Articles in ‘butterflies’

Early signs of spring in Barcelona

Written by Lucy Brzoska

The sound of serins pouring out their song means spring has arrived in Barcelona. This male was glowing from his tree top perch, almost as yellow as a canary, the serin’s close relative.

serin singing in Barcelona

In a corner of Montjuic’s botanical gardens, ruderal plants explode in flower: citadels of asphodel arise among lagoons of common borage.

flowers on montjuic

Montjuic’s cable cars are in motion, after their annual February check-up and clean, and long queues of tourists form again.  Starlings nest inside the metal towers, unbothered by the noise and moving machinery.

starling nesting in Montjuic cable car tower

In the few calcareous areas of Collserola, thyme flourishes, and when its first flowers appear in March, so does a diminutive blue butterfly. The Panoptes blue (Pseudophilotes panoptes), native to Iberia and north Africa, favours thyme as a food plant and source of nectar.

panoptes blue in Collserola

Blue in the shade

Written by Lucy Brzoska

By a riera in Montseny, Southern white admirals were flying, flickering past in black and white.  One settled in the shade, among nettles and brambles, and at this angle it turned deep blue, a colour it usually conceals.

southern white admiral (Limenitis reducta) turning blue

Overlooking the stream, there were glints of metallic turquoise as Beautiful demoiselles displayed.

beautiful demoiselle (Calopteryx virgo) in Montseny wings closedbeautiful demoiselle (Calopteryx virgo) on Montseny displaying

After a summer shower, rain drops and tiny tree frogs clustered on the waxy leaves of Montjuïc’s pond vegetation. One day I’ll find the elusive blue morph.

mediterranean tree frog on Montjuic after the rain

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.


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.


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.


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.

In the jungle – Mediterranean insects

Written by Lucy Brzoska

It’s the month of May and plants are fighting for space. In the dense, overgrown jungle roams a large yellow beast (well, 2-3 cm long). It has the silhouette of an anteater, except for those antennae sprouting out of the snout.  The Yellow Weevil eats plant matter with mouthparts at the end of its “nose”.  The length of the snout allows it to bore where other insects can’t reach.


Two Longhorned beetles mate, antennae mingling.  They look a bit like chamois, except their “horns” are flexible and longer than their own bodies.


Flowers are for eating – this pollen-consuming jewel beetle (Anthaxia hungarica) is attracted to Compositae . . . .


. . . . or for lurking in.  A napoleon crab spider, sprinkled with pollen, waits to ambush its prey.  It’s common to see the lifeless form of  a bee hanging from a flower, as the spider sucks it dry.  Sometimes the venom takes a while to work, and the spider clings on, going for a flight with its victim, not knowing where it will land.


The vibrancy of this Spotted Fritillary (Melitaea didyma) reminded me of a tiger. On this windless cloudy day, the butterfly remained motionless.


A walk on the edge: spring

Written by Lucy Brzoska

On the outskirts of Aiguafreda, the Cingles de Bertí loom up rather dauntingly, but the climb isn’t as bad as it looks, especially if you begin early in the day.  At the side of the track was a Dappled White, keeping perfectly still.  Its green underwing markings are like the mottled pattern of lichen on a rock.


There’s a short cut near the top cutting through dark damp woods where shadows are purple with liverwort.  Then abruptly you emerge, like a prisoner out of an escape tunnel, and look wonderingly over the top of the precipice at the flat table land.


Spring comes at full tilt with a range of sounds not heard since the previous year.  A cuckoo starts up from the valley below.  I can hear a flock of bee eaters somewhere over the fields.  A nightingale sings, still rather tentatively, from deep inside the evergreen oaks.  Then a Tawny owl starts hooting in the bright morning,  disconcertingly, like a clock striking thirteen.


Unusual sightings on Montjuic

Written by Lucy Brzoska

First thing in the morning, when it was still dark at street level, you could see the gulls overhead burnished with gold by the rising sun.  When I reached the Cami del Mar they were pristine white, soaring in an intensely blue sky.

The sun had cast a blinding sheen on the sea, where cargo ships threatened to combust.  The fierce light probed deep inside the crevices of the castle wall, revealing toasting Moorish geckos and Praying Mantis oothecas.  A Painted Lady opened its brand new wings, glinting with copper dust, oblivious to the biting wind on the other side of the castle.  Only a light breeze ruffled its silky fur.


More Black redstarts have been arriving: some were drinking from the leaking pipe, others perched on the Agave masts.  These vanished, to be replaced by something stockier, with long yellow legs.  I’ve never seen a Sparrowhawk on Montjuic before, the terrain of cliff-nesting Peregrine falcons and Kestrels.  Accompanied by attentive magpies, the small raptor changed perch, and then took off, a soaring silhouette over the yellow cranes in the port.


Further along, an even more unusual sighting.  A bird flew up to the castle in an unfamiliar series of shallow swoops.  Tawny stipples on the breast, a yellow base to the bill and wings edged with white spots – it was an Alpine Accentor down at sea level.  The last time I saw one was in the Pyrenees at about 2,000 metres.


Montjuic is a tempting stopover for birds on migration, a small green island on their coastal route, full of feeding opportunities.The records on this autumn show redwing, siskins, Meadow pipits, Song thrushes, Cirl buntings, Common redstarts, Tree pipits, Subalpine warblers, a hawfinch, skylark and the tail feather of a nightjar.

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).



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).


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.


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.


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.


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.


A walk in Montseny

Written by Lucy Brzoska

White tufts were floating up into the stratosphere.  It was liberation time for poplar wool, with clouds of the stuff trapped among the grass like studio mist.  It was also the time when flowers explode.  There were places where one species had rioted to the exclusion of all others.  A ditch in Campins was thickly covered in Tufted Vetch and above the field the slope was pink with Snapdragons.


Water was rushing down the varied slopes of Montseny.  Where the GR5 climbs out of Campins, streams were pouring into brimming irrigation tanks.  Swallows were bathing on the wing, skimming in and out of the water like stones, and then preening on the wire.  Buzzard calls were coming from the farmhouse roof: the Montseny starlings do a good impersonation.

The path takes you through endlessly changing habitats.  In the sheltered cork oak wood, it almost felt like summer, partly because of the steepness of the track.  Among the white rock roses, filaments glittered in the aromatic heat: the micro moths.  Hairstreaks (Callophrys rubi) blended with the leaves, both matt green.


The route levels off by open fields, heavily grazed by cows, who often plod along the track in search of more succulent fare. I noticed some austere purple stems among the pines.  Some were producing violet flowers, with the familiar orchid shape: it was the Violet Limodore or Violet Bird’s-nest Orchid, a chlorophyll-free saprophyte.


Among the pine needles were pure white Stars of Bethlehem, whose petals have cool green stripes underneath.  They’d survived the cows, though their leaves had been bitten off.  A froghopper was emerging from the safety of its blob of spit.


I tiptoed through the farmyard, vainly hoping not to wake up the guard dog, who bursts out of his wooden kennel en cue, like an enraged cuckoo in a clock.  The outraged snarls fading away, I found a meadow tangled up with a dizzy array of flowers: Tassle hyacinths, euphorbias, daisies, buttercups, plantains, vetch, more Stars of Bethlehem embedded deep down, Crimson Peas, poppies.

If you look closely at a flower in May, you’re almost bound to see a spider – dashing to the other side like a woodpecker round a tree trunk – or a technicolour beetle.  My guide to Montseny suggests this hairy individual, with its red and black stripes and turquoise head, is a Trichodes apiarius, or Bee beetle.  Its larvae prey on beehives, while the adult visits flowers in search of pollen and small insects.