Late spring and early summer has always been a busy time for me and this year has been no difference. I’ve been guiding many visiting birders as well as doing a variety of bird surveys. The survey work has brought to places that I wouldn’t normally spend time birding. It has also led to what could best be described as a considerable conversion…
Let me place my cards on the table: I am a birder. However, I do also have a wide interest in the natural world and, among the things I have always had a keen interest in, are Irish butterflies.
In my book, Don’t Die in Autumn, I spoke about the difference between people who looks at birds when they are out and those who go out to look for birds. When in comes to butterflies, I was one of those people who looked at butterflies when I was out birding. I have never really gone too far out of my way to see them.
Having said that, I have diverted to a location in Wexford to seek out Essex Skippers and Comma Butterflies but I was in the area, it was on my way and I was in Wexford birding. I have also stopped birding to look at Clouded Yellows at Tacumshin Lake in Wexford and have been lucky enough to have seen a Monarch Butterfly on Cape Clear Island in Cork. I was even more lucky to encounter a dramatically colourful Swallowtail in Wicklow last summer. So, while I’m a birder, I am interested in flutterbies!
So what has changed?
In May I was doing breeding walkover bird surveys in the Cullenagh Mountains in Laois. Such walkovers require a slow walk through of different habitats recording breeding birds. On one such walkover, I saw several small butterflies along the path. I wasn’t sure what they might have been and, when I had completed my days work, I returned with my camera to see if could identify them.
After a little bit of searching, I managed to find them again and photographed them…they were Dingy Skippers. They are not exactly the most colourful butterflies (their name is quite accurate) but this was a new Irish location for this scarce species and I had never seen them before.
Having identified them, I decided that, when I was finished my survey work each day, I would start checking to see what other species might be in the area. There were various whites, Orange-tips, Common Blues, Speckled Woods to name but a few. My interest was stirred.
A full conversion
Having contacted a Laois birder who was also keen on butterflies to let him know about my Dingy Skippers, I asked if there were other places in the county where I might see other species. He ‘outed’ me on Twitter but the response I got had my heart beating. My survey area was not too far from a super butterfly bog and I should easily see Silver-washed Fritillary there. These are beautiful, in-your-face, big, orange butterflies. I couldn’t resist the lure of seeing these exotic winged beauties.
This is where my conversion was truly completed…I actually drove to Laois not to go birding or to do a bird survey; I drove to Laois to look for Silver-washed Fritillary. It reminded me of when I was a young birder and being told that if I went out to Rogerstown Estuary in late July of early August, I might see Green Sandpipers. There was a sense of excitement as I entered the area and was immediately greeted by a giant orange butterfly. It was a thing of beauty (see the image above).
I was hooked and immediately set myself a new task to attempt to see every species of Irish butterfly. Not only that, I would love to photograph each species too.
My conversion continues with a trip to see butterflies in Wexford this week. I was looking for Gatekeepers (which are also a scarce and restricted species). They are among the brown species and I felt like a novice birder who doesn’t know Dunlin very well but still heading out into the middle of Tacumshin in September to look for a juvenile Baird’s Sandpiper among the Dunlin flocks.
Yes, there were Meadow Browns and Small Heaths, but I found my Gatekeepers and photographed them. It was a wonderful feeling to see a new species in an area I have been to countless times.
I am enjoying my new conversion…and the wonderful thing is that most butterflies are around during the quietest birding time of the year. As the autumn migration begins, I will be back birding as hard as ever…but I have to admit that I am already planning my butterfly strategy for the summer of 2019. I am converted.