Poland – Butterfly Heaven
By Jesmond Harding.
A family wedding meant an August trip to Southern Poland. Daunted by air travel I had the incentive that better weather and an intriguing butterfly experience was in prospect. I had no idea how rewarding the trip would turn out to be.
We booked a lovely B&B in Zawoja, the longest village in Poland and conveniently located beside Babio Góra National Park [Babiogórski Park Narodowy]. Travelling the 90 kms from Krakow airport I was struck by the traditional character of Polish farming. Farms are small with the average size of farms below five hectares. Much of the work I saw was carried out manually using tools such as scythes. We observed old women in long colourful dresses and headscarves toiling in 30 degree heat cutting and stacking hay. The few tractors we saw are regarded in Western Europe as museum articles. The strip farming system is practiced with the land divided in parallel linear strips. Mixed farming is practiced typically with a line of potatoes followed by a strip of cereals, brassicas or a flower-filled sward where hay is grown or where two or three tethered cattle graze. Low chemical input makes for a clean countryside and no algal blooms were observed in any river despite low water levels associated with the hot mainly dry summers. Much of the landscape in Southern Poland contains open countryside with patches of scrub and some large woods, mainly in the uplands. Wild flowers are everywhere and this includes the crop strips. This extensive farming makes for vast biodiversity and provides a hint of what our landscape may have looked like in past times.
I did wonder what happened to butterflies when the strips were cut in early August; there is much need of nectar and larval food plants during this time. How do they cope with this sudden and drastic habitat change? Several factors appear favourable. Nearby strips [as well as areas adjoining wood edges and scrub] probably belonging to other farmers or needed for grazing, are uncut. The cut areas are not cut severely and the basal leaves of the plants allow for swift regeneration. Even if the previously uncut strips are cut later the regenerated areas offer habitat. No fragmentation of habitat was observed anywhere I visited so a sudden local change makes little difference as butterflies can move to the suitable areas.
With extensive flower-rich habitats visible from the car, I was eager to explore. We arrived at our accommodation a little late to begin our quest to clock up 40 species. My middle son, Andrew, 13, was adamant that such a target be hit and drove us on relentlessly.
The following morning I was up with the cicadas whose non-stop diurnal singing does become part of the wallpaper after a few days. A search of a nearby forest glade yielded a new species, the Scotch Argus. This is a member of the ringlet genus and sports black-ringed white eye-spots set in an orange band on both sets of wings. In flight it appears black and bobs along, wings held in a “v” like the Wall or Grayling with a more sustained but less energetic movement. The usual butterfly species were present but in the case of the Large and Small Whites in greater numbers than experienced at home.
By the end of the day following a visit to Babio Góra National Park [there’s a small charge to enter, about €1.25] we clocked up over 20 species including Map [its undersides like a road map], Scarce Copper [shining like orange tinfoil] and the supremely elegant White Admiral. There is a steep climb up Babio Góra Mountain which we abandoned to the gradient and heat and this put its high altitude species off limits. However the large glade at the park entrance played host to several species, most of which are found in Ireland but the Brimstones and Peacocks were appreciably smaller than ours, with one male Brimstone being the same size as a Green-veined White. I did see a Painted Lady, the only one I had yet seen this year, but we really wanted to see “new” species. A small dry meadow within the park directly adjacent to the southern end of Zawoja produced High Brown Fritillary, a highly endangered butterfly in Britain, Purple Shot Copper, Arran Brown [rumoured to exist in Scotland] and a couple of faded White-letter Hairstreaks, their signature “W’ mark considerably erased by life lived mainly among the branches.
Our next trip on day three to the countryside near Czorsztyn Castle near Pieniny yielded a Dryad, its smoky dark wings curiously adorned with blue spots. Not a butterfly that allows close approach [meaning it is camera-shy] it flapped away low over the grassland. We gave chase feeling and looking idiotic in 37 degree heat with lightning flashing over the Tartra Mountains but it evaded us by flying over a wet patch which could not be negotiated swiftly enough to keep the butterfly in sight. Deflated, we returned to the spot where we sighted it and a Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary showed up fluttering at the edge of scrub and tall grassland while a female Red Admiral patiently accepted our curiosity to persist in her egg laying.
