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Czech Butterflies

A Visit to Podyji National Park, Czech Republic

Much travelled Butterfly Conservation Ireland member Michael Friel took two days to explore Podyji National Park in the Czech Republic. The park contains 95 of the 140 butterfly species recorded in the Czech Republic (140 species according to Van Swaay et al. 2010, European Red List of Butterflies) Here Michael describes his experience, giving valuable information on where to see these species.

I spent two days (25 and 27 July) in the Podyji NP, at 63 sq km the Czech Republic’s smallest of four national parks. It lies in southern Moravia, along the River Dyje, which forms the border with Austria in that area. The Austrian side also has a much smaller national park, running alongside the same section of river. During the Communist years the area was perforce left undeveloped, as part of the no-man’s-land between Eastern and Western Europe. Although Podyji was only declared a National Park in 1991, a lot of research had been conducted there in the pre-Communist era, going back for over a century, including many studies by lepidopterists, so long-term changes have been and are being monitored.

Scarce Crimson and Gold.©Michael Friel.

The park includes a 40km stretch of river with steep forested and rocky sides (rising to 220m), and it also contains areas of heath, riverside meadow and hillside vineyards and orchards (some long abandoned), all of which offer excellent butterfly habitat, carefully managed by the Park Administration to minimize adverse human impact.

As I only had 12 hours to spend exploring Podyji, I confined myself to 5 small areas (mostly near the town of Znojmo) and saw 36 species of butterfly (16 not found in Ireland). As 123 species have been recorded in Podyji (c. 80% of the total for the whole Czech Republic), 95 of which are still to be found in the Park, I only saw a little of what can be seen.

Scarce Swallowtail.©Michael Friel.

The weather varied on both days between periods of bright sunshine (30°) and overcast skies with a few drops of rain. During the sunny periods, butterfly density and activity increased dramatically, with the numbers of Lycaenidae especially strong.

These were the sites I visited (coordinates are for my starting points on foot):

1: Granickeho Udoli (48°51′21″ N, 16°02′24″ E)

Starting at the Restaurace U Obri Hlavy in the morning, I walked upstream till I came to a bridge. Bearing left over this bridge, I immediately found several blues drinking from wet sand on the path. There were Holly, Common and Chequered Blues (Scolitantides orion). From there on, the path rises steeply, zig-zagging up the side of the valley through terrain covered in long grass and flowering plants, with scattered bushes and low trees.

I climbed up to the top of the valley, seeing Marbled Whites (Melanargia galathea), Wall Browns, Sooty Coppers (Lycaena tityrus), Brown Arguses (Aricia agestis) and Queen of Spain Fritillaries (Issoria lathonia) on the way. At the end of this path you come out onto a grassy flat hilltop overlooking Znojmo, with a small domed church (Kostel sv. Antonina) to one side. Looking up into the trees around this open ground, I saw at least six Scarce Swallowtails (Iphiclides podalirius) tree-topping and engaging in aerial dogfights. Descending the valley again the same way, I came across a Scarce Swallowtail basking on a bush, and it allowed me to get close to photo it. On the path, I also found a Woodland Grayling (Hipparchia fagi). This slow walk took me about 2 hours.

2: Konice (48°49′41″ N, 16°01′06″ E)

In the afternoon, after a 15-minute drive from Znojmo, I parked and headed along the path into the Park in a north-westerly direction. Many of the butterflies were on the left of this path, some near the trees but most in a meadow full of flowers behind the trees, about 150m from my starting point.

Large Copper, a spectacular species.©Michael Friel.

In the sunny periods, I saw Silver-washed Fritillaries, Bath Whites (Pontia daplidice), Wood Whites, Chalkhill Blues (Polyommatus coridon) and the most beautiful Large Copper (Lycaena dispar), with a dazzling orange-red on the dorsal side. I also found a female Brimstone here. I only covered a small area, but it was very productive, so I returned there on the second day.

Later, in a cloudier period, I saw Commas, Dryads (Minois dryas), Ringlets and two attractive moths, a Forester (Adscita statices) and a Scarce Crimson and Gold (Pyrausta sanguinalis). For ease of access and minimal walking, this site proved to be the best.

3: Havraniky (above)(48°48′52″ N, 16°00′12″ E)

On a sunny afternoon, this site was simply buzzing with butterflies, especially Lycaenidae, including Brown Arguses, Small Coppers and Sooty Coppers.  There were several Clouded Yellows, Meadow Browns and Small Heaths, but most striking were the fritillaries, Queen of Spain, the small Weaver’s or Violet Fritillary (Boloria dia) and my favourite, the Spotted Fritillary (Melitaea didyma). I came across a lone individual in peak condition, and it posed for me from all angles on top of a bush, at just the right height. In the end, I had to tear myself away, as it wasn’t going anywhere. The habitat here was grassland with patches of heather, low trees and bushes and very many wild flowers in bloom. There were Red-backed Shrikes in attendance, and a group of Yellowhammers.

