The season’s changing, but take a breath first!

Comma butterfly

Comma butterfly - Credit: Archant

It never ceases to amaze me how swiftly nature moves through the seasons. The intense heatwave we are currently enjoying perhaps masks the seasonal movement giving us the sense of eternal summer days and slowing us to a more leisurely pace.

Painted lady butterfly.

Painted lady butterfly. - Credit: Archant

And yet, come July 1, or maybe the Summer Solstice, some invisible magnetic compass swings 180° in the internal mechanisms of nature’s inhabitants. The impulse to move, to return, to leave and to migrate is awakened literally, it seems, overnight.

At the local Tyttenhanger gravel pits near London Colney migrating waders have begun to appear at the muddy margins – green and common sandpipers, a few redshank and a black-tailed godwit – all just passing through.

More dramatic is the increase in gulls with black-headed gulls now in excess of 500 birds and yet only a month ago there were none. For us summer is in full swing but for these birds winter has come into focus. For many wild creatures it is a time to feed and move, feed and move until they find themselves in a safe place for winter and well fed enough to survive.

Of course, not all our birds and wildlife are looking to move off. Many of our resident birds are busy with second or even third broods of chicks. Woodpigeons with their hastily thrown together nest of twigs will keep raising young into September.

We have a song thrush nest in our garden with unfledged chicks perched precariously on top of the fence but cleverly tied into the adjacent hawthorn bush. On my recent walks I have come across a number of young little owls sitting out in the open and calling noisily for food.

Both the baby song thrushes and the owls were located because of their persistent squeaky calling but I do wonder how they survive predation by marauding magpies and crows.

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The parent birds must be constantly torn between hanging around to fend off attacks and leaving their noisy young in search of food!

While many species have bred or are about to finish raising young there are others, like the painted lady butterfly, that are only just arriving to breed. Migrating up from the desert fringes of northern Africa, the Middle East and central Asia, these long distance migrants arrive in the UK to breed and feed. Some years can see a huge influx of these butterflies and, in 2009, breeding conditions in North Africa were perfect and millions of painted lady butterflies headed north following warming spring temperatures to arrive en masse in the UK.

That year hundreds of painted lady butterflies were recorded, sometimes in swarms or ‘kaleidoscopes’ from almost every corner of the British Isles and as far north as Shetland.

They are beautiful butterflies that are often easily approached as they feed. Sadly however for the painted ladies that arrive here it is a journey’s end as they are unable to survive our winters.

If weather conditions are right a few may make the return journey but for the most, like so many of our butterflies, they are an ephemeral gift to us, the final flourish on the heights of summer. So look out for these little travellers – the new arrivals will be pristine rouge in colour that fades towards more autumnal browns as August progresses.

This year has been a good year for butterflies and this summer continues to provide plenty of sunshine for these aerial dancers so it’s a great time to go out looking for them. There are of course the familiar ‘cabbage’ whites and red admirals of our garden borders but venture out to different habitats and others will appear.

Grassland commons are a great place to look for marbled whites and common blues, while shady woodland edges are home to speckled woods and the occasional white admiral. A walk through Symondshyde Great Wood on the edge of St Albans recently took me through dancing pearl-bordered fritillaries – one of our larger butterflies that love the sunny rides and clearings in mature woodlands.

If you come across a tattered-winged, orangey-brown butterfly you have probably found a comma butterfly - so called for the tiny white ‘comma’ mark on its under-wing. The ragged-edged wing when closed perfectly mimics a dead leaf on a branch but once opened the beautiful orange and black markings are as striking as any butterfly.

For me the comma is the perfect bridge between summer and autumn – the beautiful flickering colours of its upper-wing closing to the leafy autumn browns of the underside.

It seems very fitting that this aptly named butterfly, the comma, should punctuate the seasonal shift. It is time to take a breath and take in the beauty of summer before the cycle starts again.