As the group name ‘Browns’ suggests, these butterflies are indeed mainly coloured brown, but they are far from dull and between them display every imaginable shade of brown from velvety dark chocolate to bright ginger and cream. Common to all, their most characteristic features are the varying eye-spots on the wings and the front legs which are reduced to hairy ‘brushes’.
SPECKLED WOOD pararge aegeria
Wingspan: 4-4.5cm Flight period: Late March/early April to October in two to three broods.
The Speckled Wood may be my favourite butterfly, perhaps because they have featured almost everywhere I have ever lived, either visiting my gardens or being close by patrolling along hedgerows or in my favourite haunts, the local woods. Even when I lived in Spain I had them visiting my garden, where they appear in a slightly different colour form, they behave in almost exactly the same way. They’re not the most colourful of our British butterflies, but are smart and beautifully patterned, and perfectly adapted to blend with their natural habitat: and what it lacks in physical colour it more than makes up for in colour of character. It is without doubt my most photographed butterfly.
Description: Wings are brown with cream-yellow spots, especially on the forewings; the forewing then has one eye-spot and the hind wings have three. In the female the pattern of creamy spots is more extensive than in the male; the underside of both sexes is marbled brown-yellow. The intensity of the colour varies greatly from place to place.
Behaviour: Speckled Woods are most often found on woodland edges or along woodland paths and rides where they fly in areas of shade or dappled shade, but also patrol hedgerows.
They rest readily on the leaves of trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants and often bask on bare ground, amongst dry leaves and on dry twigs and logs, where they are best camouflaged. I can’t count the number of times one has startled me, suddenly flying up in front of me as I’ve disturbed it from rest on a woodland path.
The Speckled Wood is mightily territorial and patrols up and down stretches of hedge, woodland edge and woodland rides. They often perch on the outer leaves of trees or shrubs, flying out determinedly to challenge anything and everything it perceives as an intruder, albeit a bee, another species of butterfly or a bird.
If the intruder is another Speckled Wood, they will take off in pursuit and engage in a determined aerial ‘battle’, which really does looks fearsome, involving much twisting and turning, the combatants flying high and low, sometimes for a few minutes until, I assume, a victor emerges and one returns to perch.
Life history: Female lays her eggs singly on grass stems and leaves of larval host plants.
Distribution: Throughout Europe except for the far north, (replaced in Iberia by Pararge af aegeria ) at altitudes up to 1200m in the mountains. Often found in shady woodland rides, on woodland edges, in clearings and along hedgerows.
WALL or WALL BROWN lasiommata megera
Wingspan 4.5-5.3cm Flight periods: First generation adults emerge early May, peaking at end of May-early June, a little later in the north of England and Scotland. A second brood then emerges end of July; mid-August further north. There are 2 generations each year and, on occasion, a small 3rd generation may appear in October.
Conservation Status: There has been a severe and worrying decline of inland populations, with most remaining populations now being found in coastal areas. This species is therefore a priority for conservation efforts.
My sightings of Wall Browns in North Wales have been few and far between, mostly confined to the clifftops of the Little Orme. The first was on a day that was beautifully sunny but with a strong cold wind blowing in off the Irish Sea, which may well have brought it here. The butterfly was in perfect condition and flying low to take nectar from various tiny eyebright and cranesbill flowers.
The hindwing is silvery-grey below, with zig-zag lines and an arc of large eye-spots
Behaviour: The Wall gets its name from its habit of resting with its wings two-thirds open on walls, or indeed any bare surface, including bare ground.The male of the species is territorial and will stake out a particular area, such as a path, hedgerow or roadside verge, then sit and wait for a female to pass by. They typically perch in a favoured position within their chosen ‘patch’, but in sunny and warm conditions they often patrol it in order to find a mate. All passing insects are investigated and rival males will fly high into the air in pursuit before coming back to the ground a few seconds later.
The female is much more sedentary and the less-conspicuous of the two sexes. After a brief courtship a pair will mate before disappearing into surrounding vegetation. Both sexes are avid nectar feeders and will feed from any available flower.
UK Status and distribution: Once found throughout England, Wales, Ireland and parts of Scotland; this species as suffered severe declines over the last several decades. It is now confined to primarily-coastal regions and has been lost from many sites in central, eastern and south-east England. In Scotland it is confined to coastal areas in the south-west of the country. It is also found on the Isle of Man and Channel Islands. The butterfly is found in relatively small colonies that are self-contained although some individuals will wander, allowing the species to quickly colonise suitable nearby sites.
GRAYLING hipparchia semele
Flight period: Late June to mid-October; one brood; Wingspan 4.8-6cm
Distribution: Throughout Europe except N Scandinavia, up to 2,000m. Prefers warm, dry, sandy locations such as open pine forests, heaths & dunes.
Description: Brown with a yellowish band, forewing with two dark eye-spots, hindwing with one; underside hindwing patterned like bark or stone.
Behaviour: As they land Graylings usually display most of the underside of the orange-coloured upper forewing, gradually closing it until just one ‘eye’ is exposed before finally closing it completely. This behaviour is also seen in other butterfly species that have eye-like markings, and it is thought that this offers a target to a potentially lurking predator, which may strike there rather than at the actual head. The butterfly may survive losing a chunk of wing, but not its vital body parts.
When the wings are completely closed the Grayling is exceptionally well camouflaged, both against rock and the bark of trees, its other favoured perching place.
