Saturday, 7 December 2019

The Chequered Skipper Flies Once Again!

Seeing Chequered Skippers flying once again in their former English strongholds has been a dream of mine since I was a child. I grew up in Northamptonshire in a house that backed on to fields and while exploring the seemingly endless natural world beyond the back gate I developed a fascination for butterflies. I kept this interest in butterflies into my adult life and I now find myself as the Northamptonshire county butterfly recorder. It was during my early studies of butterflies when I first came across the Chequered Skipper, unfortunately it wasn’t on the side of a woodland ride but rather in a book as the species became extinct in England two years before I was born. I was saddened to read the accounts of its disappearance from its former strongholds here in the county and I was amazed to learn just how rapidly a species can decline and become extinct in a relatively short space of time. I was therefore rather excited to hear of an amazing new project called Back from the Brink that was being set up with the intention of working with lots of conservation partners in order to help our wildlife, but I was especially excited to hear one of these partners was Butterfly Conservation and the aim was to reintroduce the Chequered Skipper back into Rockingham Forest! I put my name down as a volunteer as soon as I could as I really wanted to play a part in this project and it was great to help with the monitoring in 2018 after the initial release to see the Belgian Chequered Skippers getting used to their new home. 

Belgian Chequered Skipper, Rockingham Forest, May 2018

Belgian Chequered Skipper, Rockingham Forest, May 2018

Belgian Chequered Skipper, Rockingham Forest, May 2018
One thing I and a few other volunteers agreed on at the time was how exciting it would be should some Chequered Skippers survive from this release and emerge the following year, now that would be amazing! Throughout the rest of the year I’d talk to other volunteers and I admit a bit of worry crept in as although the long hot summer led to one of the best butterfly seasons for many species we’ve ever had in Northamptonshire would the Chequered Skipper larvae be able to survive it with the drying up of so many foodplants? As Spring started in 2019 news eventually broke that Chequered Skippers had begun to emerge in Europe and then in mid May they emerged in Scotland. By now the monitoring had already begun and despite everyone unfortunately drawing a blank and I was itching to get in there to help but work and local butterfly conservation branch commitments meant I couldn’t start my first monitoring session until later in May. I woke up to find the sun shining so I headed to the site a little earlier than planned as I really wanted to make the most of my day there. The method of monitoring is quite simply to walk as many rides as possible in the area and if any Chequered Skippers are seen record their exact location so we can see how they’re dispersing. As none had been seen yet I had already worked out a route on the map the night before that paid particular attention on the rides I’d seen the released Belgian ones in the year before. It’s a puzzle even to me then as to why I didn’t go up the first ride I’d marked on my route but I’m very pleased I didn’t! I got to the start of the ride and paused while looking down it but for some reason it just didn’t seem right. I’m not sure looking back whether it was the position of the sun or the direction of the wind at that time in the morning that put me off but whatever it was I decided to walk a bit further and head down a different ride instead. At the start of the ride I took out the clipboard and noted the ride number, time date, wind speed and direction etc and started to walk paying particular attention to the Bugle flowers as I did. Quite a few Bees caught my eye as they darted around and then all of a sudden a butterfly took off from out the grass and settled to show itself as a Small Heath which was reassuring as it showed that butterflies were already on the wing. I continued to walk and after only a few paces I noticed another small patch of Bugle on my left and I froze, my jaw slowly dropped open and goosepimples appeared on both arms. Right in front of me busily nectaring on a Bugle was a Chequered Skipper!

English Chequered Skipper, male, the very 1st to emerge in Rockingham Forest, May 2019
I slowly put down my rucksack and took out my camera to take a few photos before ringing Susannah O’Riordan to give her the good news. By the now the Skipper had moved from the Bugle and was now basking in the grass. I took this opportunity to take a couple more photos before logging it’s location with a GPS, writing down it’s description and behaviour before continuing  with the monitoring route. A friend of mine arrived later who was also down to monitor and between us we managed to find another two more in separate areas of the site during the day and although were obviously early days in the emergence of these English Chequered Skippers the signs were really encouraging!

English Chequered Skipper, male, 3rd to emerge in Rockingham Forest, May 2019
I had to wait a week before being able to monitor again but this was interesting for me as it coincided with this year’s release day of another batch of Belgian Chequered Skipper. I helped with the setting up of the release pens and while the butterflies in the nets were getting used to their new home I started my monitoring survey as the sun broke through the clouds. Unfortunately this sun was short lived as within 10 minutes of starting the heavens opened and the rain started to pour. I half heartedly walked a few of the rides on the route I’d given myself while I wasn’t sheltering under the trees and looped round back to the release site. The rain stopped and it even warmed up a bit as I walked back up the ride towards the rest of the group who were gathered around one of the pens ready to release the butterflies. As I approached I noticed a butterfly out of the corner of my eye and to my amazement there was a Chequered Skipper!

English Chequered Skipper, male, Rockingham Forest, May 2019

  I called everyone over and it was fantastic to see the excitement in the group as they gathered round to admire this special butterfly! Very soon after this the new batch of Belgian Chequered Skippers were released, they were marked with small coloured dots to seperate them from the freshly emerged English ones.

Belgian Chequered Skipper about to be released, male, Rockingham Forest, May 2019
Belgian Chequered Skipper shortly after release, male, Rockingham Forest, May 2019
A few years ago I visited a very good friend of mine who lives in Fort William and he took me to see the Chequered Skippers around the Highlands and it amazed me then how quickly they can come out after a rain shower. These new English ones seem to show the same characteristics as after the new batch of Belgian Chequered Skippers were released I continued my survey and found a few more fresh English Chequered Skippers basking on the tops of wet grasses in between rain showers. When it comes to wet weather they certainly seem to be a very plucky butterflies! The last Chequered Skipper I saw was in early June and was a nice fresh female, let's hope she was full of eggs to continue the success of the reintroduction.

English Chequered Skipper, female, Rockingham Forest, June 2019
A few return visits were made later in the year to try and find larvae in order to gain a better understanding of the species breeding requirements. I only had time to make one visit but I'm pleased to say after a few hours searching Andy Wyldes and I eventually found one. The larva makes a shelter by drawing the sides of a blade of grass together with silk to create a feeding tube. In the first photo you can just see it's head poking out and also the distinctive feeding damage along the edge of the leaf.

English Chequered Skipper larva, Rockingham Forest, September 2019
English Chequered Skipper larva, Rockingham Forest, September 2019
The Back from the Brink project and Butterfly Conservation deserve congratulations for their amazing accomplishment this year I feel extremely privileged to have been given the chance to help this project in my own small way and I would urge anyone who is reading this to offer some free time to volunteer for other Back from the Brink projects you may have in your area.

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