Tag Archive: Marsh Fritillary


After confirming my suspicions that Stigmella aurella is pretty much as common as muck…

Sigmella aurella vacated leaf mine, Slidderyford, Newcastle

Vacated Stigmella aurella leaf mine at Slidderyford

… I headed into Murlough yesterday to see what the Marsh Fritillary caterpillars were up to. As I did I heard the chuck of my first Stonechat of the year.

The last brood (2010-11) saw healthy numbers of caterpillars at the entrance to the No Dogs area at J398338. This time round I only found two webs where there had been six or seven before. And only one of those was up and about yesterday:

Marsh Fritillary caterpillars, Murlough, 25 Feb 2012

They're back!

Marsh Fritillary caterpillars feeding on devilsbit scabious, Murlough, 25 Feb 2012

Eat! Eat!

There were about 40 caterpillars here – mostly clustered together for warmth, but a few were getting tucked in to some devilsbit leaves, as you can see.

After a fruitless check for any other webs nearby, I walked north to J405343 – the main Marsh Fritillary colony in the reserve. It was cold, overcast, and there seemed to be dead rabbits around every corner. When I reached the south-facing bank where I had seen a web last brood, it didn’t take me too long to find another mass of black caterpillars like spilt caviare on the slope.

Pretty soon my camera ran out of battery, which mercifully stopped me filling my SD card with dozens of caterpillar photos! They really were common. I wasn’t sure whether to count individual masses as ‘groups’ of larvae, so I decided to count a group as any caterpillars within 1m of each other. To be sure I was giving an accurate idea of their abundance, however,  I basically counted them caterpillar by caterpillar. They amounted to 470 in total.

Finally I left the little caterpillars and dead rabbits and headed back to the caravan for lunch. The sight of a Kestrel hovering over the golf course greeted me when I arrived back.

2012 BRITISH BUTTERFLIES: 1L

2012 BRITISH BIRDS: 73 

With all the predictions of a Marsh Fritillary Big Bang Year, I was itching to get down to Murlough to see if they had emerged. And they had!

My first butterfly of the day was my 12th species of the year: the Small Heath. It’s a small buff and orange insect, very common in the reserve (I counted over 600 in total last year!)

22.5.11 Small Heath

Not long after came number 13: the gorgeous Marsh Fritillary!

22.5.11 Marsh Fritillary

Heading from J3933 into J4033, I found this big fella: the caterpillary of the Dark Green Fritillary. He was wandering across the path and I got him crawling on my hand (very theraputic!) before putting him in a nice patch of violets, which he tucked into straight away. I’ve never seen one before – he brings my species count to 14 but the adult butterfly count remains at 13 until he metamorphosises along with his mates.

22.5.11 Dark Green Fritillary caterpillar

J4034 brought 18 more Marsh Frits, a Mother Shipton moth (looks like a witch) and best of all, a hawkmoth-of-conservation-concern: the Narrow-bordered Bee Hawkmoth. Jeepers, what a name!

22.5.11 Mother Shipton 22.5.11 Narrow-bordered Bee Hawkmoth

Total Marsh Frit count for the day was 22 – not quite a Big Bang, although conditions weren’t ideal (very windy, occasional heavy showers) and I didn’t have the help of two senior butterfly recorders like I did last year when I counted 57! Nevertheless, a great day.

2011 BUTTERFLIES (NI): 13

Emperors and Tigers

17.4.11 Garden Tiger caterpillar

After some correspondence with the Chairman of Butterfly Conservation NI, Ian Rippey, I went to Murlough yesterday (17-Apr) to try and find an Emperor Moth. It wasn’t hard! I saw thirteen of them but boy were they fast! Without a butterfly net I had no hope of catching one. Not that I minded – it was good enough to see them haring across the heather in search of a female (the females fly at dusk, the males in the daytime), free and wild. One whizzed right past me and I saw its bright orange wings but couldn’t get a photo of the magnificent eyespots that give it the rights to such an imperial name.

