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Love in high place: hilltopping butterflies

Hill-topping swallowtail, Papilio machaon hispanicus, possible first generation brood (3 June 2017). Photograph by Raymond JC Cannon

It’s a wonder we all don’t meet up on the top of hills or mountains! It’s such a great way of finding someone: just keep going up until you get to the top, and I’ll be there! Seriously though, hill-topping, as it is called, is where male butterflies aggregate on or near the highest places in their habitats, and wait for receptive females to fly uphill towards them. It is an excellent way of concentrating the numbers of an otherwise low density species, and a good strategy for meeting members of the opposite sex, as long as they are instinctively inclined (sic) to move upwards.

Hill-topping site for Swallowtails: Hotel Semáforo de Bares on top of hill. Galicia, Spain. Photograph by Raymond JC Cannon

In some, but not all, cases the males become territorial, challenging and chasing away other males, defending a display site where females visit to choose males with which to mate. Such sites have also been called sexual rendezvous points (Cannon, 2019). I have had the good fortune to visit two hill-topping sites – both of which are in Galicia in NW Spain – on a regular basis in recent years. One is used throughout the summer – over three generations – by Swallowtail butterflies, Papilio machaon hispanicus; the other is a site where Large wall brown butterflies, Lasiommata maera, gather in the spring and early summer to find partners. Both species are well known hill-topping butterflies.

Hotel Semáforo de Bares

The first site is a small granite hill (210m above sea level), very near to Cape Bares (Cabo de Bares) in Galicia. Punta de Estaca de Bares, as it is called in Spanish, is the northernmost point of Spain and the Iberian Peninsula, and a great spot for bird-watching. There is an old semaphore station at the top of the hill, now a delightful small hotel called Hotel Semáforo de Bares, with panoramic views over the sea and Cape Bares.

Hotel Semáforo de Bares, Galicia, Spain. Photograph by Raymond JC Cannon

Male swallowtails are to found throughout the summer at this site, where they establish territories for meeting females. They perch on prominent sites, such as rocks or stems of grass (below).

Swallowtail, Papilio machaon, perched on grass head in his territory 23 June 17. Hotel Semáforo de Bares, Galicia, Spain. Photograph by Raymond JC Cannon

Marsh fritillaries also congregate at this site (below).

Two Marsh Fritillaries (Eurodryas aurina aurinia) on a thistle head. 19 June 2018. Bares, Galicia, Spain. . Photograph by Raymond JC Cannon

Mirador Da Miranda

The second site is a scenic lookout point – called a mirador in Spanish – situated above the Ría Ortigueira, which runs northwards into the Bay of Biscay, near the town of Cariño (below). It is 498m above sea level and is a windy place; there is often a cloud which forms above the hill, even on otherwise sunny days, so it is not ideal for butterflies. Yet they congregate here.

Cariño dende o mirador da Miranda. Photo by amaianos (Flicker CC)

Many people drive up here to admire the view, but perhaps not many of them know that it is great site for hill-topping butterflies, as well as other species, including bees and wasps! The bees and wasps may however, just be enjoying the nectar from the abundant heather (see below)!

Miranda Mirador, Galicia, Spain. Photograph by Raymond JC Cannon taken on 8 Sept 2018

The Large Wall Brown is a classic hilltopping species, which has been recorded at quite high altitudes, for example in the Atlas mountains (Morocco) and at 2,900m in the Sierra Nevada (Southern Spain). They are not particularly easy to photograph at this site, as they tend to fly off and sit on a rock, in a precarious situation (for humans that is, not butterflies!).

Large Wall Brown (Lasiommata maera) on lichen covered rock. Miranda Mirador, Galicia, Spain. Photograph by Raymond JC Cannon taken on 9 June 2019.

There are not large numbers of Large Wall browns at this site, but they are a regular feature, particularly on the granite walls of the lookout point itself (below).

Large Wall Brown (Lasiommata maera maera) male perched on rock. Miranda Mirador Galicia, Spain. Photograph by Raymond JC Cannon taken on 2 June 2019.

Female Large wall browns can also be seen at this site, so presumably they have flown up the hill from the surrounding areas (next two photos).

Large Wall Brown (Lasiommata maera maera) female on rock. Miranda Mirador Galicia, Spain. Photograph by Raymond JC Cannon taken on 25 June 2019.
Large Wall Brown (Lasiommata maera maera) female with torn hindwing. Miranda Mirador Galicia, Spain. Photograph by Raymond JC Cannon taken on 17 June 2019.

Not all species found at or near the top of hills, mountains of ridges are actively engaged in seeking mates however. The lovely heather around this site is often full of Red Admirals, Peacocks and Painted Ladies.

Red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) on bell heather. 8 Aug 2018. Miranda Mirador Galicia, Spain. Photograph by Raymond JC Cannon
Peacock (Aglais io) nectaring on bell heather, 8 Aug 2018. Miranda Mirador Galicia, Spain. Photograph by Raymond JC Cannon

Butterflies are quite picky about their hill-topping sites, and changes to the topography or vegetation can, it is said, put them off using it! Degradation and loss of habitat is happening all around us in the world, but I doubt that saving hill-topping sites is top of the list of priorities when developing scenic land for hotels or whatever!


Cannon, R. J. (2019). Courtship and Mating in Butterflies. CABI. Hardback | 392 Pages | 9781789242638

Tolman, T. (2008). Collins butterfly guide. HarperCollins UK.


rcannon992 View All

I am an entomologist with a background in quarantine pests and invasive invertebrates. I studied zoology at Imperial College (University of London) and did a PhD on the population dynamics of a cereal aphid (Metopolophium dirhodum) in the UK. I spent 5 years with the British Antarctic Survey studing cold hardiness of Antarctic invertebates and 17 years with the Food and Environment Research Agency. My main interests now are natural history, photography, painting and bird watching.

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