The winged wonders that bring a splash of colour

One of a pair of bee-eaters that nested in the UK last summer. (Andy Butler/National Trust/PA).
One of a pair of bee-eaters that nested in the UK last summer. (Andy Butler/National Trust/PA).
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This year saw rare birds, insects and butterflies fly in from the Continent, but could 2015 prove even more memorable? Liam Creedon reports.

This has proved to be an exciting year for the UK’s army of nature lovers.

Several species of exotic birds bred here for the first time in decades and very rare migrant butterflies appeared unannounced across the east coast.

Wave after wave of scarce and unusual wildlife winged in from the Continent and the presence of these glamorous and unexpected arrivals has been undeniably exciting, but their arrival also suggests that a warming climate means that the shape and make-up of British wildlife may never look quite the same again.

The excitement started in May when hot temperatures heralded the arrival of a pair of bee-eaters on the Isle of Wight. Looking like a fugitive from a tropical paradise, the bee-eater, normally found in the Mediterranean, is quite possibly Europe’s most striking bird with its rainbow coloured plumage and curved bill.

But what really got people excited was when the birds bred and successfully raised chicks for only the third time in the UK in the last century.

National Trust wildlife expert Matthew Oates explained that there is a good chance these birds will return again in 2015: “It was a good summer, with a lot of southerlies and also thunderstorms moving up from the south. Good summers almost invariably bring in the migrants.

“We discovered that there were actually two bee-eater nests. The two nests successfully raised eight young, which is utterly amazing by UK standards. Fingers crossed that some of these birds will return to breed next year, as they can be locality-faithful. Much depends on us getting a good summer next year.”

The undisputed supermodel of European birdwatching is the elegant Black-winged Stilt. A resident of southern Europe, a handful of stilts turn up in the UK every summer.

So when stilts appeared at the RSPB’s Frampton Marsh reserve in Lincolnshire there was a sense of mild excitement. This quickly turned to mild hysteria when the birds, just like the bee-eaters on the Isle of Wight, successfully bred and raised young – for the first time in 27 years.

This hysteria reached fever pitch when two rare Glossy Ibis, also from southern Europe, arrived on the reserve, set up a nest and showed signs of getting ready to breed. In the end, no chicks appeared – if they had it would have been a first for the UK.

The RSPB believes that if the climate continues to warm there is every chance bee-eaters and stilts will colonise the UK.

But the excitement wasn’t limited to birds. Butterflies were soon getting in on the act. The name of the Scarce Tortoiseshell hints at the regularity with which this large and beautiful butterfly is encountered in the UK. In fact the only time this big brother of our native Small Tortoiseshell has been seen on our shores was one solitary sighting in 1953.

So when around 30 appeared across the east of England during two weeks of mid-summer madness, it was fair to say the UK’s butterfly spotting community was thrown into frenzy.

The butterfly needs cold winters to hibernate successfully, but if a handful survive and emerge in 2015 it would be the first time the Scarce Tortoiseshell has done so in the 300-year history of UK butterfly monitoring.

Buglife entomologist Steve Falk explained: “New colonists have continued to spread – the Tree Bumblebee has reached Scotland, Ivy Bee, coneheads and Roesel’s bush Cricket continue to expand northwards.”

If the climate does continue to warm, the unprecedented events of this summer are set to become commonplace.

“Expect change,” Oates says. “Expect new arrivals, which will be a mixture of nice and beautiful, benign and nasty species.”