First spring day

April 11th 2015, I finally spotted the first butterfly flying. In fact, it wasn’t just one but 5 species. Fair enough to call this day the first spring day of the year.

The first butterfly was a male Common Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni). After I waited for a moment to get the butterfly settle and take a rest on its wild flight I spotted something else. Something…more interesting. It was a Scarce Tortoiseshell (Nymphalis xanthomelas). I recognized it for sure because size, colors and the way they fly gives clear proof.

I got lucky on the very same spot last year, where I had the pleasure to observe a male Scarce Tortoiseshell from really close. It was a nice surprise to meet this species again. In summer 2015 something seemed to happen, and when the summer generation was expected to fly hardly any sightings were made.

Spending about two hours in the greenery I was able to count 2 Scarce Tortoiseshells (both captured on photos below), 3 European Peacocks (Aglais io), one Orange Underwing (Archiearis parthenias), two Small Tortoiseshells (Aglais urticae) and both male and female Brimstones.

Having the presence of the Scarce Tortoiseshell confirmed I’m now looking forward to finding caterpillars again this summer. Hopefully with less parasites compared to last summer’s findings.

How to find caterpillars of the Scarce Tortoiseshell

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In summer 2014 one of my primary targets was to find caterpillars of the Scarce Tortoiseshell, also known as Yellow Legged Tortoiseshell (Nymphalis xanthomelas). My aim was to get a closer view on this species rearing caterpillars to adult butterflies.

The Scarce Tortoiseshell is a rather occasional visitor in Finland. However, in 2013 the species mass migrated from East towards Finland. As a result, early spring 2014 this butterfly was one of the most sighted species in southern Finland. A great baseline to try tracking down caterpillars early summer.

Please note that all my knowledge and data has been collected during one summer and within one region only. Behavior may vary depending on location, and in a “normal” year finding caterpillars will most likely be difficult if not impossible (due to the lack of the species’ presence). Nevertheless, I’ve been browsing through the greenery nearby. Here’s my wrap up from the experience I collected.

Location 1: Caterpillar colony

This location relates to one of my season highlights last summer, finding the actual caterpillars. On a cold and windy day I got lucky. On June 19th, the caterpillars appeared late that summer which must have been a direct response to poor weather conditions.

I knew in advance this location would be good as I continuously spotted Scarce Tortoiseshells flying early spring. Since late May I started monitoring willow in this area. Though I had little knowledge what kind of breeding behavior this species would have.

The caterpillars were found on willow, Salix phylicifolia to be precise. They were feeding above a small ditch. I’ve once read that Mourning Cloaks (Nymphalis antiopa) prefer similar conditions. The ditch keeps the growth doing well while providing some level of humidity to the caterpillars above. This particular location has continuous and direct sunlight.

Location 2: Abandoned colony

This sight was located just about 50 meters across a field from location 1 (see photo in the conclusion). It is well possible this colony was laid by the same female as the caterpillars found nearby. In this case (actually my first finding on the search), there were no caterpillars left. Clearly visible from a distance were the feeding traces. A closer look also provided details such as twigs covered by web and moulted skins.

Compared to location 1 this colony must have been further developed already. Caterpillars on location 1 were just moulting to the last instar. Location 2 looked like moulting took place already some time ago. Perhaps the twig was abandoned as the adult caterpillars separated (which I believe is a common behavior for this species at this stage).

Here the facts about the location. Again, caterpillars were feeding on Salix phylicifolia, a common type of willow in Scandinavia. The differences to location 1 were that no ditch was nearby. The caterpillars fed on a twig hanging low and outside of the growth, which in this case was much older already. The sight has direct sunlight from noon until evening.

Location 3: Abandoned colony

Later on in summer 2014, around mid July, I accidentally sighted a third location where caterpillars had been feeding. This location took me by surprise as it was just around the corner where we live. I did spot adult butterflies flying in spring though, but I didn’t expect caterpillars this close.

This time it must have been already weeks since the caterpillars pupated, most likely the butterflies had already hatched as well. The habitat had very much in common with location 1. The caterpillars were, yet again, feeding on the same type of willow (Salix phylicifolia). The growth was located in a ditch with the twigs hanging over water. The location has direct sunlight throughout the day. This spot is just between a small road and a walking path. Just 50 meters away there’s apartment buildings and a much frequented street.

