Zooming in on butterflies: mating

Written by Lucy Brzoska

The female Cleopatra perched immobile on a sprig of rosemary, while the male hovered in close attendance. In courtship the male’s movements were less erratic than usual, and the orange glow on the forewing, which flashes so beguilingly in early spring sunshine, was captured.

male cleopatra butterfly (Gonepteryx cleopatra) upperwing

The female Brimstone was in the middle of the path, abdomen tilted upwards.  A sign of sexual receptivity?  On the contrary: it was a strong negative message for the sulphurous suitor trotting hopefully around her flattened wings. No doubt another male had got there first.

brimstone butterflies (Gonepteryx rhamni) mating and wing-walking

At last, love consummated. The two Common blues in the grass were locked in a lengthy back-to-back union. Even when disturbed, they flew off fused together.

mating common blues (Polyommatus icarus) fused together

The Plain Tiger (Danaus chrysippus) in Barcelona

 

Written by Lucy Brzoska

I half-glanced at the orange butterfly, expecting to see a Wall (Lasiommata megera), an abundant species on Montjuic. After a double-take, I realised it was something else altogether. Having looked wistfully at so many photographs of this species, recognition was instant. I was moving carefully forward with the camera, when a jogger pounded past, and the Plain Tiger was gone.

But a quick scramble up the slope, behind a bush of broom, revealed large clusters of Coronilla de Fraile (“Friar’s pate” – Globularia alypum), and there, feeding calmly, were three Plain Tigers.

D. chrysippus is an extremely common butterfly species in Africa and Asia, but a recent arrival in Iberia. A strong migrator, after emerging, each generation moves on.  Well-established in Andalucia, they have been recorded all along the Mediterranean coast as far north as Roses on the Costa Brava. JM Sesma of Biodiversidad Virtual suggests the ones I saw were the progeny of Tigers recorded in the Delta del Ebro two months previously.

The Plain Tiger is a cooperative butterfly to photograph.  Rather than erratic flight, or camouflage, it protects itself by toxicity, so readily displays its colours to potential  predators. The Tiger’s wings, with a range of tones – from orange to russet and brown – sharply outlined in black, are beautiful, but best of all, in my opinion, is the body and head, covered in striking white polka dots.  The males are distinguished by a prominent white spot on the  hind underwing, edged in black, which is a concentration of scent scales used for mating.

Interestingly, the spread of D. Chrysippus in Iberia has been abetted by the widespread invasion of a garden escapee, Gomphocarpus fruticosus, a member of the Milkweed family.  Danaid caterpillars feed on Milkweed plants, storing up the toxic alkaloids from their milky sap, enough to make an unwary predator vomit.

 

Close encounter with Charaxes jasius: the Two-tailed Pasha

Written by Lucy Brzoska

You don’t have to look for Two-tailed Pashas, they will find you.  A friend had described the exact scene of a very close encounter with this sultan of butterflies last year.  It was now late August, the heat had abated slightly, so I headed straight there.

A tiny Praying mantis was a distraction on the way, sitting on top of a seeding Matabou umbel.

praying-mantis-nymph-sitting-on-shrubby-hares-ear-near-barcelona

When I reached the remote, unvisited location, deep within Collserola, nothing stirred except for a boar, who was trundling through the bushes, before emerging to cross the track and disappearing into an overgrown gully.  The habitat was perfect: shrubby open woodland on a high ridge, with lots of strawberry trees (Arbutus unedo – the Pasha’s food plant), so I decided to sit down, eat some breakfast and see what turned up.

Within minutes I’d been spotted.  The Pasha flew fast around my head, inspected the camera on my lap, and then stuck its proboscis into my sandwich.  It was immediately whipped out again, as if in distaste – uggh! So where’s my rum-soaked rotten banana?

