Thursday, 18 August 2016

Butterflies in S. E. Essex

At the beginning of the year, realising that for personal reasons I was going to have to spend the major part of the year in the UK, and knowing how the birding drops off in the summer, I decided to set myself a challenge.  Living in the south east of Essex, I have been a long-time member of SOG (the Southend Ornithological Group,, which apart from reporting on local birds, also reports on all other wildlife.  Looking up on the SOG website, I could see there are up to 30 regularly occurring species of butterfly.  Normally on my short visits back to see friends and family, I am never around for long enough or in the right part of the season to see many of them, but this year was different, so I started planning where and when.  This is a résumé of how I got on.

Although many of the butterflies can be seen on an ‘ad hoc’ basis around the local reserves, there are a number of species that you have to plan for due to timing or location, the first of which being the Green Hairstreak (Callophrys rubi).  This species can only be found locally in a couple of places, Benfleet/Hadleigh Downs and the Canvey Wick Bug Reserve on Canvey Island (where it may have been accidentally or purposely re-introduced), and is never common.  The time to look for them is towards the end of April although this year, due to the mild winter and then cold spring, insect life activity was about 10 days to 2 weeks behind the normal.   I had my first sighting of four insects, on a sunny warm afternoon on the 8th May with two further sightings on the 9th (another 4) and 16th May (2 seen), and that was it!

By that time my species sightings list was up to 13, having had my first butterflies on the 31st March at Vange Marsh (Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae), Peacock(Inachis io)) and at Wat Tyler CP (Pitsea) (Brimstone(Gonepteryx rhamni)).  On the 3rd April I had my first butterfly in the garden, a Large White (Pieris brassicae) which flew through, and on the 8th April, my first Small Whites (Pieris rapae) (2 insects). My next new insects were on the 14th April when at Canvey Wick Bug Reserve, I had Orangetip (Anthocharis cardamines), Commas (Polygonia c-album) and Speckled Woods (Pararge aegeria).  On the 20th April on the west end of Two Tree Island I had my first Green-veined White (Piers napi).  On the 8th May, as previously mentioned, on a warm, sunny windless afternoon at the east end of the Canvey Wick Bug Reserve, I had my first Green Hairstreaks, but also that afternoon I had a couple of Small Coppers (Lycaena phlaeas), Walls (Lasiommata megera) and at least 2 Brown Argus (Aricia agestis).

Benfleet Downs on the 13th May gave me my first Holly Blues (Celastrina argiolus) (eight of them), and continuing the blue vein, my first Common Blues (Polyommatus icarus) were at the Gunners Park (Shoeburyness) butterfly transect on the 19th May.

I finally got to grips with one that I would have expected to see much earlier, on the 20th May with my first Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) of the year at Vange Marsh RSPB, which was also the location of my next insect, an unexpected but very welcome Clouded Yellow (Colias croceus) beating along the hedgerow parallel to the railway line.  Now with things (theoretically) warming up, a walk on the 23rd May around Bowers Marsh gave me my first Small Heath (Coenonympha pamphilus), and another walk around Gunners Park on the 4th June gave me apart from good numbers of Large Whites, Small Whites, Holly Blues and Small Heaths, my first (3) Painted Ladies (Vanessa cardui) of the year.

The end of May / beginning of June is when you should be thinking of the next targeted species, and with this in mind I checked out some local areas for Heath Fritillary (Melitae athalia) (sorry, I can’t give specific locations for this species), and finally on the afternoon of the 9th June on a sunny, warm afternoon I was rewarded with seeing 6 of these beautiful butterflies.

A walk in the afternoon of the 19th June over to Benfleet Downs gave me my first (3) Large Skippers (Ochlodes venata), and similarly a walk on the 23rd June around Bowers Marsh RSPB my first (5) Meadow Browns (Maniola jurtina).  Another visit to Benfleet Downs on the 27th June gave me Essex Skipper (Thymelicus lineola) and Ringlet (Aphantopus hyperantus) and a stroll through Belfairs NR on the 30th June my first (3) White Admirals (Limenitis Camilla).  Continuing the walk through to the Belfairs  Park centre added (4) Small Skippers (Thymelicus sylvestris) and (4) Marbled Whites (Melanargia galathea), and my species total at the end of the first 6 months of the year stood at 27.

Now more species to target, and possibly the most difficult ones of all – White-letter and Purple Hairstreaks.  I had the locations where they should occur, but would I actually get to see them?  Well, as it happened I shouldn’t have worried, as on the 4th July walking through Belfairs Woods NR I had my first Purple Hairstreak (Neozephyrus quercus) (and I even managed to get a record photo of it), and the following day on Benfleet Downs, 5 White-letter Hairstreak (Satyrium w-album).  And finally on the 7th at Bowers Marsh RSPB reserve, number 30, with a couple of Gatekeepers (Pyronia tithonus).

From here on, any additional butterflies would have to be vagrants to the area (as happened on the 19th July in Belfairs Woods when a Silver-washed Fritillary was well seen – I happened to be out of the area at the time!).

Part of my remit to myself was to not only see, but also photograph all the butterflies I saw, and to this end I managed to photograph all of the species.  On continuation, photographs of the 30 butterflies (although not necessarily of the first ones I saw).

Finally, just a note to thank all the members of SOG who helped and in some cases ‘queued up’ the butterflies for me.

 Peacock (Inachis io)
 Comma (Polygonia c-album)
 Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae)
 Small White (Pieris rapae)
 Green Hairstreak (Callophrys rubi)
 Brown Argus (Aricia agestis)
 Green-veined White (Pieris napi)
 Holly Blue (Celastrina argiolus)
 Brown Argus (Aricia agestis)
 Common Blue (Polyommatus icarus)
 Common Blue (Polyommatus icarus)

 Small Copper (Lycaena phlaeas)
 Orange-tip (Anthocharis cardamines)
 Wall (Lasiommata megera)
 Speckled Wood (Pararge aegeria)
 Brown Argus (Aricia agestis)
 Large White (Pieris brassicae)
 Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui)
 Small Heath (Coenonympha pamphilus)
 Heath Fritillary (Melitaea athalia)
 Large Skipper Ochlodes venata)
 Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina)
 Essex Skipper (Thymelicus lineola)
 Ringlet (Aphantopus hyperantus)
 Small Skipper (Thymelicus sylvestris)
 Marbled White (Melanargia galathea)
 Purple Hairstreak (Neozephyrus quercus)
 White Admiral (Limenitis camilla)

 White-letter Hairstreak (Satyrium w-album)
 Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta)
 White Admiral (Limenitis camilla)
 Marbled White (Melanargia galathea)
Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni)

Clouded Yellow (Colias croceus)


  1. Thanks for sharing the information and the photographs

  2. Hi there

    Just read your article as I was scanning the internet for links to butterflies in the Murcia region. I've just moved to Moratalla but I'm from Basildon and my wife is from Canvey so very interested in your quest in SE Essex.

    Just wondered what were the main species around in Murcia as I am researching a short article on what butterflies to see.