Conclusion

Based on my findings in 2014 the common conditions for all sightings were following: The caterpillars were feeding on Salix phylicifolia and they were located on twigs clearly separated from other growth of the plant. The “colonies” were located in a height of 20-50cm above ground. As in location 1 and 3 they fed on twigs growing in the ditch, which causes them to be located very low.

Direct sunlight and open terrain were other conditions matched at all sights. Nevertheless, location 2 was next to higher growth. Tracking down a twig with caterpillars (or traces left by them) was pretty easy, assuming the location was right. Caterpillars feed the twigs completely “naked”. Should there be caterpillars left they color the twig black as they feed in large numbers. Other traces are skins after moulting and a web covering the twig.

Due to the poor weather conditions in 2014 it was difficult to get hint on the exact time when caterpillars could be found. As a result, I had to accept finding abandoned sights as well. Despite of the butterfly flying in large quantities in spring the species almost disappeared in summer when the next generation was expected. Spring 2015 will show if there’s any individuals left, or if Finland has to wait for the next mass migration to enjoy the beauty of the Scarce Tortoiseshell again.

I’m definitely hoping to get another chance to raise these caterpillars. By the way, approximately 90% of the caterpillars had parasites. I was able to observe the larvae of some Tachinidae species leaving its host before building a snow-white cocoon, usually hanging at the tail of the dead caterpillar. Therefor, young caterpillars or eggs would be yet a better finding.

Finding Nemo

After spending hours and hours in the greenery searching for caterpillars of the Scarce Tortoiseshell (Nymphalis xanthomelas) I finally found a colony. For the first time I’m now capable of raising the species at home. If you know butterflies you’ll also know how good it felt to succeed on my search.

Here’s some footage, particularly covering the habitat of the species. This hopefully helps others finding caterpillars as well. First, I found an abandoned colony were only feeding traces and old skins were left. No luck finding the actual larva. 15 minutes later I found a second colony where slightly over 30 caterpillars where just in the process of skinning.

Two tips. I found the caterpillars on a species of willow, Salix phylicifolia to be precise. And both colonies were located about 50-80cm above the ground. So keep your eyes low and on young trees/bushes.

Caterpillar track-down

On the quest to finding these caterpillars I’ve been browsing several times through a habitat which I came across this spring. I wrote about that spot already after my first visit this spring. Back then I saw Scarce Tortoiseshells flying almost every time I checked the place. It might also be a good spot to find caterpillars of the Moarning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa).

As already mentioned I found two colonies of caterpillars. One was already abandoned, maybe the caterpillars have moved or already proceeded in the metamorphosis. The photos below introduce the area by narrowing down the exact spots also showing what kind of traces to look for. Just in case this information may be helpful to anyone.

Nervous company

Finally, after two weeks of gray and rainy weather the sun came back, timed well for the weekend. Even though I spent a couple hours in the greenery on Saturday and Sunday I wasn’t able to sight any new species. Furthermore, I still couldn’t spot any individuals of the Map (Araschnia levana) which was clearly one of my targets.

Compared to the earlier trips this spring there was one major difference. All butterflies, regardless of their species, were very active. They appeared to be nervous and mostly didn’t stop by on flowers at all. Feeding did not have priority. All focus was clearly on finding a late mate for pairing. This made it also very difficult to get any butterflies with the camera.

The Orange Tip (Anthocharis cardamines) was one of the most common species this weekend. Even though I counted over a dozen individuals (once three male at the same time) they just didn’t rest. One female, which I didn’t get sharp on a photo, was the only one which actually stopped on some flowers. I checked where she landed afterwards to make sure she wasn’t laying eggs. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any. Most likely it hadn’t copulated yet.

I guess I need another trip to make some new sightings. Good luck soon many more species will be around.

Just to wrap up the weekend here’s some data:

Location: Espoo Central Park, Finland. Weather: Sat 17 decrees Celsius, Sun 21 degrees

Sighted species:

  • Scarce Tortoiseshell (Nymphalis xanthomelas), 2 individuals
  • Moarning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa), 1 indvidual
  • Comma (Polygonia c-album), 2 individuals
  • Common Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni), 10+ individuals
  • Green-veined White (Pieris napi), 10+ individuals
  • Orange Tip (Anthocharis cardamines), 10+ individuals
  • Green Hairstreak (Callophrys rubi), 10+ individuals
  • Holly Blue (Celastrina argiolus), 3 individuals

 

 

Setting up the butterfly bar

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Flowers are not the only option for attracting butterflies to your garden. Another trick is setting up a butterfly bar. Here’s a recipe and some tips on how to get started.