The butterfly then flew up to its vantage point high up in a pine tree, where it remained a while, until giving chase to another Pasha. The rival had staked out an adjoining territory, which it surveyed from a small oak tree.

two-tailed-pasha-charaxes-jasius-guarding-its-territory

It sallied down to some faeces in a holly oak bush. It ignored me, absorbed in feeding, using a startlingly red proboscis, which I’ve never seen before (aren’t they usually black?). The beautiful tapestry of the underwings countered the pong of the food matter.

two-tailed-pasha-feeding-on-faeces-with-a-big-red-proboscis

Still trespassing, I was subjected to another prolonged attack. Intensely beating butterfly wings can only tickle, but the determination with which the Pasha repeatedly charged towards me made me want to duck. Then it started sucking at the sweat on my arm, and sat on my shoulder for a while.  Who cared where it might’ve perched before.

Their fearless nature and love of alcohol can get the Two-tailed Pashas into trouble.  A video on Youtube shot by a holidaymaker somewhere on the Med shows one drinking spilt beer on the table, and then falling to the ground when attempting to fly.

Walking on the edge

Written by Lucy Brzoska

Stepping off the Barcelona train in Sant Marti de Centelles, you can smell grass and hear House martin chatter.  If you’ve just escaped the coastal fug, you breathe in the summer morning freshness with relief.

In the woods outside the village the cicadas were still asleep and it felt almost spring-like.  Back in May these woods were starred with Junquillo Falso  (Aphyllanthes monspeliensis).  Now the long grass is full of Scabious and a leggy indigo flower – Cupid’s Dart (Catananche caerulea).

cupids-dart-in-july-catananche-caerulea

cupids-dart-flower-catananche-caerulea

Common centaury and oregano cluster about, and the air ripples with butterflies.  All day long, every step would disturb clouds of butterflies. Among the Marbled Whites and Ilex Hairstreaks were Provence Chalk-hill Blues (Polyommatus hispana).

provence-chalk-hill-blue-polyommatus-hispana-in-spain

The easiest way to breach the cinglera is by the looping dusty track from Sant Marti. As you climb you hear the ravens in constant communication, a mix of low gravelly calls and high-pitched trumpeting, and best of all, the bill knocking.

Cingle means precipice in Catalan, and the Cingles de Berti are a long rippling cliff along one side of the Congost Valley.  The slopes are steep and wooded, with layers of bare rock, where a large raven colony is currently roosting.

catalan-landscapes-wooded-slopes-of-cingles-de-berti

The slopes come to an abrupt halt on table-top flatlands, where swallows were skimming over stubbly fields. The rocky edge, gilded with stone crop, is partially hidden by a strip of woodland scrub.  Paths bring you out onto unexpected balconies, where the land falls away to unfettered views of Montseny on the other side of the valley, and the Pyrenees if the day’s clear.

Large dark brown butterflies were patrolling the path: Great Banded Graylings (Brintesia circe).  They were particularly drawn to the Lesser Burdock, nectaring at the thistle-like flowers or sucking the sap. If you dawdled on the overgrown path, the Greylings would treat you as a convenient perch.

great-banded-grayling-brintesia-circe-on-lesser-burdock

There was a moment of drama near the small reservoir.  A very large butterfly rushed at me from a tree.  After two intense fluttering attacks, targetting the back of my head, it returned to its high perch.  Though all over in a flash, I’m pretty sure the ambush had been staged by a Camberwell Beauty.

Red-veined Darters were flying in red and gold tandem.  Little Grebes ululated from the reeds and laughter and screams drifted over from the nearby farmhouse – the sounds of an open air swimming pool on a summer’s day.

I found the path that turns through the holm oaks onto a secluded balcony, directly opposite Tagamanent and other Montseny landmarks. Dragonflies were hunting at the edge of the precipice.  A Black-tailed Skimmer gorged on a large fly. A kestrel floated past, escorted by House martins.  The wild call of buzzards resonated, as two flew in unison. Swifts were flying overhead on a clear path south, leaving us already.

