A Nature Ramble in North-west Cornwall.

28th August 2007. Belatedly, it occurs to me that a few general shots of the coastal terrain between Bude and Widemouth Bay – the latter being our first destination – would have been of considerable help to you, dear reader, in placing the five or six species illustrated below, in their overall natural habitat. We apologise for this omission, and assure you that, in any future example of a ‘nature ramble’, these will be provided. Come to that, a scale would be very useful too: you know, the traditional black and white striped stick or rod, which is calibrated in inches, centimetres (sometimes even both), and which is carefully placed next to the thing being photographed, so that you will know how big it is? I’m not so sure that we will be able to provide this: for while carrying a number of black and white sticks of various lengths, say between 5cm and a metre or so – the latter to indicate the size of shrubs, small trees &c. – would not be difficult or expensive, yet for the photographer to accurately place a 5cm stick to indicate the size of a larva of Inachis io hurrying across the path to find a pupation site, this while he is lying full length in the damp grass and trying to get as close to the larva as possible; and also being fully aware that he and his companions are blocking the path for other innocent and inoffensive members of the public coming in the other direction, might tend to defeat the whole spontaneous enjoyment of the exercise…

Yet, in spite of the above, it was not a phase of a moth of butterfly which was first spotted on our walk, but the adult form of a member of the Coleoptera. This was positively identified by one of my two companions as the Dor Beetle, Geotrupes stercorarius, a representative of the ‘dung beetles’. I don’t know how many species of dung beetle we have in the British Isles, but this one must surely be among the larger & more resplendent? It was making excellent progress through the grass of the field we were walking across. So I had my work cut out to take this shot, and as remarked above, the idea of putting a little black & white stick down by the side of it so you can tell how big it is, would have been quite difficult. I think the best thing to do, if one wants to find out how big Dor Beetles usually are, is to Google for that information. They are certainly relatively large as British beetles go; 25mm, Google tells us, and this one was certainly that big. You can see the spiny legs, but not the amazing heart-shapes ‘plates’ on the ends of its antennæ. As there were many cow-pats in the field, this individual was transferred to one of them, and immediately dug down into it; though I’m quite sure it would have found one fairly soon anyway.

Of course, my own interest is the Lepidoptera, and I had long wanted to get into ‘the browns’ – which, as a city dweller, we seldom encounter. You will know by now that we initially approached this problem by becoming fairly familiar with the Gatekeeper, Pyronia tithonus, and we have shot this a couple of times already as you can see on earlier pages of this tedious diary: and we have remembered sedulously that its chief diagnostic feature is the double white-dotted eye-spot on the forewing. I have adopted this – for good or ill – as an infallible guide to the Gatekeeper. Now here, in the edge of the fields along the cliff path between Bude and Widemouth Bay, we encountered a butterfly new to us – that is, me. And yet, it is probably the most common butterfly in the British Isles! The Meadow Brown, Maniola jurtina. Still, you will not find it in urban areas. This is a female; the male is of a far more uniform brown all over – rather like the brown on the hindwing of this female; and his eye-spot is smaller too. By the way, I must tell you now that I received for my recent birthday, a lovely present from my two companions of this ramble: two absolutely up-to-date books on the butterflies of Britain and Ireland. So of course I am using these while writing this page. These books are: (a) (Philip’s) Guide to Butterflies of Britain and Ireland. J.A Thomas. Philip’s, London, 2007. (b) British and Irish Butterflies. Adrian M. Riley. Brambleby Books, Luton (England), 2007. The first is of 176 pages, is compact enough to carry around in a large jacket pocket, is of concise practical text for the layman, and of low cost at just £9.99. The second is much larger, both in page size and number: 352pp; correspondingly, its scope is far wider, and describes all the sub-species, races &c., and is a book to be referred to at leisure for extra detail. Actually, it will be a challenge to me to study it closely; but I relish this prospect, and indeed have already used it to good effect. At £35, it is ‘mid-price’ for this sort of book. Of course, both these books are copiously illustrated with photographs of an accuracy & beauty which until recently would have been inconceivable. I used to regularly take E. B. Ford’s ‘New Naturalist’ book ‘Butterflies’ (Collins, 1945) from our local library in the 1960s & 1970s and read it again and again. More recently, I bought my own copy cheaply via the Internet for a few pounds, and found, to my delight, that it was from an early printing, and so the colour plates were vastly superior to the much later copy in the local library. Nevertheless, if E.B. Ford could have seen the quality, accuracy and artistry of the photographs in these new books of 2007, he would have been amazed and filled with joy. But to return to the above crude photo., it corresponds absolutely to the one on p.158 of Thomas; even to the drooping forewing, and the fact that the abdomen is positioned above the hindwings. This, taken with the rather elongated dark eye-spot on the forewing, yet which has only one white ‘pupil’, will be my diagnostic features for Maniola jurtina from now on. At least, for the upperside of the female. We hope to add a male later in 2008, and progress with ‘the browns’ is evidently under weigh!

