2014 Butterfly Highlights (retrospective)

This was an unusual butterfly year in that I spent most of May in Portugal. So of those British species that need to be gone out and looked for, several spring specialities – Grizzled and Dingy Skipper, Duke of Burgundy, Small Blue; Pearl-bordered, Small Pearl-bordered and Marsh Fritillary – all went unobserved in 2014.green hairstreak.1401 linkey down

My personal spring favourite Green Hairstreak (right) enjoyed a fairly early start to its flight season in mid-April. As always I looked for them first at Linkey Down, Oxon on the Chilterns escarpment. Unfortunately their habitat here had been cut severely by English Nature for a second successive year, though there did appear to have been a partial migration across the M40 motorway.

I went to Portugal unresearched and with no plan other than to walk the Algarve hills in spring and see what butterflies I came across. In the event I added 16 species to my life list. Most of these are featured in my butterfly gallery and here’s a taster.

We are blessed in Oxford with being within an hour’s drive of more than 40 different butterfly species. My interest at home was re-ignited with the first report of Black Hairstreak from Oxon’s Whitecross Green Wood on 8 June. A day later I was pleased to observe and photograph black hairstreak.1407 whitecross green woodthe species (left) for the first time at that site, in company with local conservationist Becky Woodell. I avoided the Bernwood Forest, Bucks location that had received much attention in 2013, deliberately so as I felt in part responsible for its over-visitation in that season. Thankfully the site, previously known only to Butterfly Conservation (BC) transect walkers, was reported on far less this year and hopefully pressured less.

In my fifth Oxon, Bucks and Berks butterfly season, the main motivation was getting better pictures of certain species. I spent some pleasant late-June and July afternoons in Bernwood Forest improving on previous years’ results for White Admiral and Silver-washed Fritillary. This butterfly site attracts a lot of enthusiasts nationally, especially for Purple Emperor, but is also used heavily by the general public and dog walkers in particular. Fortunately there are innumerable off-the-beaten-track spots where butterfies and other widlife may be observed with relatively little disturbance.

Nationally (ie species not present in Oxon, Bucks and Berks) I went for just two butterflies this year. I had seen fly-past Large Heath once before in 2013 at Cors Caron NNR in South Wales. This year I made two June visits to another major raised peat bog, Whixall Moss NNR in Shropshire, seeing the species both times. My experience of peat bogs is that grey cloud can sit in over the habitat whilst the surrounding area looks sunny. It took a long time for the Large Heath to start flying on 28 June.

The centre of attention for Large Blue has shifted from Somerset’s previously much-publicised Collard Hill to Daneway Banks in Gloucestershire. On visiting the latter on 1 July it was clear that the associated circus had switched sites too. Diners were coming out of the pub and walking up the hillside above to see for themselves, no doubt having quizzed butterfly enthusiasts enjoying a post-sighting pint. I was admittedly as guilty as anyone else of pressuring the habitat, whilst photographing this species  (below) for the first time here.

My local butterfly observation in July majored on Skipper and Hairstreak species. Silver-spotted Skipper made it’s earliest appearance in recent history in 2014. My single 12 July sighting at Oxon’s Aston Rowant NNR (N) was a UK year first. Also in July I photographed the enigmatic Essex Skipper in Burgess Field Nature Park beside Port Meadow in Oxford. This species is notoriously difficult to separate from other brown Skippers in the field, and usually requires getting down on all fours to examine the antennae head on. The right hand picture below is an Essex, whilst the left hand butterfly is a Large Skipper. The antennae look black in both cases but those of the Large Skipper are hooked.

large skipper.1205 york's wood

Essex (right) and Large Skipper

essex skipper.1408 burgess field

I was asked for this clarification a number of times in the field this year and so have repeated it here, having had the lesson myself  from BC chair Dr Jim Asher a couple of seasons ago. In Oxfordshire Adonis Blue has expanded it’s range in recent seasons. I now monitor a colony of the species, in both broods in late May and late July / August, that has become established at Aston Rowant NNR (N) where the M40 motorway cuts through the Chilterns escarpment.

Adonis Blue

Adonis Blue

At Otmoor RSPB reserve on 6 July I captured top-wing pictures of Purple Hairstreak for the first time ever. Observing the species here at macro-lens range was a welcome change from craning the neck to locate tree-top flyers in Bernwood Forest. 20 days later I was the first observer to publish pictures of Brown Hairstreak in their favoured Otmoor location for a second season running. This year most of the reported sightings there were high in Ash trees, giving the habitat beneath some welcome respite from the pummeling it endured in 2013. But I was unable to observe White-letter Hairstreak this season, failing to find the species on three visits to Chazey Heath in south Oxfordshire.

So with autumn setting in, that’s a retrospective on my 2014 butterfly season. It is my intention to record a full English butterfly year, from some of my established favourite sites and hopefully new locations too, on this blog in 2015.

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