In a recent conversation, looking under rocks had been advocated, so out in a clearing I lifted one at random.  It was quite heavy and I had to put it down almost immediately.  The image of a pale scorpion lingered though, flat as a zodiac symbol.  Back among the butterflies, I found a small Pearly Heath (Coenonympha arcania), with a sparse clarity to its ocelli and a silvery edge to its underwings.

pearly-heath-butterfly-coenonympha-arcania-in-july

I stopped to watch the ravens before going back downhill.  They were gathering in numbers, diving and swerving, and best of all, flipping onto their backs.  I saw them assembling by the antennae for a preliminary swirl – a warm up for the major swarm before twilight.

ravens-corvus-corax-swarming-on-cingles-de-berti

Butterflies out of hibernation

Written by Lucy Brzoska

The woods in Montseny are at their brightest in late March.  They’ve still to grow a roof, and the light pours down.  We’d wandered off the track, picking a way over rocks buried in last year’s leaves, and sat down among dazzling celandines, next to a stream turned into a torrent by melting snow from Turó de l’Home.

Stephanie had just poured us tea, when a shadow came fluttering, and something settled behind me.  Looking round, I was amazed to see a Camberwell Beauty sitting by my elbow.  I took a photograph, trying to move as little as possible, which explains the strange angle.

camberwell-beauty-nymphalis-antiopa-out-of-hibernation

After a winter of hibernation, the rich mahogany wings were threadbare, like old velvet curtains.  The pale yellow border looked like fragile parchment.  The blue spots, which can be an intense indigo, had also faded.  But despite this, it was a magnificent sight in the woods, still only on the verge of spring.

Underneath the wings are dark brown with a pale edge, which helps with identification when the butterfly is flying high in the tree tops.

camberwell-beauty-nymphalis-antiopa-underwing

And then there were four of us: another Camberwell Beauty had arrived and was perched next to us on a branch.  The two noticed each other, and went whirling off together.

That day the sun roused many butterflies out into the open.  Brimstones were nectaring on dandelions – they had thousands to chose from. A missing piece from its wing couldn’t detract from this stunning Peacock feasting on catkins.

peacock-butterfly-inachis-io-out-of-hibernation

Midday with damselflies

Written by Lucy Brzoska

The plan was to walk along the small river that comes down from Montseny to Aiguafreda, marked on the map as the Riera de Pujol. It was a bit disconcerting to find a bone-dry river bed, but a few shallow puddles on the outskirts of Aiguafreda encouraged me to keep walking.A kingfisher hunting by a small dam was an even more hopeful sign.

The sporadic pools were linking up.A waterfall crashed down, where a man stood immersed up to his chin, eyes closed, exulting in the cold water.Up on the dusty track, the sun was scorching hot. Two women from the fire-prevention squad had parked their jeep and were refilling water bottles at the spring. I followed a path that dipped steeply under the trees.

It was like stepping into a church.  At the end of the vault of trees there was a flat gravelly bank.Beyond that point the river deepened and levelled off, and the water grew still.On one side were smooth grey rocks, where a dipper had been perching, and the other bank was a tangle of vegetation in full blast of the sun.Boots flung off, I cooled down in the shade, and observed the scene.

There was a general commotion: iridescent damselflies flashed turquoise, clusters of butterflies fed, mated and basked, quantities of spindly water striders littered the water and light dappled on every surface.As usual when you sit in one spot for long, dimensions began shifting.Soon I was looking at a vast wilderness river, flowing by sheer grey cliffs and impenetrable jungle.Then I’d wade out into the canyon and, with water just above my knees, the world would shrink again.

The sunny bank was bustling with butterflies.Dusty pink Hemp-agrimony and a large dome of Wild Angelica were the most popular attractions, attended by a constant crowd of Silver-washed Fritillaries (Argynnis paphia).Any butterfly that fell into the water soon disappeared under wiry clumps of striders.

silver-washed-fritillaries

Most beguiling of all were the Beautiful Demoiselles (Calopteryx virgo), whose name goes straight to the point. The males would display their wings in a flash of dark blue silk, like peacocks.

calopteryx-virgo-beautiful-demoiselle

The females are very metallic, a white spot on each of their four bronze wings, their abdomens a coppery green.

female-beautiful-demoiselle-calopteryx-virgo

An impish damselfly perched on a twig, as if flown straight out of Dr. Caligari’s cabinet. Though in silhouette, the dark band of its narrow wings revealed it to be a female Copper Demoiselle (Calopteryx haemorrhoidalis).

female-copper-demoiselle

Engrossed in damselflies,  legs pleasantly chilled, a sharp pain made me look down.The mob of water striders were honing in for a nibble.

