Postcard from the Dolomites


Travelling British lepidopterists have long known about the winged treasures that can be found in the Picos De Europa, the Pindos Mountains, the Pyrenees, and the French and the Swiss Alps. However, many other montane areas of Europe are only just being recognised as butterfly and moth havens, each offering their own speciality species and habitats — the Dolomites in northeast Italy being one such place. Part of the Southern Limestone Alps, the Dolomites straddle the provinces of Trentino, Verona and Vicenza and rise to the summit of Marmolada at 3,343m.

High-altitude flower meadows and spectacular limestone formations at the Sella Pass, Italy, July 2012 (Barbara Higginbotham).

With this in mind, Butterfly Conservation West Midland Branch members Roger and Sheila Wasley, from Gloucestershire, organised an independent trip to the region in early July this year along with with Barbara and Maurice Higginbotham, two experienced butterfly enthusiasts from Surrey. The main purpose of their trip was to try to find some of the scarcer alpine butterflies such as Alpine Blue, Thor's Fritillary and the spectacular Titania's Fritillary, as well as identifying birds and moths that crossed their path.

Male Alpine Blue, Dolomites, Italy, July 2012 (Roger Wasley).

Titania's Fritillary, Dolomites, Italy, July 2012 (Roger Wasley).

The British Airways flight from London Gatwick to Venice Marco Polo on 2nd July took 1 hour 45 minutes. It was followed by a three-hour drive from Venice into the mountains to a traditional family-run hotel in the village of Tamion, near Vigo di Fassa.

Hotel Gran Mugion, Tamion, Italy, July 2012 (Barbara Higginbotham).

At 1,500m, the village is set in the heart of the mountains and forms an excellent base from which to explore the valleys and high-level passes. The alpine meadow across the quiet road in front of the hotel was alive with many butterflies and Chimney Sweeper moths. The weather was generally pleasant but with occasional showers in the mountains; temperatures were around 20°C at higher elevations, but reached 30°C down in the valleys. Habitats can change radically within just a few hundred metres of altitude on mountains, and with it species selection also varies. Scree-covered slopes, jagged rocky outcrops, fir-lined clearings, damp boggy hollows and multi-coloured flower meadows all produce sought-after species that can almost be overwhelming for a first-time visitor.

At higher-altitude sites such as the beautiful Sella Pass (2,200m), you may also see birds such as Alpine Swift, Crag Martin, Ring Ouzel, Water Pipit, Grey-headed Woodpecker, Black Woodpecker, Goshawk, Honey Buzzard, Snowfinch and Golden Eagle.

Alpine Chough, Sella Pass, Italy, July 2012 (Roger Wasley).

Vigo di Fassa is a winter ski resort and has a wide choice of cable cars, where a ten-minute ride takes you up to 2,000m and immediately in reach of a rich variety of butterflies such as Alpine Heath and Mountain Fritillary against a backdrop of impressive montane scenery.

Alpine Heath, Dolomites, Italy, July 2012 (Roger Wasley).

Among the special highlights was the track to Gardeccia where Alpine Grizzled Skipper, Shepherd's Fritillary and Black Vanilla Orchid were seen.

Track towards Gardeccia, Italy, July 2012 (Barbara Higginbotham).

Alpine Grizzled Skipper, Dolomites, Italy, July 2012 (Roger Wasley).

Other key sites that can be visited as day trips from Tamion are: Panveggio National Park, Eggental, San Pellegrino Pass and the Val di Monzoni.

Panveggio National Park, Italy, July 2012 (Barbara Higginbotham).

The area around the Refugio Miralago hosted Almond-eyed, Blind and Yellow-spotted Ringlets, Cranberry Blue and Mountain Clouded Yellow.

Miralago, Italy, July 2012 (Barbara Higginbotham).

Almond-eyed Ringlet, Dolomites, Italy, July 2012 (Roger Wasley).

Mountain Clouded Yellow, Dolomites, Italy, July 2012 (Roger Wasley).

If the weather is compliant, visitors can expect a butterfly list of 70–80 species in a week. This can include at least 13 'blues', three coppers, 11 fritillaries, nine ringlets and seven skippers!

Roger's group was lucky as their visit coincided with another small natural history tour group staying at the same hotel. This group ran a moth-trap most nights and generously shared the viewing and photographic opportunities with all. At least 100 species were identified during the week, which included many non-British species but also a large selection of moths that are either rare visitors or difficult-to-see residents back in the UK.

Barberry Carpet, Tamion, Italy, July 2012 (Roger Wasley).

Barred Red of the form prasinaria, Tamion, Italy, July 2012 (Roger Wasley).

Feathered Beauty, Tamion, Italy, July 2012 (Roger Wasley)

Small Chocolate-tip, Tamion, Italy, July 2012 (Roger Wasley)

Panthea coenobita, Tamion, Italy, July 2012 (Roger Wasley)

Syngrapha ain, Tamion, Italy, July 2012 (Roger Wasley)

Other eye-catching species included Pine-tree Lappet, Netted Pug, Royal Mantle, Scotch Annulet, Great Brocade, Bordered Gothic, Saxon and Purple-shaded Gem.

On their return journey to the airport the group stopped off in the Bellunesi Dolomites National Park. At a picnic site near Mas, they found a sparsely wooded track to a stony river bed where Large Chequered Skipper and the fantastic day-flying Nine-spotted moth were photographed — a wonderful finale to a wonderful trip!

Large Chequered Skipper, Dolomites, Italy, July 2012 (Roger Wasley).

Nine-spotted, Dolomites, Italy, July 2012 (Roger Wasley)

Many thanks to Naturetrek's Alan Miller and Paul Harmes.

Written by: Roger Wasley and Steve Whitehouse