Miracle movements

This summer’s nature sightings in the UK have been marked by a myriad of marvellous migrants, swept across our shores by successive heatwaves.

One of the most obvious has been the Hummingbird Hawkmoth. A friend who doesn’t follow butterfly & moth groups tells me that even her Facebook feed was awash with photos of these myth-like moths.

I imagine this has been a record year for them here. I’d never seen more than one at a time in the UK until this year, but this summer we regularly had 2 or 3 on the buddleia that invitingly overhangs our garden from next door.

Hummingbird hawkmoth in our garden

I’ve seen more photos of Clouded Yellows this summer than ever before. Their bright, warm colouring seems to reflect the sunshine of their homelands in Southern Europe and North Africa. My own attempts at photographing them have been, as usual, not that successful – they never seem to stop for long. This is my best effort this year…

Clouded Yellow, on the Seven Sisters

But my butterfly – and migrant – highlight of the summer (and a first for me) was the Long-tailed Blue I had the pleasure of discovering at Birling Gap on 29th August.

Long-tailed Blue on Russian Vine, Birling Gap

Again, if the sightings I’ve read about are anything to go by, I suspect this has been a record year for this tiny butterfly that somehow journeys all the way from the Mediterranean to Southern Britain. Females, after mating, make the epic flight back to the Med to lay their eggs there.

A more familiar sight to most people is that of swallows….

Swallows (mostly young ones, evidenced by the less ‘pronged’ tail than adult birds), in Combe Valley

I had the privilege of watching this large flock swooping over a waterway in Combe Valley near us in East Sussex, on 12th September, presumably feeding up on insects before their return flight South.

Likewise, terns are a staple part of the British seaside scene and yet always such a joy to watch, set apart from the more ubiquitous gulls by their angular wings plummeting in descent after small fish.

Young Sandwich terns successfully fishing at Bulverhythe
Pair of young Sandwich terns amongst the gulls and Oystercatchers (Hastings in the background)

Like the swallows, these juvenile Sandwich terns, photographed on 20th Sept, were no doubt filling up before returning southwards.

Migration is, to me, a mystery and a miracle. There are no doubt scientists for whom it is less of a mystery but, I hope and suspect, still a wonder. After all, our understanding of the miracle of migration is still in its infancy, and these birds and butterflies use ‘superpowers’ way outside of the five senses we’re familiar with.

Birds, it is thought, navigate by ‘seeing’ the earth’s magnetic field. A chemical in the eye called cryptochrome, that is sensitive to magnetism, could be key to this theory, according to a recent study.

Other recent research suggests that one of the creatures most famous for its mammoth journeys – the Painted Lady butterfly – might be using a solar compass in the club-ends of its antennae to steer its way.

Painted Ladies on lavender, Guestling churchyard

Like the Long-tailed Blue, Painted Ladies also return to the Continent (often at a height of 500 metres above ground) – a phenomenon only discovered during their bonanza summer of 2009.

There is so much yet to discover about the magic of migration.

How birds, butterflies and other animals, some tiny, succeed in covering such phenomenal distances.

How they find their way to suitable destinations.

And, in many cases, successfully navigate back to where they hatched (a process known as philopatry).

Chiffchaff, a popular summer visitor, although many also stay all year round

And we – when we’ve been moving and shaking and doing our thing in the world – do we also instinctively know how to return to our centre?

To our place of stillness, where our identity needs no proving or defending?

To Presence, where we can drink of the river of wisdom and resilience, before again facing a manic world?

“Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.”

From Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

—–

(Photos all mine, but no copyright. Feel free to use / share, with my blessing!)

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