Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Limitations

In the grand scheme of things, (when considering world peace and a cure for all illness), our prowess as natural history hunter-gatherers is of little consequence. However, we all carry an ego, even if there is but the faintest smidgin of one...

Whilst at work this morning I received a text from David Campbell, who was, as usual, birding at Canons Farm. Attached to the text was a photograph that he had just taken of a butterfly. It was of a 'blue', and he was uncertain as to its identity, wondering whether it might be a Chalkhill Blue. To be fair he knew that it wasn't quite right for that species, as it exhibited some anomalies, but the ground colour of the upper wing was of a milky blue, with a thick black shading to the edge of the forewing - so much so that I texted him back saying that it probably was one.

But within a minute or two I knew that was wrong...

Today is May 24th. Chalkhill's shouldn't be on the wing until early July. Apart from the milky blue colouration and extensive black shading, what else had pointed to Chalkhill? Even though I should have been working, I had to trawl through internet references to answer the question as to what this butterfly was. It certainly wasn't a typical specimen of any UK butterfly, and aberrations aren't all that uncommon. After a while it became clearer that this was most probably a very colourful female Common Blue. I could still be wrong and have yet to look at the pictures on anything other than an i-Phone. But it left me troubled.

By now I would have thought that a photograph of a species of UK butterfly could not trip me up like this. I did feel defeated and felt that my so-called knowledge of such things had been exposed as a sham. Harsh, maybe, but that's how it felt.

My struggles with other insects have also been one of learning of my limitations. There is nothing more frustrating (but also liberating) to discover that life-long coleopterists still have to walk away from certain individual beetles. I think what rattled me more about that butterfly is that I know of several people who would have looked at the photograph and called it correctly without a moments hesitation.

2 comments:

  1. Just a little harsh on yourself, Steve! It is impossible to have such intimate knowledge of any one group in natural history (let alone go anywhere near attempting it for all) to be able to instantly identify an extremely marked individual based on a photograph of a photograph that someone texted you. I'd like to meet anyone who can; chances are they'd be an android of some sort.

    When I first saw the butterfly I was convinced it was a Chalkhill, with the thick black borders, black spots on the trailing edge and milkly blue colouration. The fact it was early was of little significance to me because a lot of things have been emerging very early this year. It was only when I noticed the extra orangey bits that I thought twice. You did very well to realise the mistake as quickly as you did.

    Natural history is a big, big, very big subject - we learn about it and improve our ID skills every day; isn't that one of the biggest joys of it?

    David.

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  2. David, you have a very level head for one so young! I could do with a pinch of your pragmatism at times...

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