Seen locally: On Bryn Euryn, in high summer. Only ever around the exposed limestone cliffs below the summit where they sometimes fly low and ‘patrol’ the paths. Walking there one day in early July I stood still on the path and was surprised when a butterfly paused in its efforts to rest on my shoe. It seemed quite happy there, only moving as I walked on. On the Little Orme I have had a few chance encounters with single individuals, once with one basking on a gravelly path and others around the rocky face of the deep quarried ‘channel’ on the lower level of the headland.
The Great Orme has its own Grayling sub-species:
GRAYLING – hipparchia semele ssp. thyone
Flight period: H. semele ssp. Thyone flies earlier than is usual with other races, being on the wing towards the third week in June, and disappearing by the end of July.
Description: Males are strikingly smaller than any other British race of semele. The coloration is more uniform than in typical semele, with the pale areas more ochreous. Forewing spots are smaller than in other races, with the lower of the two often absent, and totally obsolete specimens are not very rare. The underside has the coloration duller and less contrasting than in the type, with the white portions of the hindwings tinged with ochreous. The tendency to obsolescence is even more striking on the under surface than on the upperside.Females too are smaller than other races, The comparatively unicolorous tendency is the same as in the male; but obsolescence is less marked, although the spots are smaller than in normal specimens.
Behaviour: Similar to that of the more common Grayling described above.
Local sightings: Restricted to the Great Orme, Llandudno
MEADOW BROWN Maniola jurtina
Wingspan: 4-5cm Flight period: Mid- May to October; one brood
One of the Brown butterflies whose appearance for me always heralds the beginning of high summer
Distribution: This is the commonest large Brown butterfly in Britain and occurs throughout Europe except in the far north. It is found at altitudes of up to 1800m in meadows, pastures, along field banks, grassy slopes and woodland edges.
Description: The male’s upperwings are dusky brown with a blurred black patch from the central forewing to the body. In the corner of each forewing is one small white-pupilled black eyespot, usually surrounded by a circle of dull orange. There may also be a faint orange patch below this.
The female has a long patch on the upperside of the forewing that varies from ochre-yellow through orange to red brown; the underside of the forewing is russet red & of the hind wing marbled grey-brown.
The Meadow Brown often sits with its wings closed, and the lower hindwing may be all that is visible. This is grey-brown with a slight orange sheen and a zig-zag boundary that divides a darker inner half from a brighter outer half. There may be one or several small black dots in the outer half. When exposed, the lower forewing is seen as a dull
brown with a dusky border and a similar eyespot to that on the upperwing. The orange patch and the eyespot are both much larger and more prominent on the female
Behaviour: Meadow Browns fly during both sunny and overcast weather; they mostly fly low to the ground and can often be seen fluttering about in amongst the stems of long grass. They often rest on the ground on pathways and fly up as you approach.They visit a variety of flowers, both to feed and to rest.
The female is choosy about where she lays her eggs & will inspect several potential breeding sites. Eggs are laid singly on grass stems & on dry material close to the ground.
GATEKEEPER pyronia tithonus
Wingspan: 3.2-4cm Flight period: Early July to late September; one brood
Whilst the Meadow Browns mark the beginning of the summer, the appearance of the feisty little Gatekeepers remind me that it is now full-blown and coming to its end.
Description: A very attractive and characterful little butterfly; the upperside of wings is orange-red inside a broad brown border; forewing has a black eye-spot with two white centres; underside of forewing like the upperside, hind wing has a beige-brown pattern. The male rather smaller than the female and with more intense colours.
Behaviour: Gatekeepers feed at flowers, Ragwort, Knapweed and Hemp Agrimony all attract them. They are commonly found around bramble thickets too, where the male displays striking territorial behaviour. He perches on a shrub or tall plant and challenges any other butterfly or even insect that comes within its range.
Eggs are laid singly on grass leaves.
Distribution: Central & S Europe, including British Isles, not above 1100m; in open deciduous woods, hedgerows, heaths & pine forests at the edge of high moors; local, but sometimes common.
More photographs & information in post : The Gatekeeper
SMALL HEATH Coenonympha pamphilus
Wingspan:3.2-3.6cm Flight period: Mid-March to mid-October; two or three broods; only one at higher altitudes
Description: The wings of the Small Heath are light to dark orange with grey-brown fringes; there is an eye spot at tip of forewing that shows as small and black on the upperside, then larger and highlighted and enclosed by a yellow circle on underside. Underside hind wing patterned in shades of brown with 4 small white spots.
Behaviour: These little butterfly characteristically flutter, quite rapidly, usually keeping low to the ground and often keeping within the cover of long grass stems. They also might be seen resting in more open patches, where they lean over, often almost flat to maximise exposure to the warmth of the sun. They are rarely spotted with their wings open!
Distribution: Found throughout Europe except for the far north, from lowlands to over 1800m; everywhere in meadows that are neither very damp nor very dry.
RINGLET aphantopus hyperantus
Wingspan: 42-52mm Flight period: June,July-August
Description: A medium sized butterfly the Ringlet has dark velvety-brown upperwings, sometimes appearing almost black on the male and only slightly lighter on the female. A fine white fringe runs round the outer edges, and there are usually two inconspicuous little black eyespots near the centre of each wing.
When settled, the wings are usually closed, revealing the Ringlet’s most distinctive feature – a string of conspicuous eyes with white centres surrounded by black then yellow rings. There are generally five to each hindwing with at least two on the forewings, clearly pronounced against a dark, slightly bronzed background.
Distribution: This species is widely distributed within the British Isles but is absent from north-west England and north Scotland. It inhabits the relatively sheltered areas of tall, occasionally damp, grasslands.
More photographs and location information in posts: Summer on the Woodland Edge