The hottest day of the year – 19th July

Today was what it says in the title. “Heatwave Britain” headlines had announced this a day earlier and Carol Kirkwood on BBC Breakfast this morning coined a new catchphrase to describe what was in store: “Super Scorchio”. I had arisen late at around 7:30am. Then after thinking very briefly about painting the back garden fence I decided to go out and see some butterflies instead.

Well this is the sort of weather we have all been starved of for the last two months: it would barely be fitting to spend the day gardening and doing household chores. My choice of location was Bernwood Forest just across the county border in Bucks. It would be a bit too hot to go much further after all. I had returned twice to explore Pamber Forest, north Hants in the interval since my 3rd July visit (see here), but decided sooner the devil I know. Maybe I could even do justice to photographing White Admiral today.

On my second re-visit to Pamber Forest I met a local patch watcher who showed me where the Purple Emperor territories are. He also said Silver-washed Fritillary numbers have been disappointing this year, as my own experience had suggested. Likewise White Admiral: I didn’t even get a decent sighting never mind a photo opportunity on each occasion. So I reluctantly concluded that Bernwood Forest is the better site, hence my decision to brave the posses of paparazzi interested only in Purple Emperor today.

The first thing I saw upon arriving in the Oakley Wood car park just after 11am was such a group, gathered around what had to be an Emperor on the ground. A dozen or more people with cameras surrounding one insect is not my idea of butterfly watching. So I gave things the most cursory of glances and continued on my way. After all I had been in on the year’s first PE sighting in this wood two weeks ago (see here). What could have kept these people?

I set off along the main track checking the Oaks for Purple Hairstreak, then completed a circuit of Oakley Wood during which just one White Admiral was seen that didn’t settle. Part of the motivation for butterflying here on the year’s hottest day was to see if the Pamber patch watcher’s assertion about SWF was true generally this season. I have to conclude that numbers of all woodland butterflies, even Ringlet seem to be down on a good season. But that is not to say populations will not recover from a poor weather summer since fewer butterflies can still lay many eggs.

About 100 metres from the car park I found an Oak that contained a lot of Purple Hairstreak. Indeed this was probably the same tree where I blogged the species in 2016 (see here), since colonies generally stick to just one Oak. Another observer joined me then found an individual perched reasonably low down. He said it was the first time he had seen one that close. Before long things became quite crowded as they are prone to do here, with more and more people walking back up the track enquiring what we were looking at. And so I went on my way again.

Despite the bright and dark patches I am actually quite pleased with the images that appear half way up this post. My second circuit of Oakley Wood produced no more pictures worth publishing. Good numbers of Brown Hawker dragonflies were on the wing but I didn’t wait to see if one would settle. By 1pm the butterfly tourists had all gone and things seemed more peaceful here. But the hottest day of the year was being spoiled by an allergy attack so I went back home to put my head down and see the affliction off. Phew, what a super scorchio!


Goldenring dragons and a special damsel at Latchmore Brook, New Forest, Hants – 17 & 20th July

This was a season’s first visit to the English Odonata mecca of the New Forest. My quest was to acquire better images of Common Goldenring, in my view the most magnificent home dragonfly. My issue with this species is that in the past I have mostly captured them against over-busy backgrounds. Where insect photography is concerned my desire is always to cut out the clutter as much as possible.

A year ago (see here) I identified this site as one where that aim might be attainable if a little time is devoted to the task. On Sunday the weather forecast was for sustained sunshine after a cloudy start and hence it was game on, or so I thought. Upon arriving on site around 11am conditions were still steadfastly overcast, and thus largely it remained for the next five hours. But it still didn’t take long to come across Goldenrings as I walked east from Ogdens Forestry Commission car park at SU182124.

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Common Goldenring (male)

This individual, a male (pictured above) was the first one encountered, and soon it settled against a colour co-ordinated if still cluttered backdrop. Goldenrings, of which there are eight variants across Europe, follow a fairly predictable routine of patrolling the same patch up and down and over again. After re-finding one spot that on the previous visit had struck me as being especially photogenic but which somehow didn’t grab me now, I retraced my steps and came across another Goldenring doing exactly what I have described above.