Thankfully, caterpillars are less inclined to zip around at sixty miles an hour, and so are much easier to photograph. The Garden Tiger, above, (or “woolly bear” for the kids out there) has got to be one of my many favourite caterpillars. It was accompanied, of course, by a huge Drinker moth caterpillar (squashed, sadly) and more Marsh Fritillary caterpillars.

The other treat that day was a kestrel, hovering above the heath and looking intently down for any small mammals. I didn’t see it catch anything. Plus, I saw what I think might be a reed bunting, skulking in some gorse bushes. Beautiful day for it too.

And of course a Small Tort popped up for good measure.

I’m off to America tomorrow so if I don’t get much Internet time I’ll report on the wildlife (hopefully including butterflies) and the weather (possibly including thunderstorms) when I get back. I am EXCITED!!!

Found another Marsh Fritillary larval web, with about 70 caterpillars. Nearly had kittens when a big excited mutt came over for a pat and nearly trod on them.

The webs I saw a month ago are more active now in the warmer weather, and have started roaming across paths (I nearly stood on some myself). As a result it’s harder to tell individual webs apart and so I’ve nearly given up on that.

The caterpillars are now generally 10-15mm long, black with spines and white spots. I saw them massed together basking but also roaming and eating. I’ve begun marking the webs with pens stuck in the ground but only had time to mark two this weekend. In total I estimate that I saw 160 MaFr caterpillars – on one hand I was in a rush so probably missed some and underestimated; on the other I probably grossly overestimated numbers last time. Forgive me – I’m an amateur

Butterfly enthusiast/scientist/obsessive Matthew Oates wrote on his Purple Empire blog recently that he had seen quite a few MaFr larval webs and proposed that this might be a “Marsh Fritillary Big Bang year”. Based on the numbers of caterpillars I’ve seen in Murlough I expect he will be proved right!!

Apart from the frits I didn’t see any other butterflies, moths or caterpillars, although I saw the male skylarks / meadow pipits (couldn’t tell the difference) displaying for the first time this year. They rise up in the air going pee-pee-pee-peepeepeepipipipisipsipsipsip and then glide back down with their tails sticking up. Yes sir, spring is in the air.

The first caterpillars of 2011

By the time snow and frost and sub-zero temps have arrived, most animals either migrate, hibernate or die. But as the sun climbs back up into the sky, nature gradually awakens out of its frozen stupor and begins to sing again. It’s spring again.

Last Saturday (19-Feb) I saw my first caterpillar of the year: a furry little Ruby Tiger, sunbathing on the grass near Musgrave Park, Belfast. (Incidentally, it’s this caterpillar you can see in the website logo!)

19.2.11 Ruby Tiger moth caterpillar

But the next day got even better. I’ve been keeping an eye on the endangered Marsh Fritillary butterflies in Murlough National Nature Reserve near Newcastle, Co. Down. This equisite little insect flies in May and June then lays its eggs and dies. The eggs hatch into caterpillars, and, unusually for a butterfly, they spin a communal web of silk to protect themselves. They feed and grow through the summer and autumn, then retreat deep into vegetation to hibernate.

Now, it’s February, and they’re coming out again to eat. And so on the Sunday of that weekend (20-Feb) I saw them: 9 groups of tiny black caterpillars, huddled together and hoping for a glimpse of sunshine. There are probably over 100 per group, so that amounts to about 1000 caterpillars – and I think I’ll be able to find more on my next visit!

20.2.11 Marsh Fritillary caterpillars

1000 caterpillars may seem a phenomenal count for an endangered butterfly, but many of these may get parasites and die, get eaten and die, or get squashed and die. Still, hopefully a whole lot will survive to become lovely white, black and yellow chrysalides (that’s the plural form of chrysalis for some reason) and I can’t wait to see how many adult butterflies emerge come Maytime!