Autumn Butterflies

Small Tort (Andrew Lawson)

The school holidays are over, the harvest is in (or underway) and Swallows are gathering on the telephone lines. Summer is at an end, but that doesn’t mean an end to watching, recording and enjoying butterflies.

Many UK butterfly species continue to fly through September and beyond and, with few wildflowers in bloom at this time of year, butterflies are more likely to visit gardens for that vital drink of nectar. 

Some, such as the Small Tortoiseshell, which seems to be more numerous at the moment than at any time this year, are focussed on building up their fat reserves in preparation for the long hibernation through to next spring. An amazing count of 339 Small Tortoiseshells feasting on thistle and water mint flowers was made at a Somerset nature reserve at the beginning of the month, and many people have spotted smaller Red Admiralnumbers on garden buddleias in recent days. Red Admirals are much in evidence too, often on the same flowers, hurriedly feeding up either for their southerly migration or for the dark days of a British winter. In contrast, many Peacocks have already entered hibernation, despite the long-days and warm weather of late August.

Remarkably scarce in the first half of 2016, the common whites, Large White, Small White and Green-veined White, increased dramatically in numbers during the summer and seem to be everywhere at the moment, on garden blooms, along roadsides and in the countryside. They are still in breeding mode and time is of the essence as it is their offspring that, as pupae, will face the coming winter. 

Speckled Wood (BOB Eade)The regular cycle of generations continues for many other species too. Speckled Woods, which seemed to be in short supply earlier in the summer, have emerged in abundance in many areas in the last week or two. It was comfortably the most abundant butterfly I saw along the Cornish hedgerows and headlands during a week’s holiday at the end of August. Although they don’t generally visit flowers, gardens can be good Speckled Wood habitat, resembling the warm woodland glades that are their natural haunts. If you have a patch of long grass, then you may even have September Speckled Woods breeding in your garden, as their caterpillars feed on common grasses such as Cock’s-foot and Yorkshire-fog.

Out in the countryside, Common Blue and Small Copper are on the wing (in the south at least) and both in better numbers than has been seen all year. Small Copper, in particular, has been very poor this year, not surprising really after its worst year on record in 2015, but many observers have noted a welcome upturn in its numbers in recent days. Common migrants such as Painted Lady and Clouded Yellow also seem to be a peak numbers at the moment after a nondescript year so far. 

With many gardens busier with butterflies now than they were earlier in the year and with Big Butterfly Count finished for 2016, it’s a great time to sign up for our Garden Butterfly Survey. You can record the butterflies that visit your garden throughout the year and it’s easy to report your sightings regularly. Whether you are already a Butterfly Conservation member or not, you can create your free Garden Butterfly Survey account at www.gardenbutterflysurvey.org. Once that’s done, you can then submit your sightings and help us learn more about how butterflies are faring in UK gardens this autumn and beyond.

Richard Fox

Head Of Recording

Follow me on Twitter: @RichardFoxBC