocket photographic guide which provides near complete coverage in 14 European countries plus Northern France.
One of the best ways to see and learn about butterflies is to join the field meetings organised by one of the many groups in London (and all over Britain) that organise free guided walks. The leaders and participants in these walks are a fantastic resource to learn from and are very welcoming to beginners. A few of the central London-centric groups are: London Natural History Society, Marylebone Birdwatching Society and RSPB Central London Local Group.