Havraniky.©Michael Friel.

I later learned that this site, including the nearby heath at Hnanice, forms the largest area of heath in the country, and a large range and number of butterflies have been recorded here. Some parts of the site are placed under controlled grazing by sheep, to provide optimal habitat for the butterflies.

4: Pod Sobesem (48°48′16″ N, 15°58′50″ E)

Park in front of the Hotel Vinice Hnanice, walk down the road, turn right after about 200m and continue downhill along a wooded lane which leads to the River Dyje. Cross the swaying footbridge and you enter Pod Sobesem, a riverbank meadow area with trees overhanging the Dyje. I arrived a bit late in the year for this meadow, as it had already been cut and baled – though some swathes had been left uncut for the remaining butterflies. This bore fruit as I saw my only Scarce Copper (Lycaena virgaureae) here, though it was a bit battered. I also saw a feeding Hummingbird Hawkmoth, (Macroglossum stellatarum) while a Scarce Swallowtail crossed overhead.

Scarce Swallowtail.©Michael Friel.

The path ascends to a vineyard, where you can sample the superb local white wine at a small shop, and if you climb further up the Sobes hill, to the west and beyond the vineyard, I learned that this is a site which in late May is excellent for the Giant Peacock Moth (Saturnia pyri), the largest moth in Europe. Early June is the time to catch two of the most striking park residents, the Southern Festoon (Zerynthia polyxena) and the Clouded Apollo (Parnassius mnemosyne), both often seen at this site. I decided not to climb up to the top on this occasion, preferring to take a further look at sites 2 and 3, so I walked the half hour back to the car.

5: Novy Hradek (48°50′58″ N, 15°56′20″ E)

A 25-minute drive west of Znojmo brings you to the village of Podmoli. Entering the Park along the trail, following the signs clearly marked Novy Hradek, you need about one hour to reach the castle. In the deep forest here, Hawfinches and Great Spotted Woodpeckers were observed, though I was not lucky enough to see the rare Syrian Woodpecker, which reaches its westernmost point in Europe in the Park. I arrived at the castle early, the gates not opening till 10.00. This could be a good place to find hairstreaks up in the old oaks near the castle gate, if you get the date right. Once they unlock the gates, you see a ruined but extensive structure with, fortunately, a good amount of vegetation growing both inside on the ground and, better still, up on the roof. As I took the conducted tour explaining the detailed history (in Czech), I had at least 45 minutes to look for butterflies.

A lot of sunlight was reaching us, and there were Holly Blues and several Silver-washed and Queen of Spain Fritillaries feeding side by side on flowers on the roof. I also saw my only Pearly Heath (Coenonympha arcania) of the trip here and another Hummingbird Hawkmoth in the castle grounds, so the walk to Novy Hradek was well worth it. If you are lucky you might also see a salamander or a bright green lizard, though the only reptile I saw here was a large black snake, asleep in the grass on the roof. The view up and down the valley from the castle reveals just how strategic a point this was on the river, with views of high cliffs where Eagle Owls nest.  Back at Podmoli I came across several Peacocks and a Comma all feeding off a large burdock.

Spotted Fritillary.©Michael Friel.

Both the butterflies which I did not see on this trip (including Park rarities like the Adonis Blue (Polyommatus bellargus) and Assman’s Fritillary (Melitaea britomartis) and the sites which I missed (especially to the west towards Vranov nad Dyje), make me want to return and further explore this rich and accessible haven.

Practicalities:

Ryanair flies frequently from Dublin to Bratislava (in Slovakia). From there you can rent a car from a very reliable Slovak company (www.edencars.sk), who deliver to the airport (excellent English spoken).

Bratislava to Znojmo can be done in 3 hours (buying a Czech motorway pass for 14 euros at a petrol station before reaching the Slovak/Czech border, and not forgetting to change your euros into Czech koruny once you cross the border). However, it would be a pity to miss the woods between Breclav and Valtice, which are excellent for woodland butterflies, though we only had a quick stop there on the way. So, allow 5 hours for the journey, or more. An alternative approach would be to travel from Bratislava to Znojmo by bus, then explore the Park on foot, using local buses sometimes to return to base.

In Znojmo, www.airbnb.com has a couple of reasonable places to stay at 15 euros per night for a double with very friendly people. Znojmo is a charming and historic old town, with a huge outdoor swimming-pool. Brno, with its Gregor Mendel Museum, is well worth a visit (75 minutes by bus). And of course, you can combine this trip with a visit to Vienna (1 hour by bus from Bratislava for 5 euros)- but then you won’t see as many butterflies as you could have.

Further reading:

www.nppodyji.cz : The park website, which has some interesting downloadable brochures

www.motyli.kolas.cz/english : A list of Czech butterflies and moths, with photos and maps

www.nppodyji.cz/uploads/soubory/publikace/Sumpich_2011_Motyli_Podyji_small.pdf : a 430-page survey of all moths and butterflies ever observed in the Park (free download, in Czech and German).