Feeling a little weary in spirit, I sat and watched this second male for some time, noting the locations where habitually he would come to rest. Insect watching should be about relaxing in remote places in communion with complex and fascinating joys of nature with the capacity to cleanse the system, just the dragonflies or butterflies and myself. Instead it more often involves the frustration of waiting for the sun to come out, then too limited intervals in which to record the renewing experience for posterity. Eventually my Goldenring perched perfectly right in front of me (below left). This was more like it.

The twig in the right hand picture (above) was another favoured stopping place, and so it went on. This is the first time in 2016 that I have converted an objective on the limited insect agenda set for this season, and that’s all due to poor weather. Better or any photographs of Hairy Hawker, Downy Emerald, Common Clubtail, and teneral or female Blue Chaser will all now have to wait until 2017; not to mention White Admiral butterflies.

Another speciality at Latchmore Brook is Scarce Blue-tailed Damselfly that I observed for the first time in this place a year ago (see also here). The lowland mire in which they occur, to the immediate north of the brook, was in excellent health today with a fascinating array of bog plants of which I have no knowledge. In mid-afternoon I returned to the car for a power nap then changed into wellies to seek out this species for a second time. The best part of an hour was then spent waiting for an approaching patch of blue sky to cover the key position.

As soon as the sun broke through, SBTD took to the wing, but these are very tricky little insects to capture. They have a finer more delicate appearance than regular Blue-tailed Damselfy and a knack of vanishing from view as imperceptibly as they appear in the first place. But once the three or four individuals encountered here settled the diagnostics of a blue tail band covering part of segment 8 and all of 9, and with a convex upper edge, were plain to behold (pictured above).

I have long since realised that much of the better odonata photography published on-line must be obtained by wading in. But usually I am far too squeamish about treading habitat to get really close to some insects. This particular bog is churned up by free ranging cattle and ponies anyway, and so I felt less guilt at doing what after all odo royalty does. The results were a little better than last year and I resolved to try again.

That opportunity wasn’t long in coming round since following a conversation with Adam we decided to go down together a few days later. He needed SBTD for his odonata life list and I would be able to take him to the right spot to find them. Avoiding the year’s hottest day we opted for Wednesday that in the event wasn’t much cooler. This time we found just one male (pictured above) that struck up some nice poses against reasonably subtle backgrounds. In retrospect Sunday’s capture of a female wasn’t that bad but these are better since they do not involve brown bog water and over-reflection.

In the afternoon we trekked across country, and for some of the way off-piste across Hampton Ridge and through the eastern edge of Pitts Wood Inclosure to Ashley Hole, and then back again. After a very wet summer up until this week lots of superb lowland mire habitat was encountered along our route with many odo-rich pools. But observing these beautiful insects is doomed to become repetitive in this country. If only there were more species to experience, though at least one rather special damselfly has been done justice now.

Collared Pratincole at Ham Wall RSPB, Somerset – 13th July

On my only completely free day of this week I wished, naturally enough to hit the road and go somewhere. And given a recent burst of enthusiasm for high summer butterflies I now rather fancied doing some dragonflies. So the presence since Sunday of a potential British bird list addition on the Somerset Levels offered a dual purpose day out: an Odonata-friendly location with insurance against poor weather.

Having left a bright and sunny Oxford I arrived at Ashcott corner car park (ST449397), between the Avalon Marshes reserves of Ham Wall and Shapwick Heath, with the grey stuff seemingly filling the length and breadth of the levels. This location has produced a number of lifers over the years: most recently Dusky Warbler (see here); and previously Hudsonian Godwit (here), Pied-billed Grebe (Feb 2013) and European Roller (Jun 1989).

To quote RBA: “The Somerset Levels are fast becoming a top rarity venue as well as Britain’s best rare herons and egrets breeding site”. Today’s attraction was a Collared Pratincole, renowned as a wader that feeds aerially. This is a bird I self-found and viewed well in Portugal (May 2014) and had also observed in la Camargue, France and Coto Donana, Spain two years earlier. A southern European breeder that winters in sub-Saharan Africa, it is the most widely distributed of the world’s eight Pratincoles and also one of the largest.

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Collared Pratincole  © rights of owner reserved

When I reached the second viewing platform at Ham Wall, from where the bird was being reported, rain began to fall. Most of the birders gathered there moved to shelter under trees a short distance back along the path. Then one called the Collared Pratincole and showed it to me in his scope, after which I quickly located the bird myself. It was sitting on the ground in the middle distance amongst Mallard and Lapwing, and I was able to put other birders on to what they acknowledged was a better view. The image (above) is outsourced but today’s bird was in more or less the same pose, if against a green backdrop.

