Friday, 2 August 2013

Gatekeepers Rule But Emperors Rock

This (below) is one of my most important butterfly transects. One of the purposes of the national butterfly survey (STERF) run by the Museum national d'Histoire naturelle in Paris is to monitor the state of butterfly populations in cultivated land. This transect is a track between two fields, this year planted with barley and sunflowers. The butterflies aren't very interested in either of the crops. What is important for them is the pair of wildflower rich ditches and the grassy track which separate the fields and leads to an area of forest. So this is a rather rich transect, full of grassland butterflies in the summer. I have other transects bounded by crops which do not have such good field margins, and the constrastingly low numbers of butterflies recorded from these transects is obvious. The tendency with modern farming is for more and more land to go under the plough and for crop margins to become narrower and narrower. As their habitat reduces the numbers of grassland butterflies has plummeted, many species by as much as 70% in the last decade. Butterflies are being starved out of existence in some places.
I am very pleased indeed, however, to report that after the most dismal start ever to the butterfly surveying year, at last we have butterflies in good numbers. Some species even appear to be having an exceptionally good year after all, but there are still some strange absences. Gatekeepers Pyronia tithonus are so prolific I had real difficulty counting them properly, I've seen more of the rare and protected Large Blue Maculinea arion than I've ever seen before and the cheeky Large Skippers Ochlodes venutus are flitting about everywhere.

Marbled Fritillary Brenthis daphne, nectaring on some brambles, and if female, no doubt she's laid a few eggs as well, since the caterpillars eat bramble leaves.
On the other hand, I have recorded almost no other sorts of skippers, nor Small Heaths Coenonympha pamphilus, which should be so common you are disturbing them with every footstep through the grass. Half the fritillary species are missing, with virtually no Knapweeds Cinclidia phoebe, no records at all of Glanvilles Melitaea cinxia or Heaths Mellicta athalia and only a few early season records of Violets Clossiana dia. However, the lovely Marbled Fritillary is having a good year and I have recorded it on several transects. The Adonis Blues Polyommatus bellargus seem to be absent at the moment (like the Violet Fritillaries they were present earlier in the season), but Common P. icarus and Provencal Short-tail Everes alcetas numbers are building up.

I recorded 196 Gatekeepers over 10 transects in late July, and this pair are clearly intent on making more! I have a feeling they are going to oust the ubiquitous and usually abundant Meadow Browns Maniola jurtina from the top spot as France's most common butterfly this year.
The star butterfly! This (below) is a female Purple Emperor Apatura iris, come down from the treetops to imbibe minerals in a slight damp patch on a track. They are not rare but localised and hard to see. I had got in the car after finishing a set of transects which are close together and was just about to drive off when I noticed a large butterfly on the ground. That's one of the things you really notice about them -- they are large (for a European butterfly -- all you Australians with Orchard Swallowtails Papilio aegeus in your backyard can stop scoffing...). The Purple Emperor's wingspan is about 40mm, so they are about the same size as the Silver-washed Fritillary Argynnis paphia and their behaviour and appearance is distinctive. The males are the most amazing irridescent purply blue, but even the females have a silky lustre that is something special. This time I was really lucky with the photographic background, as they may be beautiful, but they have rather low habits. They don't care what the source of the mineral salts is, and are most often observed sitting on a pile of dog poo.
I was equally pleased to see a number of Large Blue females ovipositing on Wild Oregano Oreganum vulgare flower buds at another of my transects. This transect is a well managed stretch of rural roadside, extremely botanically rich, and hopefully the host ants the Large Blues require for their remarkable life cycle are also present.
A la cuisine hier: The liqueur de noix has reached the 'you have got to be joking!' stage, as Simon pointed out to me yesterday. It looks like a batch of primordial soup, just waiting for a lightning strike to kick start life on earth. I now have two batches on the go, due to additional walnuts kindly provided by Antoinette. They seemed to be a particularly lively lot, hurtling all over the kitchen in a bid for freedom as I chopped them open, and I have combined them with red wine, sugar and spices to make the cheaper and less alcoholic version, vin de noix.

The windfall apples have been boiled up and are being strained through the jelly bag to make pectin for next year's jam. It keeps well in the freezer.

Over the past 3 days I have scrubbed the terracotta tile kitchen floor and reapplied the colour reviver and hydrofuge/oleofuge products. Water had stopped beading on the surface, so it was time. I did each stage on successive evenings so it had overnight to dry each time.


ladybird said...

You are a busy bee! Look forward to tasting some of that 'Vin de noix', hopefully next year?! Martine

Sheila said...

Ever thought of trying to obtain a
colony of the ants which support
the Large Blues for the orchard?
Growing the wild oregano would be
a cinch I suspect.

Susan said...

Martine: I'd leave tasting the vin de noix another year if I were you -- if it's anything like the last lot, it takes 2 years to be useable and 3 to be drinkable.

Sheila: in fact it is the oregano I'm missing from the orchard grass, not the ants. I've been waiting to see if it appears naturally, because it was only the other side of the stream, but so far no luck. I may have to do a transplant.

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