One of just three BC Upper Thames Branch area butterflies I failed to record in 2020 was Duke of Burgundy, since by the end of Lockdown 1.0 they had largely ceased to fly. In recent years I have preferred to observe this early season speciality in Hampshire and Sussex, but to evolve for 2021 I chose a classic UTB site just 40 miles from home.
Incombe Hole is a steep sided dry valley immediately to the south of Steps Hill in the National Trust’s Ivinghoe Beacon AoNB in Buckinghamshire. The area as a whole is the largest complex of chalk grassland anywhere on the Chilterns escarpment. As soon as I approached the feature from the smaller car park on Beacon Road at SP963155, I recalled a similar geological trench running off the South Downs at Butser Hill in Sussex, where I observed Duke of Burgundy, Grizzled Skipper and Green Hairstreak in 2018 (see here).
In the past I had joined Butterfly Conservation field trips to Beacon and Steps Hills in this Bucks’ locality but had not been to Incombe Hole before. Walking further along the top of the less lofty southern slope and looking downward there stretched out ideal habitat for Duke of Burgundy and those other spring butterflies. On selecting what looked like a manageable descent (hiking pole recommended) the valley floor contained swathes of Cowslip, my quest’s food plant. Now this site also reminded me very much of the popular Duke site Noar Hill in Hampshire (see here and here).
I was in another beautiful, evocative location upon which I at once decided to focus my early butterflying activity for the new season. But on this morning the sun just did not want to come out. After making a thorough reconnoitre up and down the length of the valley I climbed back out again and rested for a while. It was now just before 1pm and a patch of blue sky was approaching that I attempted to walk back down into.
At the foot of my earlier descent two other observers were sitting on the ground staking out an expanse of blooming Hawthorn. As I approached them and quite by coincidence they jumped up, exclaiming: “It’s a Duke!” In the transient sunshine a butterfly had landed in a very small Hawthorn sapling right beside them. I hung back to let them get their pictures first, not wishing to barge in on what was reward for a patient wait, but they were friendly and talkative. Then I managed to gain acceptable images of my own (below).
We were soon joined by two other observers and so things became already a little crowded for my liking, though all of us got on perfectly well. One of these colleagues was a regular surveyor here who at the end of March found a Large Tortoiseshell in Incombe Hole (see here), and he briefed the rest of us further on the site. We were apparently at an especially good spot for Dukes since they like to nectar on the Hawthorn blossom. That may be due in part this year to the Cowslips being more under-developed than usual due to April’s dry, cold climate pattern.
I was led to expect a count potential of 20-something Dukes of Burgundy on a good day here once the weather improves, and checking back through BC UTB’s sightings records confirmed that. The 27th’s window of opportunity soon passed and conditions became cooler and more overcast than in the morning. I was the last of the five people present to leave, having gained a good understanding of the location and resolving to re-visit at the earliest opportunity.
Returning after three more days in the late morning of 30th I was at first the only person at this same spot, quickly finding one each of Green Hairstreak, Dingy and Grizzled Skipper in the sunshine. Then a male Duke began basking on the ground near to me (pictured above, left), at which a second observer appeared and he found a female in the Hawthorn (below). We took turns to take pictures of both these individuals and that opportunity was relatively brief again like two days earlier. Cloud is prone to bank up on the Chilterns escarpment here just as much as at Aston Rowant NNR in Oxon.
It seemed like the wait for another blue sky interval could be quite long as three more observers arrived. If anything did then show itself there would be the inevitable scrum, so having already gained enough material for this post I decided this journal’s Duke of Burgundy content had evolved enough for the new season and went on my way. It has been a very slow start to 2021 through a cold April with just small numbers of butterflies recorded so far. The early season specialities of which I saw all four at this site look set to not occur in numbers until mid-May.
The images herein of Dukes on Hawthorn blossom are especially pleasing, being the first I have gained in such a setting. Over the years I have managed as agreeable studies of this delightful little butterfly that will allow close approaches given careful, lone fieldwork. This celebration (below) presents the best of them:
The Rn’S Duke of Burgundy Gallery
For new visitors to this blog who might have been directed via a specific species search, the different posts presented herein on British Butterflies are regularly referred to. The following may also be of interest:
Marsh Fritillary et al @ Cotley Hill, Wilts – 721 views
Marsh Fritillary et al @ Battlesbury Hill, Wilts – 533 views
Large Heath @ Whixall Moss, Shropshire – 445 views
Purple Emperor et al @ Bernwood Forest, Bucks – 337 views
Heath Fritillary @ East Blean Wood, Kent – 239 views
Pearl-bordered Fritillary @ Rewell Wood, Sussex – 231 views
Duke of Burgundy at Noar and Butser Hills Sussex – 192 views
Large Blue @ Daneway Banks, Glos – 155 views
Wood White @ Bucknell Wood, Northants – 118 views
Marsh Fritillary @ Strawberry Banks, Glos – 112 views