I retreated to the cool gravelly bank and lay listening to the water tumbling over rocks to fill the canyon.  A waspish Large Pincertail (Onychogomphus uncatus – see Forum) settled on a stone. The dipper returned, flying low up-river.From this angle its white breast looked enormous.A Silver-washed Fritillary floated down like an autumn leaf.Occasionally a gust of wind would come up the valley, roaring in the tree tops, making the branches creak.It was a reminder of the hot world out there.It felt good down in the cool green vault.

silver-washed-fritillary-argynnis-paphia

I began to hear the sound of car doors slamming – post-siesta people coming to stock up with spring water.I walked up-river for a while, rock-hopping, and surprised a sparrowhawk who’d also been quiet down under the trees.

 


Picnic on Santa Fe

The road up to Santa Fe is one of countless twists.  You climb, swinging to the right and the left, until finally you take another turn and find you’ve left the Mediterranean behind.  It was intoxicating to be out of the coastal heat and in an under-canopy world of streams, fungus, and beetles that glow like sapphires.

We’d planned a short walk to a rocky outcrop known as the “Empedrat de Morou”, a good place for lunch.  But an hour later, we were still within a stone’s throw of the visitors’ centre.  It’s what happens when coastal urbanites are let lose in a completely diferent habitat.

chafer-beetle-hoplia-caerulea

hoplia-caerulea

Chafer beetles (Hoplia caerulea) were scattered in profusion near the stream, shining in the deep deciduous shade.  We watched them stretch their limbs and use their hooked extremities to negotiate the leaves.  Then there was the enticing pool by the tree roots, where tadpoles lurked, legs sticking out at right angles (identification pending). But by the time the Camberwell Beauty flew past, pursuit would’ve been stretching patience.  On we went, towards lunch on the Empedrat de Morou.

The route took us through coppiced chestnuts and into the solemn beech wood, among large granite boulders.  But clearings were frequent and all had butterfly activity, to the consternation of those with growing hunger pangs.  A Comma (Polygonia c-album) was chased away to thwart more photography sessions.  Then a stunning Queen of Spain Fritillary (Issoria lathonia) settled on the track, marked like a cheetah above, and  with large silvery spots below.

queen-of-spain-fritillary

Despite gnawing hunger, it was worth holding out to the Empedrat de Morou. The rocks are smooth, the view inspiring, and there were even chives growing in the cracks, for forager Nick to spice up his sandwiches.  Other fissures were filled with white flowering stonecrop, possibly Sedum hirsutum.  While eating you could look over the Santa Fe valley at the Turo del’Home, partially hidden in the clouds.

reading-on-the-empedrat-de-morou

The mist suddenly went roaming and came swirling around us, so we ducked down into the woods again.  Although the trail was simple, we managed to lose it, and for a while were plunging ankle-deep in beech leaves and marshy soil.  All kinds of fungus had emerged after last week’s rain, with thick white stems and caps like freshly baked bread.

We hit solid ground again near the small reservoir, which used to provide electricity for the Santa Fe hotel.  There were Heath spotted orchids (Dactylorhiza maculata) and wild strawberries by the path. We went past a stream where water slid over the rocks in a succession of pools and waterfalls – an otter’s playgound.  Monica did some sliding too, but luckily had dry clothes to get changed into.

stream-in-montseny

On the way down, back to the coast, we pulled over for a while and walked about in the warm light mist.  Vapours were pouring up the slope, like smoke out of a chimney. The roadsides were filled with colour: Nettle-leaved bellflowers (Campanula trachelium), Yarrow (Achillea millefoium), and vivid Pinks (Dianthus seguieri) and Violets (Viola bubanii). The last moments of calm were savoured before going home.

dianthus-seguieriviola-bubanii

Evening butterflies

Written by Lucy Brzoska

Swatting off scarlet and black mylabris beetles, I walked down to the horse paddocks.  Summer’s hit us like a sledgehammer, and mornings have been too hot to go out and look for butterflies (or anything).   In the mellow evening sun, among olive and carob trees, I looked around to see what was about.  Behind me, horses snorted and a Golden Oriole was calling.

