Butterflying in Provence: Le Luberon – 9 & 10th May

The vast limestone plateau of Le Luberon fills the horizon east of les Alpilles. Today I revisited two sites at the western end of this range, around the village of Merindol, that I discovered during my first Provence trip in May 2012. It must have been references in the Helm birding guide to France that brought me here then, but the memory I took away was of butterflies.

Merindol is tucked in under the limestone escarpment. Here at the top of rue du Vallon Bernard is what looks like a disused quarry from where hiking trails lead along the face of and into the upland. At this spot in 2012 I found Provençal, Glanville  and Knapweed Fritillaries and Southern White Admiral. Today I wanted to repeat the exercise if possible and see if anything else could be found here.

Overcast conditions persisted throughout the day, but purely by chance my arrival at this spot coincided with the one sunny window of opportunity. An initial reconnoitre around midday had produced nothing, but after returning to my car for a sandwich the sun came out and so of course did the butterflies. Singles of Painted Lady, Red Admiral and Swallowtail were the first to appear. Then while tracking the last named I came across a Fritillary attempting to warm itself on a mossy patch with wings spread flat and wide.

provençal fritillary.1601 merindol

Provençal Fritillary

This was the first of a few Provençal Fritillary (pictured above) seen here today and it was soon joined by Knapweed Fritillary, a quite common south European species. The latter is very variable in form between the Iberian peninsula and France, regionally within France and even at the same site. The left hand individual (below) for instance has brighter orange hind wings compared to the possibly female butterfly in the right hand picture. Both these specimens were observed at Merindol today.

The sunny interval lasted for no more than 45 minutes after which I followed the hiking trail east along the escarpment’s face. But conditions quickly became cool and windy and the only butterflies to show themselves were frequent Wall Brown. Back in the relative shelter of the quarry, Common and Adonis Blue were flying but the Fritillaries had all gone to cover.

adonis blue.1605 luberon

Adonis Blue

It was now mid-afternoon and I set off to find a location where in 2012 there were plentiful Berger’s Clouded Yellow and Provence Orange Tip. But in bright sunlight those colourful subjects had been impossible to photograph since they would not settle. This roadside spot lies along the very scenic Route Forestiere de Fonte de l’Orme that penetrates le Luberon to the north-west of Merindol. Today the only co-operative butterflies were Adonis Blue, until a very pale and ghostly Wood White also allowed some point blank macro work.

wood white.1601 luberon

Wood White

Tuesday morning dawned with blue skies at last so I decided to revisit both Merindol sites seeking in particular 2012’s two bright yellow stars Berger’s and Provence Orange Tip. The massive inland cliffs of le Luberon loomed large in a pleasing light as I approached. But once on site a contest between sun and cloud began that continued throughout the morning. The forest route was still in shade on my arrival at 9:15 and so I went to check out the quarry.

There it was just like butterflying on the Chilterns escarpment at home: watching the grey stuff edging ever closer then waiting, waiting for the sun to break through again. At first only Blues were active but then up popped a photo opportunity that made all the hanging around worthwhile: a Glanville Fritillary nectaring on Red Valerian (pictured below).

I had previously photographed a re-introduced Glanville in grass at Hutchinson’s Bank, Surrey (see here) but this today was much more satisfying being both truly kosher and self-found. I have waited some time to gain such results, via finding my camera battery was flat at another re-introduction site Wrecclesham, Surrey; then having that single immobile GF pointed out to me at Hutchinson’s Bank. After today’s experience I doubt very much whether I’ll bother to go after this species in blighty this year.

I stayed at the Merindol quarry (N43°45.585′ E5° 12.375′) for around 90 minutes. Brown Argus, the southern European race of Speckled Wood, and Mallow Skipper all put themselves onto the trip list here, while Red-billed Chough called and flew out from the cliffs overhead. By 11am the sun when out was high enough in the sky to be illuminating the roadside spot (N43° 45.700′ E5° 11.932′) along the Route Forestiere de Fonte de l’Orme, so I went back.

As soon as I got out of the car a male Provence Orange Tip flew powerfully past and kept on going. That was enough to tantalise me into searching the site repeatedly for over an hour during which the POT was not seen again. Bath and Large Whites, a tiny blue, regular Orange Tip, Brimsone and Cleopatra all put in appearances. More of the orange-toned Knappers (below left) seen at the quarry a day earlier were also active here. I believe the right hand butterfly (below) is another very variable species Spotted Fritillary.

But the standout butterfly was a briefly encountered Southern White Admiral. That last splendid species (pictured below, left) is almost like a hybrid with Purple Emperor, having the latter’s purple sheen though Collins calls it steely blue. There is also a slightly different top wing pattern to the browner White Admiral that occurs in Great Britain.

Eventually I walked back along the lane towards Merindol, encountering the male Provence Orange Tip repeatedly for the next hour. What I assumed to be the same individual seemed to be patrolling a circuit over and over again, always disappearing up one rock face at the same spot before I would relocate it back along the lane somewhere. This reminded me of certain dragonflies such as Moorland (or Common) Hawker and Brilliant Emerald that behave in exactly the same way and rarely settle.

This POT was a very fast flyer for it’s size and shared the regular Orange Tip’s habits of mostly keeping ahead of the observer, never settling for long and hence being difficult usually to photograph. But the distant record shot (below right) shows what I am writing about. Eventually my little yellow and orange quest made it all the way back to where I had parked. There a female of the same species (below left) was rather more obliging.

It had been later in May when I came here in 2012. So I assumed it is still early in the flight season for Provence Orange Tip while 2016 Berger’s Clouded Yellow have yet to emerge.

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