Wednesday 16 October 2013

"A Cloud of Clouded Yellows", The Grange Park Clouded Yellow Story - 10th November 2013

Please forgive me as there will be a degree of repetition in this post, that being a lot of what I am about to write has already been mentioned in previous posts but as they're spread out over the last couple of months I though I'd include the lot in one posting. Regular readers of this blog will already know that this year me and the rest of my naturalist social circle have really concentrated on butterflies in our wildlife watching. I have been interested in butterflies for years and I regularly make trips to see the local specialities when they emerge. Until this year one butterfly had eluded me though, and this is the Clouded Yellow. For years I have kept and eye out for them while out birding or chasing butterflies but I had never got a glimpse and it was becoming a little frustrating. One of the less openly talked about sides to wildlife watching is the social scene. At various rare bird twitches or butterfly sites large groups of people congregating together giving the opportunity to meet new faces (and indeed say hello to old ones) and talk about the things we have seen. Quite often a game of "top trumps" can develop as the backs of digital SLR's get flashed about and people show off their past experiences. It was during these interactions with like minded individuals earlier in the year the words "Clouded Yellow" kept being banded about and the fact that it was an omission from my butterfly list was becoming a little embarrassing. So with this in mind, and the fact that a lot of reports were filtering in of Clouded Yellows further south, I set myself the target of finally seeing Clouded Yellows this year no matter what! They were reported at various sites around my area but despite searching and searching I just never seemed to get lucky. I searched in vain at Twywell Hills and Dales a few times before I nearly slung the towl in but a mate of mine (Sam Candy) joined me in the search and we then headed up to a site near Peterborough where we finally saw them. It took us nearly 3 hours to get pics of this flighty insect but we managed it in the end.

Clouded Yellow, Peterborough
  A week later (the 25th August) John Friendship-Taylor and me spent a large part of the day at Harrington Airfield and after failing miserably to find any birds I remembered that 3 Clouded Yellows had been seen at the other side of the site. We saw them pretty quickly and luckily one of them decided to pose for photographs. I snapped away at for ages while it flew from flower to flower, even managing to get two on the same plant.

Clouded Yellows, Harrington Airfield
On the 27th of August the biggest surprise came as I was waiting for a friend of mine to travel down from Scotland (Matt Whitelocke). I live at Grange Park in Northampton and while trying to kill a bit of time I went to the local supermarket to get the beers in (a few of my friends were popping round in the evening to meet Matt). I had wanted to explore the wasteland north of the estate for a while as it looks good for migrant birds but for some reason I had never got round to it and as I was here and had nothing else to do I decided to have a wander up. I walked up the bank following the footpath and notice trefoil plants littering the area and straight away my mind wandered to Clouded Yellows. I started to scan the area and it wasn't long before a Clouded Yellow came whirling passed, closely followed by another and then another. I tried counting several times but it really isn't that easy to count these quick flyers. The most I could see at one time was 15, but after Matt arrived and joined me we both agreed that the figure was easily somewhere between 20 and 30. Photography was proving to be a nightmare though as the sunshine made the butterflies so active none would settle for more than a couple of seconds. Luckily as we walked along the footpath we noticed a Buddleia bush in a clearing and hanging on one of the flowers was a Clouded Yellow. As this was the first time Matt had seen these butterflies I let him have the full run of photographing it and one of his pics is below.

Clouded Yellow, Grange Park, Northampton - pic taken by Matt Whitelocke
  Local chap Ian Pretty joined us with his family as did Jon and Kirsty Philpot and as the sun went down early evening they started to head up under leaves to settle down for the night. Unfortunately a lot of them must have moved on and the following day the numbers had halved.

Clouded Yellow, Grange Park.
As Matt was down to build his bird list up we headed to Norfolk for a few days so we couldn't check the site out until the following Friday (30th August). We still saw Clouded Yellows in some numbers but the real highlight for us was the presence of an helice which is a female pale variant. It was so flighty we simply didn't stand a chance of getting pictures, in fact it was moving so fast we couldn't even keep up with it as it tore round. The amount of Small Whites in the area also helped it vanish as if by magic, only for it to reappear again whizzing in and out of the trefoil. People had been traveling here to see them and the helice was seen by at least three people over two days before that too moved on. Regrettably this also marked the end of my week off work so I couldn't keep an eye on the site as much as I would have liked. I did pay a couple of brief visits over the following few weeks but the weather had turned colder and the days got shorter and only a few Common Blues, Comma's and Red Admirals could be seen, it looked like the Clouded Yellow season had come to an end. I had of course been keeping the Northants butterfly recorder, Doug Goddard, up to date with the sightings and he had mentioned that with this many in the area (coupled with the amount of Trefoil) there is a real possibility of them breeding at the site which was great news. Fast forward now to the 6th of October and after the previous few days of wind and rain an afternoon of warm, bright sunshine ensued. As I finally had some time off and I thought I'd have a quick look just on the off chance that I could perhaps see a young Clouded Yellow. I walked along the footpath and scanned the waste ground but it was to no avail. I walked the length towards the A45 and back and I had nearly got back to the car when a little mustard coloured butterfly could be seen flying around the grasses at the bottom of the bank. I went down and was greeted with the view of a fresh male Clouded Yellow which promptly took off and flew up and down the waste ground at a terrific pace (hence no pics). This was excellent  and a further email to Doug confirmed his suspicions that this was evidence of breeding on the site. I always seemed to be working on the brighter days but luckily Doug Goddard managed to get to the site for a look round and on the 12th October I was delighted to receive an email to not only say he'd found three Clouded Yellows with two of them males but the other one, a female, turned out to be an helice variant! To put this into perspective Doug had mentioned that only three helice females had been reported in Northants this year with two of them being the one I saw earlier and this young one found by Doug. As another talking point to the story after he took a couple of pictures of the helice female he noticed that one of it's legs had somehow become detached and stuck on it's wing. Here is his pictures below showing the male and helice female.

