2017 is without doubt a superb summer for getting out and about amongst butterflies, and dragonflies too. It is most probably down to the good number of long hot days making insects active, rather than their getting on with things out of sight while frustrated observers wait for the sun to struggle out, as has been more usual in recent years. So wherever I look in suitable places right now sometimes huge numbers of these fascinating creatures oblige with their special capacity for uplifting the spirit.
On Monday of this week (3rd) conditions became butterfly friendly in mid-afternoon and so I headed to a Bernwood forest site I have paid less attention to in recent years. The BBOWT-managed Rushbeds Wood (SP672154) is an ancient woodland of Oak, Ash, Beech, Hazel and Hawthorn; that is bordered by Blackthorn hedges and wild flower meadows. This mix spells butterfly utopia and the whole place was teeming with them.
At intervals along the woodland rides were clearings containing large stands of blooming brambles in amongst the Blackthorn, Sallow and other shrubs. In these open places a seeming multitude of Silver-washed Fritillary tumbled, glided and flirted amongst golden Comma, brown Skippers, Marbled White, Meadow Brown and a trillion Ringlet. White Admiral, the guiding purpose of my current butterfly activity, was also well represented while Brown and Southern Hawker dragonflies patrolled the semi-shade. Clearly I had chosen to visit an exceptional site for insect life.
Along the main north-south ride a female Silver-washed Fritillary of the Valezina form appeared (pictured above). A much prized sighting amongst lepidopterists, these genetic mutations can account for up to 15% of females in some central southern populations, according to Prof Jeremy Thomas. Unfortunately they are less attractive to male SWF which serves to keep their numbers down. