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Butterflies and moths

Now that summer is here (allegedly!), the spring-flying  butterflies are all but over, so species such as Orange-tip, Dingy Skipper and the first generation of the “Whites”, Green-veined White, Small White and Large White, are now rarely seen. The overwintering species such as Peacock and Small Tortoiseshell will have now bred and the summer generation will soon be on the wing. .First generation Walls are also nearly over, the second generation appearing in August and September.

Although this spring was rather cold and wet, surprisingly, Dingy Skippers were seen slightly earlier than in previous years, with the first sighting on the 15th May.  An initial look at the butterfly survey counts suggests that numbers have been slightly down on last year but the good news is that individuals seem to be popping-up in areas at Watchtree away from their “traditional” sites.  Hopefully this is a sign that they are spreading.  One of the best places to see this rare species is along the northern perimeter cycle track.  Often overlooked as a small, day-flying brown moth, look out for them sunning themselves on the patches of old concrete runway or fluttering around the yellow Bird’s-foot Trefoil, but be careful not to tread on the plant as this is where the eggs are laid, the caterpillars feed and where they hibernate before emerging the following spring.

It is now time for the summer species to make an appearance.  Large Skipper, Common Blue, Meadow Brown and Ringlet are now on the wing, and in a couple of weeks, the first Small Skippers should be flying.  All these species can be seen in the grassy areas but one of the best places to see all these species together in on the northern perimeter cycle track, which is turning out to be one of the most diverse, species-rich habitats we have at Watchtree.  Look out for the jewel-like flash of blue as the male Common Blues patrol the grassy areas.  The females are a duller blue-brown and much more easily overlooked.

There have been a few Painted Lady sightings over the last few weeks.  This species is a long-distance migrant which heads north from the Middle East and North Africa.  In some years there are massive influxes to the UK, and many thousands per hour can be seen passing through an area, often along the coast or over higher ground as they “hill-top”,  a spectacular sight if you are lucky enough to witness this. The last migration on this scale was in 2009, and is considered to have been one of the greatest ever recorded.

The cold and wet spring means that moth trapping this year has been very poor, not just at Watchtree, but seemingly across Cumbria and over the UK as a whole, so there has been little of interest to report.  So far, there has only been one new species discovered at Watchtree, two sightings of Orange Underwing, a spring-flying species which is usually spotted zipping around high up in Birch trees.  Unfortunately, the second sighting of this new Watchtree moth ended badly when it was seen being taken by a Willow Warbler!  The only other exciting moth news is that we now have a very healthy population of Small Yellow Underwing moths,a tiny species not much bigger than a house fly.

This is a day-flying moth which can be spotted fluttering around species-rich grasslands where there is an abundance of Mouse-ear.  At the moment we only have one location for this moth, but in a small strip of meadow no more than 30m x 4m we recently counted a minimum of 15 of these lovely little moths.  Watchtree now holds the only records of this species in north Cumbria since 1970.

There are some day-flying moths now on the wing.  Latticed Heath is a relatively abundant species at Watchtree.  This lovely moth with a delicate latticed pattern to its wings can be seen in the drier grassy areas, and again, one of the best places to see it is on the northern perimeter cycle track.  The more spectacular Six-spot Burnets will be on flying any day now, although a little later than previous years, with their jewel like metallic dark green forewings with bright red spots and bright red hindwings.  There are also a few Narrow-bordered Five-spot Burnets at Watchtree which are similar in appearance, but obviously one spot less per wing as the name suggests!  The spectacular Cinnabar moths is also to be found, usually around areas where there is ragwort, the food plant of their caterpillars. The red and black markings of the adults are a warning to birds that the moths are unpalatable, having assimilated toxins from the food plant as caterpillars.

Dr Liz Still