Country diary: For spring butterflies, survival is the name of the game | Butterflies

Mid-morning, on the warmest day of the year so far. The only clouds are of wispy, plumed seeds, released from dandelion clocks and ripe goat willow catkins, ethereal “witches’ gowns” rising on thermals into a clear blue sky.

This south-facing slope, formerly the site of Brancepeth colliery, landscaped then ungrazed for half a century, is a high-quality butterfly habitat. One pace ahead of us along a path through waist-high grasses, two freshly emerged dingy skippers are engaged in a furious aerial dogfight, before seeming to vanish into the ground. Their cryptic coloration, blending with scuffed earth that they prefer to settle on, is astonishingly effective. I watch one settle, look away, and can not locate it again. Get close enough – if you can – and it’s apparent that “dingy” is a calumny; its wing scales are intricately arranged into mottled patches and fringes, in shades of brown and cream, like threads in the pattern of a Fair Isle jumper.

The lurid colors of the red and black froghopper.
The lurid colors of the red and black froghopper warn predators of a disagreeable taste. Photograph: Phil Gates

The skippers have two imperatives: feed and live long enough to breed, avoiding predators such as the whitethroat singing in the bramble patch nearby. A well-weathered peacock butterfly laying its eggs on nettles – an overwintered survivor from last autumn – had already fulfilled its destiny, although beak-shaped tears in wing eyespots tell of near misses.

Tawny-winged small heath butterflies, also emerging in large numbers today, combine several survival strategies: wing eyespot markings to deflect potentially fatal pecks, mottled undersides when their wings are fully folded, and a tendency to always face the sun when settling, creating the tiniest possible shadow.

Scores of red and black froghoppers (Cercopis vulnerata) sucking sap from tender new leaves on the whitethroat’s bramble patch, gamble on a more uninhibited approach to survival. Their nymphs feed safely underground on plant roots, but the adults have taken a leaf out of the ladybird’s playbook for their brief sojourn into the sunshine. Their lurid color scheme warns of a repellent taste: once eaten, forever avoided. I wonder if the whitethroat has learned that lesson yet, or whether one of these exquisite little insects will soon be “taking one for the team”.

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