Male Clouded Yellow, taken by Doug Goddard

Helice female Clouded Yellow (with detached leg on wing), taken by Doug Goddard

Helice female Clouded Yellow (with detached leg on wing), taken by Doug Goddard

Doug returned on the following Tuesday (15th October) and managed to relocate the helice female noticing that the detached leg seems to have disappeared. He achieved this fantastic shot of the butterfly below.

Helice female Clouded Yellow, taken by Doug Goddard
Doug also returned on the 19th and saw three males and another helice. This other helice wasn't as pale as the first one but more importantly had six legs showing it to be a different butterfly but it did have a slight kink in one of it's antennae.

On the 23rd October I finally had a day off work that coincided with a spell of sunshine and after a spot of local patch birding I headed over to the site. I have to say it wasn't looking good from the start as a strong westerly wind was blowing right across the area but despite this a Comma sunning itself on a rock lifted my heart considerably. As I walked along the bank below the footpath I spotted a male Clouded Yellow as it shot passed me and this was followed fairly rapidly by another. A brief scan with the binoculars showed a third Clouded Yellow behind so without trying too hard I had three very nice looking male Clouded Yellows whirling around me. Although this was great it wasn't what I was really after. My ultimate prize would be a photograph of an helice as the one I saw earlier in the year didn't stop at all, in fact it wouldn't even pose for a record shot. Scanning the area with binoculars was difficult too as there were a lot of small yellow leaves falling from the trees but I did notice in the far corner of the area a small leave flew up against the wind and fell a little differently. I headed over and soon locating a stunning looking helice Clouded Yellow in a part of the site that is fairly sheltered from the wind. Closer inspection showed that this one had six legs and didn't have a bent antennae so could very well be the third helice to be seen here in as many weeks. It flew from flower to flower busily feeding with long hesitations as it did so. Such photographic opportunities rarely present themselves with regards to Clouded Yellows so I immediately got to work and rattled off some decent shots, one of the best is below.

Helice Clouded Yellow, Grange Park, Northampton
I also managed to get some slow motion footage of the butterfly as it took off to show the white on the top of the wing. I've posted a couple of videos on YouTube so watch in the highest quality your broadband will allow. Since I have watched them over and over again I just can't keep my eyes off the small yellow spots on the wings.

While editing the many videos and pictures I took I also managed to time a screen grab of the butterfly just on take off showing it's wings wide open. They always settle with their wings shut so to get such a view of a Clouded Yellow (let alone an helice) is a rare one indeed.

Helice Clouded Yellow, Grange Park, Northampton
Anticipation was starting to rise by now for another reason as Clouded Yellows had never been reported in Northants after October and as the weather was remaining mild it was looking like we may see one. A few brief cold snaps with heavy rain and winds did make a sighting over the next couple of weeks look unlikely but I was delighted when I received an email from Doug Goddard on the 3rd of November to say he had seen a fresh looking male Clouded Yellow. This was the first ever November record for the county so was fantastic news.

Male Clouded Yellow (first November county record), taken by Doug Goddard 3/11/13
  He also managed to get back to the site on the 4th and this time found a fresh female Clouded Yellow too.

Female Clouded Yellow, taken by Doug Goddard 4/11/13

Female Clouded Yellow, taken by Doug Goddard 4/11/13
 Due to work I had to wait until the 7th of November before I could get to the site and it couldn't come quick enough. I waited for the forecast sunny spells to happen at midday and then made my way there to explore the area. I walked along the bank and then along the A45 but with no luck. I scanned and scanned with the binoculars but try as I might I couldn't see one. I headed back to the bank and scoured the undergrowth and then I noticed Doug Goddard had arrived. We met up and we both searched the bank hoping to find one and then just as we nearly reached the road Doug let out an involuntary chuckle and pointed to a stunning female Clouded Yellow in the grass. It was a fantastic spot by him to pick it out and we lost no time in taking pics.

Female Clouded Yellow, Grange Park 7/11/13
 The slight chill in the wind was obviously making her docile and she kept quite still as we tried to move grass away to get a clearer shot. Eventually whilst clearing the grass away she crawled onto my hand and I held her into the sun as I took a few more pics.