I make no apology for including this poor and out of focus shot of a Gatekeeper, Pyronia tithonus, simply because it is a female. There are two previous shots of this insect on other pages, but they were both males, having the dark band of scent scales (or whatever they are called these days) across the forewing. This example has none, and therefore must be a female. It also has rather larger white spots on the hindwing than our previous examples.

Ah, now: here we go! What’s this ‘brown’? At first, consternation reigned. We leafed backward and forwards through the books, and practically all the ‘browns’ have eye-spots of some sort or other on their forewings. These spots appear both on the upper and underside of the forewing; so where is the eye-spot here? Well, it is concealed by the hindwing. Here’s another shot:

I don’t know if this is the same individual as above, but it is clearly a female Meadow Brown, which has not yet positioned its wings for maximum concealment of the eye-spot.

Still near the coastal path, but very near to Widemouth Bay, the ubiquitous Small Copper, Lycaenia phleas was seen in the sheltered corner of a field. These occur pretty well everywhere. We have seen them in the Harborne Nature Reserve, a mile or so from where I live in the English Midlands, which is but 3 or 4 miles from the centre of the large city of Birmingham. But we were not able to photograph one. Fortunately, ‘the sweets’ – as the older writers charmingly called them – of flowers will attract hungry Lepidoptera even in rather dull, cool and windy conditions, as on 28th August 2007. Perhaps I forgot to tell you of the weather conditions that day? Sorry; but it was indeed such a cool, rather blustery & generally dullish day. Nevertheless, the more durable & persistent of Lepidoptera were still foraging, as you can see from the above shots. We had already spotted a public house at Widemouth Bay, and our steps were inclining strongly in that direction, when one of our party called attention to a brightly-coloured insect settled on some nearby flowers

It was a new one on me, but one of our companions unerringly identified the insect as the Six Spot Burnet, Zygaena filipendula. This is of course a moth and not a butterfly, even though it flies by day and has antennæ that are thicker at the ends: but still they are merely thicker and not ‘clubbed’, as are the antennæ of butterflies. Though brightly coloured, this moth is quite sedentary, and does not zoom around madly like the day-flying humming-bird hawk moth does. No: though its larva feeds on clovers and vetches (as do many other lepidopterous larvae), it still manages to gather enough deleterious compounds to render its adult form poisonous to predators. Its bright colouring is enough warning to e.g. birds that it is very unappetising prey; and so it has never needed to fly around very much, very far, or very quickly. Indeed, many nearby grass stems bore the silken – and now empty – cocoons its larvae had spun, and from which the moth had emerged. We photographed some of them, but alas the wind kept moving them about, so all the shots were out of focus. Even so, the fact that the larvae made their cocoons in such obvious places, quite high up on tall grass stems, must imply that the pupae were equally distasteful to predators? Yet we ask: by what means would a predator know that a white, silken cocoon so insolently displayed to view, contained a pupa that was distasteful: as opposed to other very palatable cocoons & pupae, but which are usually discreetly hidden away in subterranean chambers, under the roots of trees, &c? Presumably the cocoon of filipendula continually emanates some specialised, volatile and pungent compound – even if in extremely small quantities – which warns possible predators that the cocoon contains something which is better left well alone? Ah; the workings of Dame Nature are indeed awesome to contemplate…