At some time after 12pm fair weather set in from the west and the Pratincole took to the air. I then watched it for around 20 minutes or so hawking for insects over much of the landscape in the pictures below.  It had an elegant jizz suggesting a large Swift with the grace of a Tern. Though a very fast flier the white rump and long forked tail stood out clearly. But the name “collared” is misleading since the feature referred to is not a collar and is also present in other Pratincole species. Hence this one is also referred to as Common Pratincole or merely “Pratincole” in  different sources. For the RBA image gallery of the Ham Wall bird see here.

So I have now observed both of the Palearctic Pratincoles in Great Britain. But this was a hugely more satisfying experience than the very brief flight view obtained of a Black-winged Pratincole at the Ouse Washes, Cambs in August 2014. The word satisfying did not apply to my dragonfly watching efforts today. I spent the afternoon a little to the north of the RSPB “home for nature” at Somerset Wildlife Trust’s excellent Westhay Moor NNR (ST455436). A pleasant enough few hours were passed there but no better or even decent odo pictures were gained, and so nothing in the insect line will be blogged.

Purple Emperor at Oakley and Finemere Woods, Bucks – 5 & 7th July

My quest for better pictures of White Admiral found me back at the regular local location of Bernwood Forest, Bucks on Tuesday. With an overcast start to the day and a late shift awaiting in the shop at 3pm there wasn’t time to go “out of area” and so I arrived mid-morning at Oakley Wood Forestry Commision car park (SP612118) to tread a familiar route.

For my first hour on site conditions remained steadfastly grey with only fluttering Ringlet in the long grass and occasional Large Skipper to break the monotony. After one circuit to the central crossroads and back I reasoned that if I left the sun would be bound to come out, so I decided to sit in the car and wait. As things transpired that was only for a few minutes before fairer weather took over.

Then I walked part of the woods that in past experience is good for White Admiral. Four Silver-washed Fritillary were active at one spot though not close enough to photograph, and I also encountered Broad-bodied Chaser and Hairy Hawker dragonflies. Arriving back at the main track a group of dog walkers were gathered around something on the path and they beckoned me over. I get recognised in this place. This had to be a Purple Emperor and so it was.

The butterfly before long objected to being videoed with a phone and flew off. When the group dispersed I set off down the track to relocate it. At first it was very flighty moving restlessly back up the track ahead of me. Incredibly so I thought the next dog walkers through didn’t even notice as this wonder of nature flew past them at waist height. I gestured to point it out but concluding they probably thought I was a bit mad I let them be.

The Purple Emperor came to rest close to where it had first came down from the trees. Then it began the familiar routine either of probing the hard surface of the track for whatever it is they extract, or just sitting still looking magnificent. It allowed a very close approach now. Pristine was not the word as it glistened before me in all its freshness.

Eventually a Dalmation appeared at my elbow that I took by the collar to prevent the insect being put up. The owners were the couple I had passed further down the track. They had apparently thought I was some kind of dog poo vigilante but all was now explained and they were very appreciative of being shown such a beautiful butterfly. Having submitted the record to BC I believe this is the first Oakley Wood sighting of the season.

Today (7th) I met up with Ewan at another BBOWT reserve in the north of the Bernwood Forest complex, Finemere Wood (SP721215). The first thing I encountered after going through the entrance gate some time after 11am was another male Purple Emperor flopping around above the surface of the track, before disappearing from view. I then had to inform Ewan of this who had been on site for an hour already without seeing one. We split up to search different parts of the wood, and soon I got a call to say he had relocated the Emperor. Phew, tranquillity could now resume!

When I returned to the entrance gate this butterfly was still posing nicely for a small group of observers that had gathered. It was in a muddier and more grassy location than the Oakley Wood individual and so offered a little different composition (pictured above). These pictures demonstrate how this large butterfly’s appearance depends on how the light catches it, with often only one top wing in the male appearing to be purple.

Some “high summer” butterflies in Oxon, Hants and Berks – 2nd, 3rd & 6th July

My resolve not to do butterflies in 2016 was tested at the weekend by some better weather coinciding with the urge for a little soul cleansing. Having seen most of the early season English species in France during May I hadn’t ventured out at home through possibly the foulest June in living memory. But now speciality species are available to see locally if I feel so inclined.