Female Clouded Yellow, Grange Park 7/11/13

Female Clouded Yellow, Grange Park 7/11/13
I gently put her back into the undergrowth and took a few more pics. We explored the site once again before returning to find her half way up a blade of grass sunning herself. The sun was now shining down from a clear blue sky and the chilly wind had almost stopped. She turned around slowly to take full advantage of the sun and then she took off, flying almost straight up into the air and then shot off out of sight.

 The next big surprise came a few days later. On the 10th of November I was greeted to a beautiful blue sky as I left the house and after a bit of fungi photography in Salcey forest I couldn't resist heading back for another look for more Clouded Yellows. I walked slowly along the bank searching through the undergrowth and then a yellow flash caught my eye at the top of the bank. A Clouded Yellow was whirling around from flower to flower and closer inspection showed it to be a male. I photographed it for a while before letting a few people know and then carried on to try and see if I could see any more. I walked across the site but after not finding any I returned to the bank to relocate the male which I found fairly easily but it wasn't until I was taking pics I realised it was a female! Due to the slight chill in the air she posed very nicely for pics, even allowing me to get close enough for a macro shot of her head!

Female Clouded Yellow, Grange Park, Northampton 10/11/13

Female Clouded Yellow, Grange Park, Northampton 10/11/13
 So there were two there then! I looked around but I couldn't see another one flying but as they say the camera never lies and when going through my pics and videos it was obvious that there was definitely two as I had done a video grab of both the male and the female. I stayed at the site keeping an eye on them as John Friendship-Taylor rang to say he was on his way to see them. At one point I had them fairly close to each other as until now they'd spent most of their time separated by quite a distance but as John arrived they went their separate ways again. We followed the female along the bank and stood their chatting away (me and John hadn't seen each other for a while so needed a catch up) while watching as she feed on a flower at the top of the bank. Suddenly we noticed the male fly in and then fly around the female. I grabbed the opportunity to get some pics after jokingly saying how amazing it would be if they started to "cop". Then they did the unthinkable! After he finished flirting she turned around and they met and hung under the flower copulating. I sank to the floor and took shot after shot. I couldn't believe my eyes! Clouded Yellows rarely breed in Northants as it is but we were not only seeing it happen, we were also seeing it in November!

Clouded Yellows in cop, Grange Park, Northampton
Then when we thought things couldn't get more interesting John pointed at another male which was whirling down the bank. It flew around us for a bit before finding the two in cop and then tried to join in! It all happened in a flash but luckily I got some pics before the interloper shot off back along the bank.

Clouded Yellows in cop with an "interloper" in the middle, Grange Park, 10/11/13
Luckily this didn't disturb them too much but as he left he did leave the poor female rather unceremoniously dangling in the air below the male she was in cop with.

Clouded Yellows in cop, Grange Park, Northampton 10/11/13
They were in cop for 45 minutes before they finally separated but we lost sight of the female almost immediately. We frantically searched for her but to no avail. Taking a pic of a Clouded Yellow egg laying in November would probably be the holy grail of local butterfly pics but despite a thorough search she had done a bunk. The males on the other hand though were busy flying up and down the bank and eventually the female joined them after about half an hour of being undiscoverable. At 14.30 she flew up and into a nearby Oak tree and shortly after one of the males did the same landing in a different part of the tree. To add a slightly surreal aspect to the day I had been tweeting a local chap directions to the site and when he arrived I realised he was my old school teacher from my secondary school - so it was nice to meet you again Mr. Walpole.

It has been an amazing few months here with these fantastic butterflies and who would have thought that even ten days into November the story would still be unfolding?  Many thanks to Doug for allowing me to use his pictures on this blog and of course for putting up with my steady flow of questions about them via email. He mentioned that to see so many Clouded Yellows in one place here in Northants is unusual and consequently they only occasionally breed here which of course makes the finding for me extra special.

On the 25th of January 2014 a copy of the Northants and Beds Butterfly Conservation newsletter landed on the doormat and written inside is a fantastic write up of the events at this site. It's hard to prove as Butterfly Conservation don't have the records to confirm it but it is now considered that the mating pair of Clouded Yellow butterflies may very well be the latest record of this species mating anywhere in Britain! What a finale to the story?

So who'd have thought? I started the butterfly year feeling frustration that in nearly 10 years of serious wildlife watching I had never being lucky enough to see a Clouded Yellow butterfly, and I finished it after finding lots of them just a short 10 minute walk from my front door! What lessons are to be learnt from this? The next time you see an area that looks good for something it's best to go and check!


  1. Well done David. Pass my "well done's" onto the Doug for the images. For the record "top-trumps" on the back of dslr's is called chimping, due to the sound often made whilst viewing images, "oh,oh,oh" etc ;o)

  2. Ha ha "chimping", that's a good way of describing it! Thanks for the nice comments and I am sure Doug will see your "well dones" :0) Thanks mate.


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