TRIP REPORT, POLAND, 25 JUNE - 6 JULY 2019
Butterflies around Białystok in primeval north-east Poland
Without the immense assistance from Marcin Sielezniew of the Laboratory of Insect Evolutionary Biology and Ecology in the Institute of Biology at the University of Białystok the 10 day trip undertaken by David Dennis, Neil Thompson and I would have been much less successful, and we are most grateful for his time and patience. And Neil's ability to translate Marcin's GPS locations into a decimal format before posting them on Google Maps was the icing on the cake!
Our two-centre trip started on the 25th of June from a base in Monki to the north-west of Białystok from where we radiated out over the next 5 days to a variety of sites. High on our target list were Scarce Fritillary (Euphydryas maturna); Pallas's Fritillary (Argynnis laodice); False Ringlet (Coenonympha oedippus); and Woodland Brown (Lopinga achine), as well as Violet Copper (Lycaena helle), and we had good locations for them all. But upon our arrival Marcin told us that winter had ended in April, spring had been completely by-passed to be immediately followed by an extended summer heatwave resulting in early emergences of all our targets and we'd be lucky to see any of them!
Undeterred, we prioritised E.maturna and made our way into the Biebrzanski Park along a forest track just south of Gugny and were immediately besieged by mosquitos and three species of horse-fly, the largest of which was huge and terrorised us fiercely until we realised that, of the three, this one didn't want to savage us, its buzz far worse than its bite. But Marcin had been right, maturna was over. On a subsequent visit to this site, after rain the previous day, we were astonished by the explosion of activity in the small car park as we pulled in - Purple and Lesser Purple Emperors (Apatura iris and Apatura ilia), Camberwell Beauties (Nymphalis antiopa), Silver-washed Fritillaries (Argynnis paphia), and other Nymphalids all rose to greet us, swirling around before settling again on the ground, a truly exhilarating experience!
Marcin's prediction was also essentially true for Coenonympha oedippus although at a site near Nowa Wies Marcin and Neil each separately spotted one amongst the tall reeds bobbing in the stiff breeze but given the habitat on the day any chance of a photo was out of the question.
The dry weather had turned traditionally wet and damp sites into parched landscapes, crunchy underfoot but on the road to Piaski just north of iconic Tykocin we still encountered a strong Large Blue (Phengaris orion) colony supplemented with Assmann's Fritillary (Melitaea britomartis), Dusky Meadow Brown (Hyponephele lycaon), and a remarkably iridescent male Sooty Copper (Lycaena tityrus), to mention but a few.
One location discovered by chance while driving past - we would prefer to say it was pure instinct - lay 8km south of Monki alongside the railway track where a small concealed meadow was rich with mostly common species although it's always a delight to come across Purple-shot Coppers (Lycaena alciphron).
Amongst our targets were also the specialised species of Cranberry Fritillary (Boloria aquilonaris), and Cranberry Blue (Plebejus optilete), both resident on a raised bog near Krasne to the south-east of Augustow. Locating the bog was an undertaking in itself being hidden away amongst dense birch and pine forest and as at the Piaski site, the sphagnum moss was yellow and crunchily dry. Butterflies were at a premium and only a single and worn Plebejus optilete was seen. As the realisation began to dawn on us that, once again, we were too late it was time to find our way back to the car.
There was, however, an exciting flip side to the 'too late' coin: maybe a 'later' species we hadn't expected to see would emerge early? And so it happened, a pristine Pallas's Fritillary (Argynnis laodice), was seen nectaring fleetingly on scabious at the woodland edge and we each rattled off a couple of shots before it rapidly departed. Silver-washed Fritillaries (Argynnis paphia) abounded here and we even had a valezina pay us a visit. The day hadn't been so bad after all!
Three days of steady rain and low temperatures straddled our transit to, and arrival at, our second location near Zabludow to the south-east of Białystok city but our final two days were to turn out well. Woodland Brown (Lopinga achine), and Violet Copper (Lycaena helle), now dominated our agendas and at a forest edge near the disused station at Grodek to the east of the city it was David who after a long search spotted the former, albeit a very weary and worn specimen, and a second was subsequently seen. We were fortunate to have added this species to our list.
Another of Marcin's GPS locations took us to a potential Violet Copper site near Planta north of Narewka in the Białowieski Park, an unlikely-looking spot at first glance being a long, narrow strip of meadow sandwiched between harvested neighbours. We searched long and hard focussing latterly on some lovely female Scarce Coppers (Lycaena virgaureae), and it wasn't until we were making our way back towards the car that David triumphantly announced that he'd found Lycaena helle.
In a similarly precarious habitat where a tractor was methodically reducing the meadow near the hamlet of Budy some 30 minutes drive south of Narewka we were indebted to Neil for the discovery of a solitary Alcon Blue (Phengaris alcon), another 'early emerger' mirroring the opening of its host plant Marsh Gentian flowers (Gentiana pneumonathe).
More pristine second-brood Violet Coppers (Lycaena helle) and Pallas's Fritillaries (Argynnis laodice) were seen on our last day in lush meadows around Luzany close to the Belarus border although our final visit to a Danube Clouded Yellow (Colias myrmidone) site again proved to be too early.
The trip produced 61 species of butterfly with Marcin's assistance, and to meet his wife and children at their isolated home in the cornfields was a great privilege and delight .
This article was previously published in the Newsletter of the European Butterfly Group