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.