Tuesday 21 December 2021

Butterflies in December in Portugal

 Butterflies still flying in December

Red Admiral (Photo: Steve Andrews)

Here where I live in Portugal there are still butterflies flying in December. One of the most commonly seen is the Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta).  The males establish territories they patrol on scrubland, while mated females seek out patches of Annual Nettles (Urtica urens) that grow well at this time of year, due to the late autumn rains. These nettles often grow as weeds in gardens and so the butterflies can often be seen there too. The caterpillars make tents out of the leaves and can be found by looking rolled up leaves at the top of plants. There is a patch of ground where I took the photo above, where I see Red Admirals every year. It is almost as if the same butterfly has returned, as regular as clockwork, but of course, they are new butterflies. This leaves the question of how do they select the same spot each year. It is amongst scrub and pines but there are plenty of similar spaces. 

Small White (Photo: Steve Andrews)

The Small White (Pieris rapae) can often be seen too in December. I presume the Large White (P. brassicae) are still around, though I cannot vouch for this. although at other times in the year they are common. Both species can be seen in urban settings where they fly over parks and gardens in search of cabbages, cauliflowers, kale and broccoli on which their caterpillars can feed unless gardener spots them and removes them. Both species can be found in rural areas too where the females lay their eggs on wild species in the Cress family (Cruciferae). 

Speckled Wood (Photo: Steve Andrews)

There are still a few Speckled Wood butterflies about as well. The subspecies most often seen Portugal is Pararge aegeria aegeria. The speckles on its wings are more of a tawny orange shade than the usual pale yellow markings that contrast with the darker brown. At first sight these Portuguese Speckled Woods closely resemble the Wall Brown (Lasiommata megera), and I must admit I was fooled by this similarity when I first came to Portugal. The Wall Brown has seriously declined in the UK. Both these butterflies use various grass species as food-plants for their caterpillars. Here in Portugal I always wonder what the butterflies that need grass do in the hot part of the year when all the grass has died or become dessicated and brown. They have some means of surviving these times of summer drought. The Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina) is very common where I live, which is in a town about 25km south of Lisbon. It is not seen in winter but when it does fly in summer I have seen these butterflies sheltering in the shade of clumps of trees. 

Swallowtail caterpillars on Rue (Photo: Steve Andrews)

There are still caterpillars of the Swallowtail (Papilio machaon gorganus) feeding on Rue in gardens, though I haven't seen any adult butterflies since November. The winter chrysalises of this species are a brownish colour, as opposed to the green ones that are produced for the rest of the year. These chrysalises and any still to be produced, will stay sleeping until the spring when the cycle begins again. Speaking of Swallowtail butterflies,  I saw a female of the Southern Scarce Swallowtail (Iphiclides feisthamelii) in the first week of December, despite the cold.  She was inspecting an almond tree on some waste-ground near where I live and laying her eggs on the remaining leaves. Sadly her efforts were in vain because the tree has since shed all its leaves. I went back to see if could spot any caterpillars that had hatched, with the idea that maybe I could keep them indoors and feed from any leaves I could locate on plum, peach or almond that hadn't yet dropped theirs. There were no leaves and no caterpillars. This female butterfly was out too late in the year here.  Many species are being affected by climate change and are doing what they can to adapt to the ever changing conditions we are experiencing. Next month is usually the coldest month of winter in Portugal and we get hard frosts then so I am not expecting to see any January butterflies but these days you never know!