Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Sensational Butterflies and Chuffed with a Chiffchaff

I took a little trip into London town on Friday just gone to visit the pop-up exotic butterfly house at the Natural History Museum. I know the thought of insects flapping around your head in large numbers may not appeal to some, but it's certainly right up my street! Stepping into the tent outside the museum was wonderful, not only for the array of butterflies but for the intensely humid climate that took the edge of a not-quite warm Spring day in the capital.

The thing that most struck me was the size of some of the species, in comparison to our native ones. One of the largest species there appeared a bright, iridescent blue but in actual fact is naturally yellow. The scales on their wings act in the same way as a kingfisher's feathers do, by refracting light and appearing a vivid shade of blue to the human eye. In some lights, I could see a slight yellow tinge to some of the wings but the fact was a hard one to swallow!

I did have one slightly unexpected experience while in there. Naturally the insects were inclined to land on the visitors whenever the mood took them, especially if they happened to be wearing tantalisingly floral clothing (the visitors, that is, not the butterflies!) At one point I was told I had one on my head and I could feel it flapping away across my sunglasses. It appeared to be in no rush to vacate. The operator of the butterfly house came over when he saw what was going on and told us that the particular species currently occupying my head was actually a host-specific butterfly, meaning that it only lays its eggs on one specific plant. As if to completely contradict this, the butterfly decided that the underside of my sunglasses would be the perfect place to lay a couple of eggs! The operator was certainly very surprised and confused by this behaviour and asked me if I wouldn't mind taking off my glasses so he could remove the eggs and the butterfly. Even after removal, it kept showing keen interest in my glasses, but no one could work out why!

I was most fascinated by the window displaying hundreds of chrysalides all in uniform lines. The sheer variety of shapes, sizes and colours was quite a spectacle. There were several freshly-hatched insects, still drying out their crinkled wings, and a few chrysalides were wriggling with the promise of imminent hatching. Some of these looked exactly liked curled-up autumn leaves, others looked like tiny, pastel jewels and one type reminded me of a snail without its shell!

My definite highlight was being able to see a truly striking species of moth only inches away from me. It is actually the largest species of moth on the planet; the Atticus Atlas. There was a male and female in the tent, having only emerged from their cocoons two days before. The guide very gently lifted the hook that the larger female was attached to down for us to have a closer look. Her body was enormous, with long, furry "ears" and translucent spots on her wings that looked almost like very thin tracing paper. She wasn't the largest example of the species: apparently they can grow to nearly cover the chest of a grown man!

After checking ourselves for any hitchhiking insects, we headed to Hyde Park for some lunch by the Serpentine. This, it turns out, is an absolute haven for all sorts of bird life. Alongside many species I've seen before but never tire of watching, I was ecstatic to spot two chiffchaffs! This was a first for me. I was able to easily identify their characteristic song that gave them away before spotting them nestled in the reedbed.

The Greylags were all getting a bit territorial with one another and we later found out that some had goslings, which explained their behaviour. I was surprised when I saw a Greylag chase off the Grey Heron at one point though!

F + M Tufted Duck
Egyptian Geese goslings
Male GC Grebe

Here's a full list of the birds I spotted, including my first wild parakeets:

-2 chiffchaff
-30+ Greylag Geese and 1 gosling
-1 grey heron
-Town Pigeons
-Pied Wagtails
-1 Canada Goose
-20+ Egyptian Geese with goslings
-2 Parakeets
-1 Great Crested Grebe
-1 male, 2 female Pochard
-1 male, 1 female Tufted Duck
-Mallard Drakes
-House Martins
-1 adult, 1 juvenile Herring Gull

I believe the Sensational Butterflies exhibition will be available until September this year so it's definitely worth popping along to witness the spectacle for yourself!

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