Go where they please, please where they go

OVER the small stream that borders our garden, the last purple cascades of buddleia are still laden with butterflies.

OVER the small stream that borders our garden, the last purple cascades of buddleia are still laden with butterflies.

Almost all are tortoiseshells and red admirals.

Hummingbird hawkmoths hover the area — these daytime moths support themselves on a blur of wings as they insert long tongues deep into the hearts of the flowers.

Hummingbird hawkmoths spread from the Mediterranean to all parts of Europe in summer and even reach Iceland; a Reader’s Digest guide published in 1984 says only around 50 are reported in Britain each year — this is hard to believe as we have two or more in our garden most days, probing the inner recesses of our flowers. The species aren’t bee hawkmoths — I’ve had close-up views through binoculars and checked various books; binoculars provide a wonderful way of watching them when they’re high up.

Meanwhile, at the edge of the village, two buddleia bushes are alive or, as someone said, “crawling” with butterflies; there must be fifty on each shrub – all but one are small tortoiseshells. Some aspect of the location seems to make these buddleia tortoiseshell-specific, while our bush, three metres tall and more sheltered, has had troops of fritillaries, painted ladys, peacocks and red admirals; it also has large whites, beautiful creatures, if one can forgive the toll their caterpillars exact upon the brassicas.

I’m no gardener, but if the havoc these caterpillars have wreaked upon our nasturtiums is any indication of what they can do to wholesome cabbages, I can imagine an industrious gardener might weep: while the caterpillars have grown fat, the nasturtiums have become as holed and ragged as a beggar’s cast-offs; the flowers are still a vibrant orange and make a dramatic display, while some of the dark green leaves, almost as large as my hand, have turned a gorgeous yellow as they die; new leaves continue to open. Who knows if, this year, the nasturtiums will continue for weeks yet — we’re told spring has extended by twelve days and autumn has shortened by nine.

As we drive down leafy laneways at night, the darkness is filled with moths caught in the car headlights; arriving home, we see a dozen species on the window pane within minutes of turning on the light; they come in all shapes and sizes: some, like the garden tiger or rosy footman, are as brightly marked as the butterflies of day.

What’s the difference between moths and butterflies? Most moths rest with their wings spread flat and their upper side visible, while most butterflies rest with their wings closed so only their underside is seen; however, the best indicator is the antennae: all butterflies have little knobs at the tips whereas moths don’t, with the exception of cinnabars which have black wings with two scarlet spots on each and are seen fluttering weakly in meadows — they’re the progenitors of the black-and-amber caterpillars that feed on ragwort; if only we had a few thousand of them in the fields near our garden where ragwort has run riot and threatens to invade us.

These days, I never see ragwort swarming with caterpillars as I remember it in childhood — perhaps insecticide has decimated the cinnabars. While there may have been cause for the use of organic insecticide in controlling large whites, it is, unfortunately, indiscriminate and kills many useful species as well; similarly, crow and pigeon poison, which can be bought without licence; farmers spreading it to protect their crops should know it kills songbirds and game birds too.

There’s been more weird phenomena on the seashore: English visitors told me of “hundreds, possibly thousands” of small, pink starfish washed up alive on a storm beach, but when I went to look there was nary a one. What had happened? Had they stood up on their five little legs and hot-footed it back to the sea? Had gulls eaten them? I think not — a correspondent told me of watching a gull swallow a starfish on Dollymount Strand only to expel it in pieces seconds later; a painful passage one would imagine.

Meanwhile, an osprey, a magnificent sea hawk and rare bird in Ireland, was reported at Rineen, West Cork, by Jim Kennedy, proprietor of Atlantic Sea Kayaking. Jim’s familiar with the species, often seeing it when he takes groups on expeditions to Spain, Mexico and Croatia. This particular bird swooped from the trees on a large mullet, which it lifted from the water with consummate ease — birders flocked to the spot.

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Wednesday, March 3, 2021

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