Our party of three reached a public house at Widemouth Bay, where we each partook of a bowl of soup and a bread roll, washed down with a suitable libation. Then we started out on the return journey, it now being about 2:30 p.m. Almost immediately, I was warned by a companion, not to step on the caterpillar that was walking across out path along the edge of a field. By way of making amends, I took this photo. of it. Again, it was necessary to lie full-length in the grass of the footpath, but I’m sure you’ll agree that it was worthwhile. Passers-by, coming in the opposite direction, proved remarkably tolerant of having their progress impeded by an increasingly-elderly man lying prone on the path, and indeed may even have been reassured and heartened by the fact that he had not suffered from a sudden collapse, but was merely trying to photograph the caterpillar of the Peacock Butterfly, Inachis io, as it sought a suitable place to become a chrysalis.

Let it not be thought that our Nature Ramble was confined to Butterflies and Moths. The above are the very common – but still beautiful – flowers of the Field Bindweed, Convulvulus arvensis. We ‘townies’ are well accustomed to the excessively vulgar and invasive Calystegia sepium, the common or garden bindweed with its bigger white trumpet flowers. Arvensis does sometimes climb up things, but generally is recumbent, and has lovely shadings of pinkish-red. It is this bindweed – I think – that is the larval foodplant of the larva of the Convulvulus Hawk Moth; not the urban white sepium.

Here is a little group of the tiny flowers called ‘Eyebright’. This shot was taken right down in the surface of a garden lawn. Apparently, though the flowers and foliage look much the same to us public, Eyebright, Euphrasia officinalis, is actually a very large & complex group of inter-related species, and a big problem to taxonomists. On the whole, I’m glad I just play the clarinet & saxophone!

We have a photo. of the Ivy-leaved Toadflax on an earlier page. But this is a much better one, as the flowers are in better focus. There is also a miniature version of this plant, which I have seen growing on the top of stone walls. The flowers are the same of course, but rather smaller; while the leaves are very much smaller, and you would hardly know it was the same plant. Will try to get an example in the future.

We hadn’t walked all that far, only 3 or 4 miles; though we still had about 2 miles to go, and I did have to get back to Bude by about 5 p.m. to get ready for the evening gig. So it was very generous of the presiding Spirit of Nature, to present us with this gorgeous Red Admiral, Vanessa atalanta, as a bonus. It was quite high up in a hedge, but we finally got this shot. We already have the underside of this butterfly on an earlier page. But it is our resolute intention, to go on, as far as we can, adding more examples of insects and the other works of Nature to this page. For it is only by searching for them and seeing them in their natural habitat in the first place; and then by wondering about them for some time; and then by reading up what highly qualified naturalists have written about them, that we may finally realise & understand, how perilously close we are coming to DESTROYING THEM – even if inadvertently. Many species have gone already from Britain. Many more are grievously threatened. You may well ask: ‘Do Butterflies & Moths really matter?’ Well, I rather fancy that these beautiful but fragile creatures quite strongly symbolise our own situation! If we do not stop messing up the planet, it will be very bad indeed for us. Actually, in many ways, I fear it’s too late already. On which doleful note, this page ends – but not before reporting that we saw and photographed a blue butterfly, but it was worn and the picture was poorly focused, and as we walked back along the Bude canal, we saw two Clouded Yellows – or perhaps the same one twice – but it settled far away on the other side of the canal, well out of reach.


Page written 22nd. January 2008.