So a reasonably sunny Saturday afternoon found me heading for the “home ground” of Aston Rowant NNR (N) on the Chilterns escarpment to look for a favourite mid-summer downland butterfly. It didn’t take long to find some Dark Green Fritillary as walking downhill to the spot where I usually expect to find them I came across two nectaring on thistle heads at the foot of the “noisy hillside” above the M40 motorway.

These were pristine, golden-brown males (pictured above), fresh for the new season and to repeat a much used phrase a joy to behold. But as so often at this site grey cloud had tracked me from Oxford and the observation opportunity was limited. I counted six individuals ahead of an enforced period of sitting in gloomy conditions waiting for the sun to come out again. When that eventually transpired the first DGF to become active was a duller-toned female (pictured below) but before long several butterflies were on the wing once more.

Last year when I published a British butterflies series in this journal the early season and further afield stuff was enjoyable. But by July at regularly visited local sites things began to seem like the same old, same old. That was partly due to the pressure of having to blog everything during limited weather windows, and especially the need to gain comparable pictures to my past best of each species. Now if I choose to go after particular butterflies I can just relax with the camera and try to get something a little different, as these images (above) of my year’s seventh fritillary perhaps demonstrate.

There are some omissions from the usual butterfly list in 2016 as I have not observed Duke of Burgundy, or Pearl and Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries either at home or abroad. I also have no intention of going anywhere near a Black Hairstreak this season as I wish to play no part in the inappropriate attention they attract, even as a responsible observer. When Sunday dawned bright and sunny after so many grey, wet days I feared for that much put upon rarity at those regular Oxon and Bucks sites where it has been reported. And so I headed for north Hampshire instead in the hope of photographing White Admiral.

Why so? Because in six previous years of observing the last-named I have yet to obtain a truly satisfying image of one. Having achieved good results with Southern White Admiral in France this year (see here), I now desire something of a comparable standard for the English species. Hants and IoW Wildlife Trust’s Pamber Forest reserve (SU 616608) is a classic site for July woodland butterflies. I had visited here briefly a year ago with fellow Oxon naturalists Wayne and Julie Bull, our paths having crossed at neighbouring Silchester Common. Now I wanted to have a good look around this ancient woodland.

Once again my arrival on site coincided with that of the dreaded grey stuff. As I set off to explore cloud built up. But in response to a first breakthrough of the strange yellow orb Silver-washed Fritillary appeared as if out of nowhere, to be quickly followed by White Admiral. In this briefest of sunny interludes one of the latter struck up a perfect underwing pose right in front of me at just below head height. When the sun faded this butterfly spread its wings flat to observe what warmth it could.

My luck was in, being in the right spot at this moment. The image (above left) though not as sharp as I would like is exactly what I wanted. It is important to catch this species early in its life cycle since in my experience their condition deteriorates quickly. The top wing picture is on a par with previous results so I will keep on trying. Having gained a firm impression of this site’s superb habitat, weather allowing I will return.

In the afternoon I joined a Butterfly Conservation (BC) field meeting at Maidenhead Thicket, Berks (SU 857809) to seek out White-letter Hairstreak. The group leader who is also BC’s Upper Thames Branch species champion knew the position of every Elm tree in this National Trust-owned wooded common, which of course helps considerably in locating WLH. Chocolate brown Ringlet were on the wing everywhere here, and more Silver-washed Fritillary and common Vanessids were also flying.

On our arrival at the spot where the species champion had found WLH previously this year nothing was moving in overcast conditions. But as soon as the sun came out four White-letter Hairstreak began to commute between their home Elm and neighbouring trees, offering always distant views but with the correct flight pattern and jizz. So, as BC members phrase it “the target species had been observed”, though I had to console one participant who was fairly new to butterflying that this is often as good as it gets. There were no suitable nectaring plants in the vicinity to bring the WLH down from the tree tops and the aphid honeydew situation up there is always key.

Three days later, in company with Ewan, I caught up with a rather worn WLH nectaring on brambles below Elm at the species’ regular Chazey Heath site in south-east Oxon. We also observed three more tree top fliers at this location.

All three of the featured species in this post were observed within days of my equivalent 2015 records. This demonstrates that butterflies are not wiped out in foul weather but simply get on with things out of sight until the sun comes out. And if the latter happens often enough through July I hope that my planned limited insect agenda for 2016 will not be so arduous to realise as in June.