Butterflying in Provence: Les Alpilles – 8 & 10th May

Le Parc Naturel Regionel des Alpilles is a limestone upland lying immediately east of Les Baux (see here). The hiking here is as excellent as the scenery and I enjoyed three good walks of varying length through the first day of this trip. I have returned to Provence largely un-researched and with no agenda of what to look for. As in Portugal’s Algarve hills two years ago (see trip reports tab) the intention is to lose myself in wild places and see what can be found, with the greater emphasis on butterflies.

This Sunday provided a modest start with just seven species recorded. Conditions in the morning were lightly overcast, turning greyer as the day progressed, so not ideal for butterflies. Hence an early season reminder of how so much time observing insects is spent waiting for the sun. The most frequent and widespread butterfly was Western Marbled White that is in the middle of it’s April to June flight period, and hence at peak numbers if not in peak condition.

western marbled white.1601 alpilles

Western Marbled White

This species (above) occurs on much of the Iberian peninsula, in Morocco, Algeria, Sicily and Mediterranean France. It is generally paler in appearance than the Marbled White seen in Great Britain with light blue dots on the lower hindwings. Two more regional equivalents of British butterflies that fly later in the season were also encountered. Like WMW, the range of Spanish Gatekeeper (below) extends into north Africa and southernmost France. It has two black dots on each hindwing and a bolder underwing pattern than the late summer British species. And like their Portuguese cousins these Provence Gatekeepers liked to settle in dappled shade.

spanish gatekeeper.1601 alpilles

Spanish Gatekeeper

Provence Chalkhill Blue falls into the category of understated little beauty. It occurs only in the western Mediterranean from eastern Spain to north Italy. Greyer and more subtly toned than the butterflies found from July in southern English chalk lands, this CHB is in all respects a joy to behold. Just three individuals were seen today, as well as one Adonis Blue. Occasional interesting looking smaller blues escaped identification.

provence chalkhill blue.1603 alpilles

Provence Chalkhill Blue

In the overcast conditions, butterflies resting on the ground would typically fly up on my approach before settling again out of range. But eventually and as the temperature cooled later in the day I managed close-ups of all the above. Other species seen were many and often faded Wall Brown, a few Clouded Yellow and Small White.

alpilles.1601I made an afternoon revisit to one location (pictured above) two days later in bright sunlight, to see what else could be found in more butterfly friendly conditions. This is a flat area of scrub land north of the D17 road between Eyguieres and Aureille. If anything there seemed to be less on the wing than on day one. I recalled how in Portugal the Gatekeepers in particular liked to keep in shady cover in hot weather. Everything was now that much flightier and the wind made photographing perched subjects difficult.

The Western Marbled White were showing their undersides to good effect as they nectared on thistles (above left) and other wild plants, revealing the diagnostic blue hindwing dots. New species for the site included singles of Swallowtail and Spanish Festoon, and I also came across a small colony of Provencal Fritillary (above right). But I was disappointed not to have found more here, or indeed any lifers.

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