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Butterflies… and so much more!


Marsh Fritillary
The Marsh Fritillary… Ireland’s only protected butterfly species

Against all odds a mini-heatwave seemed to have descended on Ireland. The sun blazed out of a sky for once devoid of cloud as we met up in the car park at Barleycove beach in West Cork.

It was early June and we were looking  for butterflies.

Marsh fritillary pair on orchid
Marsh fritillary pair on a flowering orchid.

Our target species for the day was the rare marsh fritillary — one of Ireland’s most striking butterfly species — and the subtly beautiful wall brown. Of course we hoped to spot many more species along the way, and with a bit of luck some other local wildlife too.

Led by experienced butterfly enthusiasts Ciaran Cronin, Abi Brewer and Damaris Lysaght, a group of around a dozen of us listened to Ciaran’s informative briefing in the car park before dispersing across Lissagriffin marsh in search of, you guessed in, marsh fritillaries. It wasn’t long before we spotted our first — and then we were seeing them everywhere.

We also found some interesting day flying moths, including the familiar black and crimson cinabarr moth and a beautifully marked Mother Shipton, along with an azure damselfly sunning itself in the grass.

An early highlight for the uninitiated were close-up views of Ciaran’s entertaining “netting” technique as he captured specimens for closer examination.

Disclaimer: no butterflies were harmed during the course of this outing… not so sure the same can be said for egos and reputations.

It was great to get distant views of a singing cuckoo too — my first this year.

A look around Barleycove dunes before lunch got us our first common blue of the day — an exquisite little butterfly —  and a small heath… another beauty. Then, the highlight of the day erupted from the dunes. An Irish stoat appeared from nowhere and started investigating the rabbit warrens riddling the  dunes. It was completely unperturbed by its rapt audience and gave the best views I’ve ever had of this enigmatic Irish mammal.

I know this was meant to be a butterfly weekend… but sorry butterflies, the stoat wins hands down.

Irish Stoat
A stoat going like the clappers across Barleycove dunes

Then it was lunchtime — I went down to the beach to eat my sandwich and there, just a few dozen metres from where oblivious swimmers frolicked in the shallows, was a large basking shark, moving languidly across the bay hoovering up plankton. Superb!

(June is a great month for picking up basking sharks around our coast — for more info check out our guide on how to watch basking sharks.)

After lunch we headed to the nearby Brow Head — a stunning headland jutting out into the Atlantic, with panoramic views. Looking back down into Barleycove bay we got great, if slightly distant views of the basking shark feeding along a tidal front just off the beach. But back to the butteflies… our target here was the elusive wall brown, and it wasn’t too long before we picked a few of them up.  “Fast Net” Cronin ( a nickname coined against the backdrop of the Fastnet Rock) put his kamikaze netting technique to good use again, getting everyone lovely close-up views of this subtly beautiful butterfly.

Brow Head, West Cork
Brow Head in West Cork — truly breathtaking views from Ireland’s south coast.

Brow Head also yielded more common blues, small heaths, a selection of whites, and my favourite of the day… the green hairstreak… a fantastic butterfly.

Green Hairstreak
The green hairstreak — a gorgeous little butterfly who’s green sheen shifts and shimmers with the light.

Dragonflies, damselflies, a swimming common lizard and a stunning small copper butterfly rounded off what had been a magnificent day not just for butterflies, but for a whole host of Irish wildlife.

Small copper.
Small copper — posing for the camera — another wildlife highlight in a day crammed full of them

On a more serious note, while we did see a good selection of butterflies during the course of the day, overall numbers were very low, and some species, like the speckled wood, which should be abundant, were completely absent.

Posting on the Irish Butterfly Monitoring Scheme Facebook page about the  outing Ciaran Cronin commented on the lack of butterflies:

It is concerning that numbers of all butterflies were so low. Numbers of Common Blues were well below the ‘clouds’ expected, Wall Browns were scarce when they should be abundant, even the whites were few and far between. There were no Speckled Woods, when there are usually many.

So, a sobering reality check to end what was a very enjoyable wildlife outing. How about you? Have you noticed less butterflies around than usual for the time of year? Let us know in the comments.

A huge thanks to Ciaran, Abi and Damaris for organising and leading the day, and to everyone else who turned up and made it so enjoyable. I’ll finish up with a Flickr slideshow of  selected photographs from the day:

1 comment

  • Maurico Pipistrello

    Very well written article, thank you Calvin for wonderful story!

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