The Changing Seasons

(c) Jeff Gorse
Jeff Gorse

As summer passes its zenith the changing of the season is marked by changes in the wildlife at our local patches. As a broiler of a summer burns slowly but surely into autumn the first departures see cuckoos and swifts begin to head south on their long migration to their wintering grounds and in due course they will be followed by that most familiar and melancholy sign of the changing seasons as family groups of swallows and martins gather on the telegraph wires as they muster for their migration. In their place come a changing cast of character - the first snipe cryptically-crouching amidst the reeds at Pennington Flash and rewarding the keen-eyed observer, and later in the autumn redwing, fieldfare and geese arriving in huge flocks to spend the winter months on our more hospitable shores. Yet while we are all familiar with bird migration patterns and the perils they face on their long treks did you also know that some insects undertake trans-continental journeys each year which in their way are even more remarkable feats?

Walking along a woodland footpath in Wigan recently I caught the familiar sight of a hawker dragonfly patrolling between the trees in the hot, still afternoon. Smaller and slighter than the familiar cruising corsairs the emperor and common hawkers, this was a female migrant hawker and when she perched on the tip of an alder branch she allowed a longer observation. Most likely this was a British native but in late summer numbers are swollen by large influxes from continental Europe, a mind-boggling journey for such a small insect.

The recent Paddington Meadows bioblitz played out in glorious weather and as our group passed a giant buddleia bush a large flash of dark and orange caught the eye as a large butterfly flopped from flower stalk to flower stalk. It wasn't another of the ubiquitous peacocks but a painted lady, a migratory species which appears in our region each summer in varying numbers. Recent research revealed that this tiny, fragile insect migrates at altitudes of up to 3,000 feet at speeds of up to 30 miles an hour as they undertake a remarkable journey, conducted over generations, from north Africa and southern Europe and travelling as far north as the Arctic Circle on what is a longer haul than the more famous one undertaken across the Atlantic by the monarch butterfly.

On that same buddleia bush - and in good numbers this summer - definitely not a butterfly but a moth. The silver Y is a daytime flier which like the painted lady arrives in Britain each spring and which is further boosted by later arrivals in the summer, flying from Europe and north Africa with several generations taking the wing in our country before the survivors return south in the autumn. A strong flier for a moth, this summer has been a good one with buddleia bushes in particular rewarding closer inspection for this busy grey moth with its very distinctive bright Y wing markings. It is surely also the only insect to have upstaged a football superstar - the infamous moth plague which descended upon the Euro 2016 final and particularly upon Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo were silver Ys. Who knows, maybe the very moth which graced CR7's face had its origins in Wigan, Salford or Warrington?