Most of the scabious has gone to seed already, and the only flowers were thistles and stonecrop.  A Common Blue perched on a dried flower head, slowly turning in a semi-circle, as if to make sure all sections of the audience got a full view of its violet shimmer.

common-blue-polyommatus-icarus

No sooner had the Common Blue flown, its place was immediately taken by a Long-tailed Blue.  It shifted its wings, but kept them closed, a beige slip of a butterfly.  In no hurry to move, it let me get close and see the “face” in the corner – the imitation antenna and eye spots.

longtailed-blue-lampides-boeticus

When I got too close for comfort and the Long-tailed Blue moved on, I noticed something magnificent further up the slope, motionless on a wild carrot flower.  I approached carefully, commando-style.  After staring so long at the diminutive Longtailed Blue, the sheer size of the Swallowtail, boldly outlined in black, was impressive.  Its abdomen hung down like a paper lantern.

swallowtail-papilio-machaon

One of the benefits of hunkering down quietly in the grass for ages is that you pass unnoticed.  Over in the horse paddock, I watched a rabbit stop to scratch its back.  It lost patience and rolled over to rub the elusive spot, legs in the air.  All around sparrows were taking dust baths.  The rabbit suddenly detected my presence and froze, white tum stretched out, before bounding off into the trees.

Collserola: maquia ignites

Written by Lucy Brzoska

There’s a moment in every good firework display when, after a steady build-up, all the remaining ammunition gets simultaneously used up in a single relentless climax, leaving spectators gaping in awe.  That’s what’s happening on Collserola’s hill-sides at the moment.

From a distance you can already see the golden broom lighting up the slopes – Thorny (Calicotome spinosa) and Spanish (Spartium junceum). Honeysuckle (Lonicera implexa) weaves into the sky, inflated pink tentacles turning into white flowers. Lavender petals crinkle like crepe paper flames.  Rock roses fire off flowers faster than the fragile petals are shed.


All this exuberance has shrunk the paths and you brush your way through, smothered in fragrance and pollen.  A Southern white admiral (Limenitis reducta) was resting in the shade.  Like a magpie, it looks black and white in flight, but, depending on the light, can suddenly turn deep blue.

Painted Ladies streamed up the hill, as well as Marsh Fritillaries (Euphydryas aurinia), whose markings seem drawn by hand.

All this splendour has a soundtrack of nightingales, singing their extensive repertoire.  They stay undercover but don’t object if you stand near by and listen.

Collserola: guided walks

Sol y Sombra: Easter Monday in Collserola

Written by Lucy Brzoska

In summer this small stony field overlooking the valley of Sant Just turns into a fennel jungle.  In spring it’s a magic carpet of Sweet alyssum and Field marigolds, with scarlet poppies woven in. There’s a zest of fresh fennel as new sprigs sprout among the brittle sticks of last year’s crop.  Painted Ladies (Vanessa cardui) spread their wings on the flowers, as flat as mortarboards.

On the grassy slopes nearby, light is glancing off the Cleopatra butterflies (Gonepteryx cleopatra) that float among the Crimson peas.  I always hope that one will open up while feeding.  They never do, of course, but on this sunny April day the male’s orange blush is visible through translucent wings.

Grey-leaved cistus is in flower everywhere, liberally scattering pink petals. Lavender is blooming alongside the thyme.  Appropriately for Easter Monday, I find a Tassle Hyacinth (Muscari comosum).  They’re known as Nazarenos in Spanish, named after the cone-headed penitents that march in Easter processions, often in sombre purple gowns.

Down a narrow shady path, periwinkles star the ground, filling every available space. Common Smilax has shiny new leaves and fresh tentacles, itching to cling.  Glossy pale green leaves of Black spleenwort (Asplenium adiantum-nigram) loom out of the shadows.  A wren scolds loudly, despite a beakful of nesting material.

Collserola: guided walks