Painted Lady crosses desert and sea to brighten Irish day

Another lovely day but here on the south coast we’ve also had the mixed blessing of sea mists and overcast when the rest of the country is toasting and mainland Europe is burning.

Painted Lady crosses desert and sea to brighten Irish day

Another lovely day but here on the south coast we’ve also had the mixed blessing of sea mists and overcast when the rest of the country is toasting and mainland Europe is burning.

Almost every day ends with glorious evenings, hours which one would like to preserve for ever, flooded with celestial light.

The sun is an ember hanging over the low hills at the end of the bay, painting the water all the colours of gold as it slowly descends, and still lighting the sky even after it’s gone.

It’s bright until 10.30pm.

It would seem a sin to sit indoors and watch the nine o’clock news — but just how long can one be abroad and active in the garden or on a walk?

To collapse into an armchair and see all things in the room around one take life from the sun in its death throes pouring through the west-facing windows is a bit like being in heaven, a preview, perhaps, for some, although for others an hour’s experience of somewhere they feel unlikely to ever reach.

Regarding the unfortunate southwest coast occlusion, walking is, in fact, more comfortable on overcast days.

Last Sunday was overcast and windy but the sudden sight of a Painted Lady butterfly hurtling over a high ditch and almost colliding with my chest made my day.

It was the strong south-easterlies that brought it, for me the first Painted Lady of the year.

When the wind blew from France it, and tens of thousands of companions, had taken to the air.

Some days or weeks earlier, it had reached France from Morocco after another wind had carried it over the desert slopes and dry peaks of the High Atlas mountains.

What a trip it had made, this small gossamer thing!

But they are not gossamer — the wings are strong as parchment, wings patterned in orange, red, black, and white when open, and grey and scrolled with lines and circles — another kind of nature’s artistry — when closed.

We hadn’t seen many (I almost said ‘any’) butterflies this year so far. Yes, Speckled Woods, in the garden and on the briar breaks of field edges, a few whites, a Red Admiral or two.

Red Admiral
Red Admiral

But, now, suddenly, there was a second Lady and, as we walked on, following this tractor path that ran between fields (we were lost) we saw more and more of the Moroccans and realised that this must have been the day of their coming, and they had chosen this sheltered, high-hedged path in which to roost and feed after their long journey.

Caught by stray gusts of the wind that had carried them to us, sometimes they whizzed past and around us as fast as bats.

Suddenly, they were everywhere, not in the dense migration we had seen on the glorious last day of May 2009 when I wrote “Clouds of butterflies and a haze of day-flying moths rose from beneath our feet as we walked the Seven Heads in West Cork”, but, again, they were so many and so invisible that one could almost trample them as they roosted with closed wings on warm rocks or roads or, in this case, on the warm, packed clay of the tractor tracks on either side of the grass strip along the centre of the lane.

Sometimes, we came upon them flying in the air above, males spiralling, pirouetting, and dancing around one another, already throwing pheromones to the wind in efforts to entice females: these “air combats” happen over mating territory but cease when they are sitting around the female with whom they’ll mate.

The influx in 2009 stripped the unshorn field on our boundary of ragwort and laid their eggs on the thistles and nettles.

After hatching and feeding, their caterpillars glued the leaves into pods from which, two weeks later, they would emerge to take flight on new-born wings.

Some of those hatched in Europe would return to Morocco: most would die in the European winter. Painted Ladys are wanderers.

They reach Iceland and are known as “Cosmopolitans” in North America.

Meanwhile, during the week, hardworking, adrenalin-fired neighbours took to the streets for a massive tarting up of this lovely seaside village.

My wife and I wielded paint brushes for a few hours.

Local weeds had manners put on them but, happily, the lovely flora of the old stone walls was largely preserved, and the local character retained.

All would agree that we do not want a dinky English Home Counties hamlet.

Now, isn’t it a disgrace that the Japanese are again going killing whales? If they want mammal meat, why don’t they import more Irish beef?

It would cost less than equipping whale boats and burning diesel!

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