Dordogne Butterflies: Part 1

July 10, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

I've recently been fortunate enough to spend a week in the the Dordogne area of France with nothing on the agenda other than exploring and photographing the wildlife of this stunning region. I say wildlife, but in reality the vast majority of photos taken were of butterflies, though given this was the main purpose of the visit that's no bad thing. We spent the week at a wonderful house just outside the small town of Thenon and had a few areas to visit in mind but no real plan. More a case of find our feet, explore the area and see what happens. I kept a journal to summarise each day so here's the first part...

Day 1 - Sunday 26th June

Having driven through the night we arrived at our base for the week at just gone 08:30 and getting out of the car we were greeted with extremely warm sunshine and butterflies already on the wing. Marbled Whites and Meadow Browns were the first seen and a large log pile close the parking area was obviously a popular reptile hang-out with a number of lizards heard shooting out of sight into the brambles. Just before we'd arrived I'd added a new lifer in the form a low Black Kite, the first of many seen during the week. We unloaded the car straight away and as we did this I noticed what I thought was a large fritillary fly over my head and onto the barn next to the house. I went and double-checked and couldn't believe it was in fact a Large Tortoiseshell! What a butterfly it was. I called Dad over and we both just watched as it basked on a wooden window frame. A mighty fine start to the day! We unpacked, had a cuppa, then opted to go for a little walk down the lane from the house. It was incredibly warm already but this did mean that butterflies were extremely active. On our way down through the shaded part of the lane we saw numerous Marbled Whites, Meadow Browns and Speckled Woods. These looked a lot more orange than those we get in the UK. We were soon out of the shade and into the blazing sun and in front of us were a number of hay meadows and grassy fields on either side of the road. The left hand side had a long but fairly low hedge running through it and I said to Dad it looked good for shrikes so we had a quick scan. A smallish finch-sized bird dropped from view and was followed by something slightly larger so a bit more attention was needed. I was then onto a cracking Cirl Bunting - another lifer - before I noticed the larger bird. It was a male Red-backed Shrike. What a stunner! A female then popped into view so a double whammy and a brilliant moment. We were feeling super confident for the week ahead given this initial success. We watched the shrikes and bunting for about 15 minutes before moving on to explore the many butterflies we could see active over the meadows. These were mostly what we'd seen on the walk down but added to the list were our first Black-veined Whites, a Spotted Fritillary and a few blues, probably Common judging by what we could see but also an Adonis.

We then returned back to the house for another cuppa and then popped to the local Carrefour to get some supplies for the next few days. Salads, pasta, bolognese and beans would be our exotic diet for the week ahead! Back home we had a sit down in the garden, noticing a few Hummingbird Hawkmoths nectoring on the lavendar in the garden. We then had our first of many visits from a pair of Black Redstarts which seemed to be using the roof of the adjacent barn as a stop off point between where they were feeding and, presumably, their nest. The male was a real belter! By now we were flagging so it was time for some much needed sleep.

After waking late afternoon feeling marginally more human, we had some food before again going for a stroll down to the meadows. The male shrike was still present as were hundreds of Marbled Whites, now starting to roost up. No new butterflies seen but we did find a few beautiful Black-Veined Whites roosting, nearly all of them on purple flowers. I made a mental note of where they were as was considering a dawn start if I could get up early enough....

Black-veined WhiteBlack-veined White

Day 2 - Monday 27th June

As planned and rather surprisingly, I managed to get up just after 5am to head down to the meadows in hope of roosting Black-veined Whites. The meadow in which I needed to be was the lowest in this little area and was filled with mist so this suggested some dew-soaked butterflies would await me. Thankfully the Black-veined Whites were still present so I took photos of a number of these. 

Black-veined WhiteBlack-veined White Black-veined WhiteBlack-veined White

Marbled Whites were as usual in their hundreds but I resisted getting distracted by them and after a few wonderfully peaceful hours opted to head back for some breakfast. Walking back up towards the house at about 8am the shrike was again present as was a Wood White along the lane - another butterfly to add to our trip list.

