It may seem rather eccentric to be writing about butterflies in mid January when rain and wind are lashing our countryside, and it never seems to get properly light at all. However, this is also the time when our WNS Recorders are busy analysing all the records sent in by members for 2007 ready for publication in our annual review, and the 4000 records of butterflies seen over the year reveal some very startling results.
Most people are familiar with the Red Admiral, a large handsome butterfly, its wings patterned in eye-catching black, red and white. In fact, it’s an immigrant, gradually making its way northward and generally arriving in Wharfedale later in the summer. It is often abundant as summer turns to autumn, feasting on fallen ripe fruit but does not over-winter here like the Peacock and the Small Tortoiseshell; it either dies of cold or begins to move south again. Or rather, it didn’t in the past. In 2007, there were six sightings of Red Admiral on the wing in January – the first as early as January 3rd in Ilkley. From then on, this reputedly fragile immigrant was seen in every month until a final record on 21st November.
How does it survive? The received wisdom among experts at present is that the Red Admiral may not have the capacity to hibernate. It can’t shut down its system to survive the cold thereby conserving energy to enable it to re-awaken as soon as the temperature rises. It’s only recourse is to find a sheltered spot to roost, and hope that there will be periods of warmth to enable it to fly in search of food and enough available flowers for energy boosting snacks. This is risky and uses a lot of energy. It is yet another indication of our warmer, briefer winters that it is happening at all.
Meanwhile, a Peacock butterfly was seen at Lindley Wood on 30th December 2007, having already survived the icy weather that characterised that month. Once the storms and rain have abated, you could encounter one anywhere. If you see an apparently black or very dark brown butterfly on the wing, try to follow it to a perch, where you will see that unmistakable peacock eyes staring up at you, such an excellent deterrent to would-be predators.
On a recent rather muddy walk in the Washburn recently, it was heartening to see that catkins are already clearly visible on hazel, alder and birch, and the fat charcoal black buds on the ash trees also confirm that spring is really coming!