My brother’s wedding delayed our lepidoptera hunt by a couple of days and then a trip to the stunning city of Krakow followed [family holidays mean that there’s more to life than butterflies].
The final full day of our stay arrived and we were seven species short. I yearned to see the species that could be found in a limestone area so we travelled to Pieniny National Park [Pieninski Park Narodowy] that lies 90 km south-east of Zawoja. We parked in the village of Sromowce Nizne beside the Dunajec River and joined the yellow trail leading up the nearest limestone mountain. It was soon apparent that we were in very different terrain; Horseshoe Vetch, a calcicole is there, as is Dogwood and Purging Buckthorn. The scree slopes are hotspots for butterflies as these thinly vegetated steep inclines bake in the sun and are inviting to heat loving butterflies.
Pieniny National Park ©J.Harding
Screes encourage venomous snakes too so we watched our step. In no time Jersey Tiger, Shaded Broad-bar, Five-spot Burnet, Clouded Yellow and Pale [or Berger’s] Clouded Yellow and Holly Blue showed themselves and the milky blue lime-loving Chalkhill Blue which took an interest in every butterfly was another highlight. A Brown Hairstreak fed from Hemp Agrimony while Silver-washed Fritillaries scoured every sun-drenched nook. A nearby water tank was inspected revealing the Fire-bellied Toad and Alpine Newt. A Slow Worm swivelled up a steep bank.
“And look, there’s a vole.”
Even a Stoat put in a cheeky appearance. Everything seemed to be happening at once, like a Disney film where a multitude of wild creatures appear spontaneously. We reluctantly re-joined the marked trail but deep shade meant a temporary absence of butterflies but respite from the sun for us. Soon we reached an area near the top of the mountain and a marvellous Swallowtail added to our total. We pressed on with our search of the meadow at the peak hoping for the elusive and endangered high ground specialist, the Apollo.
“You’d be very lucky to see that”, remarked the car park attendant in Scromowce Nizne when I showed her the photo of the Apollo on the cover of “Butterflies of Britain & Europe” by Tari Haaktela et al, our reference book for the trip.
We were lucky. “Dad, look at this”, called Andrew. I knew from his stance and tone that something important was happening. There was our lovely quarry, perched serenely, on Common Knapweed, wings outstretched, its black-ringed white-centred red spots on black-spotted white, semi-transparent wings and furry body and head topped with understated antennae. I read in our guide book that part of the vulnerability of the butterfly is how easily collected it is and certainly it is the most easily taken butterfly. Its large wings flutter tremulously over knapweed dominated upland meadows and on settling feeds hungrily, oblivious to close approach and even to being touched. The park authorities have worked hard since 1991 to improve its numbers. The Apollo is rated as near threatened on the European Red List of Butterflies [Van Swaay et al 2010] and is already extinct in several countries.
We admired it for some time [even Charlie, my eldest son, afflicted often with the indifference of adolescence, was smitten and took the photo you can see above] before realising we reached the 40 species mark. A lifetime ambition to see the Apollo fulfilled, we trotted down the mountain, and checked the national park pavilion which features a display on the Apollo before departing happily.
Departure day. Krakow airport. Time to kill. A mere five minutes’ walk from the terminal building on a typically[dry] flower-rich road embankment with chest-high grasses was the Large Copper, two pristine males, pure flashes of fire, extinct in Britain and Ireland [since 1955]. What a fitting and glorious finale to a great visit.
Poland’s superb butterfly fauna is part of a superb biodiversity. The country has more breeding birds than any European country. It holds wild populations of European Buffalo. Wolves, Brown Bears, Lynx and Wild Boar inhabit some of its forests. Between them Babio Góra and Pieniny National Parks hold populations of the latter four animals. Amazingly, we saw two bear cubs frolicking near woods near Pieniny. Poland is a place where you scarcely draw breath before encountering the next wonder.
Poland really is a butterfly paradise and it is difficult not to feel a pang of envy. I hope it remains the wonder it is still.