Sparks of colour in land of ice and fire

It's already a year since I wrote about seeing butterflies in Iceland and now I have just returned from a second visit which took me cruising from Iceland to the west coast of Greenland as far north as Disko Bay.

I didn't expect to be lucky enough to see butterflies in Iceland again, not least because they don't have any resident species, only very occasional immigrants which have flown long distances. But I was surprised that some of my fellow passengers did. As we were rounding the far north-west corner of Iceland, a red admiral was spotted flying around one of the decks. I went looking for it, but it didn't reappear.

However, I did find a heart and dart moth resting in one of the stairwells. That was almost as exciting considering that we were close to the Arctic Circle. I never cease to be amazed at the abilities of our insects to travel the world.

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I suppose that both these insects could have been hitch-hikers which may have come on board before we left Harwich, or even during our brief call in Norway. Yet both probably left the ship soon after being spotted, as it was sunny. Many migrating insects tend to head in a north-westerly direction. Such a track on this occasion could only lead to Greenland, some 400-plus miles away where there would be few observers to note their arrival. The strange thing is that while Iceland has no resident butterflies, Greenland, which is colder and more barren, has five different species, including the aptly named polar and arctic fritillaries, a clouded yellow, the glandon blue and the small copper – the latter being a familiar Yorkshire species. I had hoped to see at least one of these, but the weather was against us. Surprisingly, four of Greenland's species can be seen almost anywhere around its coastal areas, even in the far north, a mere 700km from the North Pole.

So there we were, waiting to land at Illulisat in Disko Bay, but stuck just offshore in a thick freezing fog… all day. Strangely enough, the sun came out, but not strongly enough to disperse the mist.

However, it did cause excitement on board by creating a fog halo and brocken spectre in the form of a large, white, colour-tinged rainbow effect. As we leaned over the railings we could each see our own shadow on the water, with our silhouetted heads surrounded by a tiny rainbow halo, all caused by the sun's light being refracted in the ice crystals of the fog.

The Icelandic part of the trip was little better for the weather. My hope of seeing the Eyjafjallajkull or "Island Mountain Glacier" volcano was dashed by the mass of cloud stubbornly clinging to the glacier surrounding it. Still, following tracks only open to 4x4 vehicles we got close. In fact right up to the glacier snout.

The countryside around the volcano is already green, and although there is much visible ash close by, wild plants like white bladder campion are already reclaiming even the blackest areas, and insects are following in their wake. We saw many day-flying moths in one part but they were too active to be photographed. Our guide pointed out that before the volcano erupted it was fairly normal for them to get three or four small earthquakes every day, but in the previous 48 hours to our trip there had been 88. The Island Mountain Volcano has not yet gone to sleep.

Since returning home, our garden has been pretty full of butterflies with up to 40 individuals of at least nine species including plenty of peacocks and small tortoiseshells, up to five holly blues, several red admirals and a beautiful male brimstone. It looks as though the season has peaked later than usual, but with several species doing better than expected in spite of the recent rain.