Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Return of the gatekeepers

August is the month of the gatekeepers, small, unremarkable but, to me, delightful butterflies, which appear in large numbers and live just a few weeks. It seems a little uncertain why they are called gatekeepers, except they are creatures of hedgerows, where there used to be many more gates than there are now, feeding on ragwort and brambleflowers, which would have grown around the gates. I find the name is part of their charm, giving them a benign and slightly totemic character, which 'wall brown', their other common name, does not.

The ballet of the gatekeepers on the marjoram has always been one of the events of late summer I look forward to, an acutely seasonal and ephemeral thing. Their appearance coincides with the flowering of the herb, which they love to luxuriate in.

This year, however, they seem to be as drawn to the flowers of a new perennial wallflower in the bed opposite, and for some reason, they are more inclined to open their wings when feeding here than on the marjoram.

In a short time they will be gone, already as with the one below, their wings are beginning to fray and fade. It seems odd that one never sees a dead one, it is as though they simply crumble and dissolve into the August dust, to be resurrected out of it again next year.

Last year the summer was so awful that for the first time there were no gatekeepers, perhaps because the grasses the caterpillars feed on were just too waterlogged, and this year I would say their numbers are down, and those I see seem smaller than usual. But it's good to see them back.


Unknown said...

What a pleasure to be greeted by these photographs this morning!

leslee said...

They are lovely! And I like the name, too, as if they're guardians of another world.

Yesterday I took a short walk in the wildlife sanctuary after work, and I thought two small birds flew past my head - but it was two enormous monarch butterflies.

Anonymous said...

Beautifu photos! I second Plutarch and Leslee's comments. I don't think I've seen this kind of butterfly here, in fact in my ignorance I would have thought it was a moth, but of course I see these wings don't lie flat.

julie said...

It's amazing what loveliness can be found in seemingly ordinary little things. How do you manage to catch them on camera - do you use auto focus, or do you set it manually? I ask, because with my camera by the time it decides where the flitting critters are at, they've already moved.

I have a serious case of bird and butterfly envy :)

Lucy said...

Thank you, people.

Nothing like monarchs these! In very hot summers we get more impressive butterflies and moths, this year is not very good so far, I haven't seen any peacocks, an odd swallowtail earlier in the year, a few red admirals...

Julie, some species are more obliging than others! These stop for a little while, and autofocus is usually OK, this camera's just about up to it, dragonflies and many birds are just too quick. You could try the sports/movement setting, we used to do that with our old film Canon.

I feel woefully far from technically adept with photography, and rely on the cleverness of the camera too much. In fact I've only just realised the compression setting on this camera had slipped, I don't know how, and it was taking much smaller and probably not so good pictures, including the wedding shots a few weeks ago, and I'm too inept to have noticed.

Rosie said...

dust to dust...this is a poetic post Lucy. The image of them crumbling away stays with me. As usual your knowledge of our local natural history puts me to shame!

Crafty Green Poet said...

beautiful photos! What a lovely butterfly too, interesting shape to the lower wings.

meggie said...

Beautiful photos!
A very old neighbour had a patch of some flowers that were a mauve such as those wallflowers. They were covered in just such a butterfly as those, & would be flocked with them.
After she died, her house was sold, the patch of flowers destroyed, & I often wonder where the butterflies went. I never see them now.