After a much needed breakfast we headed out in the car for a look around and opted for the Causse de Terrason, about 20 minutes from the house. We didn't know exactly where to go but eventually found a parking area situated next to a view point so figured we were in the right place. We hadn’t got out of the car before a Marbled Fritillary and 2 Blue-spot Hairstreaks were seen nectoring on the bramble next to us. We had a quick coffee and then had a look around some fairly open scrub next to the road and found loads of hairstreaks, Marbled Whites a few blues and a few more Marbled Fritillaries. Also found was our first Pearly Heath - a much more attractive but similarly sized version of the Small Heath. Across the road, where power cables transected the valley there was a corridor of long grass and scrub with woodland each side. Whilst Dad stayed in the first area doing some filming I went and investigated this new area and it wasn't long before I saw my first ever Swallowtail, initially seen flying up and down before settling to give incredible close up views. I called Dad over and we enjoyed a few minutes watching it before it moved on. A few small Weavers Fritillaries were noted as was our first Woodland Grayling, which disappeared impressively when it landed on a tree trunk and closed its wings. Such incredible camouflage.

The grassy corridor continued for quite a distance but just off it things opened up into more a more sparsely vegetated grassland area which was alive with butterflies including Cleopatra, a few more Swallowtails, Wall Brown, Woodland and Great banded Graylings, Weavers and Spotted Fritillaries. Black Kites regularly appeared overhead and our first snake – a stunning orange Asp Viper - was seen as it disappeared under  a bush. A long day but some great wildlife seen and we ended the day with a pleasant walk down to the meadows, where the usual suspects were present and correct.

Day 3 - Tuesday 28th June

Another 5am alarm to beat the heat and we again opted to explore more of the Causse de Terrasson at Condat. Conditions were clear when we left but we climbed up the causse road in thick low cloud / mist and therefore it was extremely wet underfoot and visibility was poor. A few dew-soaked blues were encountered before Dad found a quite magnificent Spotted Fritillary. It was soaked in dew but the coloration and markings were remarkable up close. I got set up and began taking photos before a Golden Oriole began singing close by. Magic.

A Small Heath was also roosting nearby but we carried on looking in hope of something more unusual and decided to split up to cover more ground. It wasn't too long before I got a very excited call from Dad who was pretty much jumping up and down waving his arms – I could only just see him through the mist which was now being illuminated by the fast-rising sun. I reached his location with great intrigue and there in front of him was an immaculate Swallowtail, wings spread, just sat there. Wow. Undoubtedly one of the most incredible butterflying moments I have ever experienced. Suffice to say I was soon firing off shots to capture the beauty of the awesome butterfly that we were looking it.

SwallowtailSwallowtail SwallowtailSwallowtail

The light was now fairly strong and I suspected it wouldn't be long before this whopping insect would be taking off. The mist was still present though now burning off and I thought the view looking at the Swallowtail front on made a real contrast to the open wing view from behind (shown above). Furthermore, the mist was being blown across the grassy opening we were in and I was pleased to capture this in a very atmospheric shot, helped by some nice back-lighting to accentuate the mist.

SwallowtailSwallowtail

Tearing ourselves away from the Swallowtail, we found another 3 Spotted Fritillaries all in the same area then right next to them a Swallowtail caterpillar.

Spotted FritillarySpotted Fritillary

We then walked down the valley and things were starting to stir by now with more blues seen, many basking with their wings open and angled to maximise the amount of sun hitting them and then we found another Swallowtail, this one with it's wings still closed and showing it’s under-wing. Before I could get a shot it opened its wings very quickly, and what to me seemed a defensive move, no doubt designed to deter predators. I took a few shots before it took to the sky in powerful flight. We'd had a truly fantastic morning.

After a refuel (coffee and biscuits) we drove down to Tursac, turning off the D706 and heading up to the top of the valley. We didn't find anything that resembled suitable habitat until we arrived at a small chapel (Notre Dame de Fontpeyrine) in the middle of nowhere, which backed onto a small meadow. Heath & Marsh Fritillaries were soon found along with Small Copper, Large White, Wood Whites and plenty of Marbled Whites. It was extremely hot to I didn't even try and get any photos as it was hard to find a butterfly that wasn't moving at a million miles an hour!

The rest of the afternoon was equally too hot so we chilled at the house and I made use of he time by processing the photos I'd taken so far. We had another walk down to the local meadow with a Large Tortoiseshell and Comma of note. We agreed on another early start so it was soon time to hit the sack!


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