The annual search for White Admiral as “poseur” – June 2017

Having noted at Warren Heath the new season flight of two big deciduous woodland butterflies, it was time once again to re-attempt another difficult insect objective. In my experience White Admiral is one of the most difficult species to photograph. Every year I set out to capture premium or even satisfactory images, and each time these insects frustrate for two reasons. One is they invariably keep to the shadows in habitat where they occur, and the other is their condition deteriorates very rapidly. So within a week of emergence any available subject is likely to have chunks out of the wings or other imperfections.

Added to all that is the little matter of a suitable weather window that in 2017 at least has not been an issue. Wednesday 21st was the last of five forecast very warm days and so I headed for Pamber Forest in north Hampshire (SU616608) to try my luck again. I had turned down an invite from Ewan for a 4am start to go back for the Elegant Tern. Then after a 3-11 pm shift at the Rizlas for grunters kiosk, and sitting up to unwind once I got home I only slept on the summer solstice for two hours anyway.

silver-washed fritillary.1701 pamber forest

Silver-washed Fritillary

There were a lot of White Admiral and Silver-washed Fritillary (pictured above) on the wing at this Hants & IoW Wildlife Trust managed ancient woodland when I set out to explore mid-morning. But they were not being very co-operative and so it was dragonflies that took equal billing. Pamber Forest is an easy location in which to lose sense of direction, and at one spot I would not know how to find again I encountered the week’s third Common Goldenring. I had been told that most magnificent of English dragons flies in these woods, but had yet to see one on several previous visits.

Like the stream-bed counterparts of my previous experience this male ghosted up and down its chosen stretch of forest track over and again, examining perches and settling from time to time. I had to wait to get a picture of it and when the opportunities came they were always against dark and blotchy backgrounds (pictured below). But this was my first observation at this site and so I wanted record shots.

Later in the morning my attention was caught by a perched White Admiral nectaring on bramble flowers. The butterfly remained faithful to one spot for quite a while but the light was appalling. Inevitably my subject was favouring dark recesses in bright sunlight as these butterflies habitually do. But despite their graininess these (below) are actually my best ever underwing captures of what is a perfect fresh specimen. The patterning is quite complex and beautiful, in contrast to the rather plain brown and white of this species’ top wings.

So here was a result of a kind and I suspected this individual would be my day’s co-operative subject. The top-wing capture (below) aptly illustrates the difficulty White Admiral present given the backdrops against which they choose to present themselves. I have attempted to offset the image’s lack of quality with creative effects. It is pleasing in its way but there is just too much bright light and shadow involved.

white admitral.1705 pamber forest

White Admiral

I headed back to the car and a sandwich break and on the way came across a teneral male Black-tailed Skimmer dragonfly. I find the yellow form (below) very attractive and this one provided a much better photo opportunity than the season’s earlier find at RSPB Otmoor, Oxon. I was able to circle the insect with my telephoto lens while it remained unbothered by my attentions. If I did put it up the BTS would return to the same perch but at a different angle, and so things went on. Eventually I went in with the macro to gain the right-hand image.

In mid-afternoon I made a second circuit of the wood as heat continued to stifle. I now had the place much to myself since the dog walkers, joggers and hurtling lycra-clad kamikazes of the morning had mostly dispersed. Unfortunately the butterflies were now less in evidence too. From time to time White Admirals would float up from cover low to one side of me, to either vanish on the other or circle upwards into the trees. It seemed that after whatever they do earlier in the day they were now keeping in shade more than ever, and who can blame them in the conditions?

A text arrived from Ewan to say he had not yet seen the Elegant Tern, then reports began of that bird having relocated to the rather bigger (than Pagham) Poole Harbour. Well no matter, I have been enjoying taking pictures of insects for the last week instead. After stopping for a power nap on a woodland bench I headed home to review my latest day’s work.

On Thursday 22nd weather conditions reverted to more of a seasonal norm and my park home re-assumed a pleasant 21 degrees inside. It is quite uncomfortable being in a wooden building around which all the shade has been removed in the temperatures of the previous five days. After a cloudier spell the sun came through again during Saturday afternoon (24th) and so I continued the search for an elusive “poseur” closer to home.

The first location checked was York Wood (SU610110), a part of Bucks’ Bernwood Forest that includes the intriguingly named Hell Coppice. White Admiral were not much in evidence, and when two did show themselves (pictured above, left) all the same issues as three days previously applied. But I was pleased to capture a female Silver-washed Fritillary (above, right) since the gentler gender of that species is under-represented in my photo collection.

Early evening proved an interesting time to be out with the camera here since as the sun lowered insects were absorbing heat in the available bright patches. Several each of Blue Emperor and Broad-bodied Chaser (pictured below, left) dragonflies were encountered, but the most interesting find was a female Black-Tailed Skimmer (below, right) that allows comparison with the teneral male featured earlier in this post. To put things most simply, her yellow toning is less bright and the black bands across the abdomen are bolder.

Two days later on Monday 26th I visited BBOWT’s Whitecross Green Wood (SU603148) where White Admiral were in good supply. But once again these tantalisers would only settle fleetingly before disappearing back into the shade from whence they had come. There was plenty of company on this occasion and everyone I met asked only about Black Hairstreak, mostly without knowing where to look. Oh dear, whilst doing my best to help I tried to convey to these people as painlessly as possible that they really should have been out in the field two weeks ago (see here).

Not having to go and find anything in particular is something I’m especially relishing at present. When compiling this journal’s British butterflies series in 2015, that is still much referred to from web searches, I put myself under pressure to observe every species in limited weather windows while also getting a certain standard of photographs. So last year I felt little appetite for doing British insects over again, but this time around I can just relax and enjoy.

One benefit of that is having the time to distinguish females, as with the York Wood SWF; and also immature (teneral) forms of common dragonflies. On this day I captured both female and teneral Ruddy Darter (pictured above) in Whitecross Green Wood. The completely black legs are diagnostic here. Brown Hawker were also flying but as usual constantly on the move, and there were numerous Blue Emperor (below) hawking the rides and clearings. The last named are always worth capturing when they settle, even though they are wont to choose grassy backdrops.

emperor.1704 whitecross green wood

Blue Emperor

While all this was being observed the past week’s guiding purpose, White Admiral continued to be their most difficult selves. And so my annual quest must continue. Perhaps the much wanted premium shot will come this summer or maybe there will be another 12 month wait. It keeps me going and that is the point of all this.

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