Ingredients
  • Cheap red wine
  • Brown sugar

You’ll also need a jar (e.g. a yoghurt glass), some string and a sponge. Depending on your imagination, you’ll perhaps need some other stuff as well.

Setup
Butterfly bar in garden to attract butterflies

Butterfly bar in garden to attract butterflies

Start by creating the mixture. Take some of the red wine and add brown sugar as much as the wine can take. You may heat up the wine in a microwave oven or on a plate so the sugar dissolves easier. Note: Make sure the alcohol does not evaporate since it’s a feast for butterflies providing them with lots of energy.

Feel free to add syrup or honey to the mixture (I got my results with plain brown sugar though). Adding vinegar will help you to get rid of flies if you’re annoyed by them visiting your bar.

Cut the sponge into small stripes (see photo). Place the stripes in the jar filled with the mixture. Use the string to place the jar hanging on a hook or e.g. branch on a tree in your garden. Personally, I’m using a spoon once daily to fresh-up the mixture and make sure the sponge stripes are properly soaked in the mixture.

Make sure to place the jar on a hot sunny spot in your garden (or why not balcony). Add some red wine every couple days to make sure the jar is full until its limit. That’s all. Have fun waiting for visitors.

Results

It took a moment to attract the first individuals. But once the word spreads (or probably more the odour), we ended up having some buzz during our happy hour (see photos).

I wasn’t aware there’s this many Commas (Polygonia c-album) around. And getting a Scarce Tortoiseshell (Nymphalis xanthomelas) directly into our garden was a nice surprise, as well. Let’s see who’ll step by next.

Easter weekend, day 1

Sunshine and warm, decent spring weather. What a promising 4 day weekend. I managed to get out into the greenery for two hours and I headed to a biotope I recently explored. It turned out to be a real hot spot.

Right after I got out of the car I spotted a Common Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni) from the distance. Trying to catch it with my camera a Scarce Tortoiseshell (Nymphalis xanthomelas) came to defended its territory from the Brimstone. A couple seconds later, a Moarning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) sailed across. I decided to follow this one for the start. Nevertheless, I knew right away this is going to be a good day!

I didn’t have to leave the one and only field I entered. Within a diameter of perhaps 50-100 meters all the magic happened. The saldo of those two hours was following: 2-3 Scarce Tortoiseshells, 3-4 Common Brimstones, one Moarning Cloak, two Small Tortoiseshells (Aglais urticae), and one European Peacock (Inachis io). Especially the European Peacock was a beauty I was looking forward to meet again.

The above named individuals were, encouraged by the warm spring sun, heavily defending their territory. I saw Multiple times an individual driving off others from its own or other species. This is always a nice play to watch.

After these rather good list of sightings the expectations for day 2 are high. I’m particularly looking forward to spotting two species I’ve not met yet this spring: The Comma (Polygonia c-album) and the Green Hairstreak (Callophrys rubi).

Photos

Another spring day

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After receiving fresh snow 1.5 weeks ago, and a quick fall-back to winter, spring seemed to be back again. We had sun yesterday, a saturday, which gave me the chance to get some new sightings.

I was hoping to catch a Comma (Polygonia c-album), a Camberwell Beauty (Nymphalis antiopa) or a European Peacock (Inachis io). Unfortunately, I found none of them. Some clouds on the sky made the sun disappear right when I was out in the greenery. However, as the sun made it back and started shining again I was stomping through the dry grass. Suddenly, I met the same beautiful species I sighted almost 2 weeks ago, A Scarce Tortoiseshell (Nymphalis xanthomelas).

It’s fun to see how close you might be to these creatures. But if there is no sun, they won’t show up. With the wings closed and standing still while resting it’s a tough challenge to spot a butterfly. This time, the combination of the sun and my steps must have been a lucky trigger to get the individual fly (and show up).

Despite of the little sightings I was able to locate a promising biotope nearby (see featured image above). Later on in spring, I’m sure this will be a good spot for a caterpillar quest (due to the willows).

On my way home I also spotted two Small Tortoiseshells (Aglais urticae), but these were flying nervously and had no intention to stop. So the only species I was able to get with my camera was, yet again, the Scarce Tortoiseshell. Compared to the previous sighting this individual’s wings were in a much worse shape after winter.

Related photos