Butterflies in Greek Macedonia: 7 – 12th May

During the Naturetrek tour featured in the last three posts our group recorded 34 different butterfly species. I was assured by our leader this was not a bad tally for May, with butterfly numbers in Macedonia peaking in June. The prime focus of the trip was birds so we did not go to any location looking specifically for insects. Hence this account is not intended to portray a representative butterfly summary for the region, rather it describes what we came across whilst birding. For me the butterflies described herein include 11 lifers (denoted by *), three of which are whites that I would prefer to term regional species.

The most frequently seen white was Eastern Bath White * (below left) that to me looked a little larger and less blotchy on the lower underwings than its western equivalent. Size is of course not a reliable indicator, while Collins uses the word intense instead of blotchy. In truth the two species are more easily separated on the laboratory bench than in the field, but I went on the word of our tour leader who was armed with a copy of the out-of-print Tristan Lafranchis European butterfly guide. I was assured the latter is far more useful in the field than Collins, though I found its presentation difficult to get my head around. A second regional species, Southern Small White * that has more extensive black wing-tips than our own, was also seen a few times but not photographed.

Black-veined White * is a butterfly I especially wanted to experience on this trip, being a common and widespread European mainland species that somehow I had not come across in les Cevennes (see here) a year ago. We found this large, graceful white several times in both woodland and more open habitats at various altitudes. It has a languid and rather floppy flight pattern reminiscent of Swallowtails, moving constantly without settling too often. The south-western edge of Lake Kerkini and lower Mavrovouni hills was the best area for BVW. There at one roadside site in cool conditions on 12th, several individuals posed for the camera (below).

The trip’s first new Blue was Chapman’s Blue *, seen on 8th at a site in the Belles Mountains  This is a species I have puzzled over previously in southern France and Cyprus but had not ID’d conclusively until now, so it was a particularly satisfying find. Males (pictured below) have a noticeably violet-tinged colouration, a little deeper in tone than Common Blue, and the marginal underwing patterning is especially bright compared to similar Blues.

The second Blue lifer was the rare and much sought Iolas Blue * (pictured below, left), two individuals being found at Belles Mountains sites on 8th and 12th. One of the largest Blues, this upland species has a patchy and highly localised distribution across south-eastern Europe. They do not form tight colonies around food plant concentrations like many blues, but can range over several kilometres seldom stopping for long. So locating them is never easy and seeing two or three in a day would be an achievement. Iolas’ status is endangered by collectors stripping the food plant, Bladder Senna of seed pods (below, right) in which the larvae grow to remove eggs.

Probably the most frequently seen butterfly of the trip was Lesser Spotted Fritillary * that was encountered in most of the places we visited. This dapper and diminutive south-east European species certainly looked smaller and less bright than the Spotted Fritillary I have observed previously in Portugal and southern France.

One of the stand-out sightings of the trip was a beautiful fresh Queen of Spain Fritillary * that was observed on 7th at a site in the Strimonas valley. Worn individuals were also seen on a few other occasions in different places. This is a very widespread mainland European species with striking underwing patterning (pictured below, right). The underside hind wings are decorated with large pearly spots and crossed by a row of black eyespots with pearly pupils. Some pearly spots also appear at the apex of the forewings.

On the slopes of Mount Vrondous on 10th the butterflies included some familiar early season specialities from home. Dingy and Grizzled Skipper were both flying here and also a colony of Duke of Burgundy (pictured below). I had not observed any of these three early season specialities in England this year, where the unseasonably mild start to April brought them out early while I was in Estonia, then the rest of that months cold northerly winds served to keep them out of sight.

duke of burgundy.1701 mount vrondou

Montane Duke of Burgundy

Two more new (for me) regional species were also encountered here. Northern Wall Brown * occurs across Fennoscandia hence presumably its name, and locally in the Pyrenees, Alps, Carpathians and Balkan peninsula. A true montane species, it is darker toned on the upper side than regular Wall Brown with very attractive underwing patterning (pictured below).

This was an especially satisfying butterfly to have discovered here, as was Eastern Wood White * (pictured above). This third of my new “regional whites” ranges locally from south-eastern France through north-western Italy to the western and southern Balkans. A key diagnostic is the grey and brown antennae club, that in regular Wood White is black and grey. In the spring brood Eastern also has bolder underwing patterning and the upper-side is slightly yellowish. If that all sounds picky be thankful I have yet to distinguish the other two full Wood White species, Fenton’s and Real’s that can only be separated reliably on genitalia characters.

On the afternoon of 11th we visited a lake near a village Vafiocheri, that like Kerkini on a much smaller scale is an enclosed, man made water body used to irrigate surrounding land. A decision was made to take the minibus up onto the lake’s embankment and make a full circuit. But since most of the birds being seen were rather distant, I elected to stay behind and pay proper attention to photographing the many Fritillaries that were flying here.

I thought, mistakenly that up to four species were present but upon reviewing the pictures they were all found to be of Lesser Spotted and Knapweed Fritillary (pictured above). The latter common and widespread species varies greatly in appearance from region to region, within countries and even at particular sites. As on previous occasions I had fallen into the trap of assuming something new is being seen that is actually just the local form of Knapweed. Today’s butterflies did vary a lot in size and tone, and the same was true of the Lesser Spotted Fritillary.  A very tatty Large Wall Brown* (pictured below) was also observed here.

large wall brown.1701 macedonia

Worn Large Wall Brown

The trip’s other two lifers were an ageing Eastern Festoon * (pictured below, left) seen near Vironia, and a Lattice Brown (below, right) in the Mount Mavrovouni foothills, both on 9th. The latter occurs throughout Greece at the western edge of its mainly Middle Eastern breeding range, and spends much time concealed in the interior shade of bushes or small trees.

The full species list for the trip was Eastern Festoon*, Scarce Swallowtail, Black-veined White*, Southern Small White*, Green-veined White, Orange Tip, Clouded Yellow, Eastern Wood White*, Green Hairstreak, Sooty Copper, Holly Blue, Green-underside Blue, Iolas Blue*, Silver-studded Blue, Brown Argus, Chapman’s Blue*, Common Blue, Duke of Burgundy, Southern White Admiral, Red Admiral, Painted Lady, Knapweed Fritillary, Lesser-spotted Fritillary*, Queen of Spain Fritillary*, Speckled Wood, Small Heath, Meadow Brown, Wall Brown, Northern Wall Brown*, Large Wall Brown*, Lattice Brown*, Grizzled Skipper and Dingy Skipper.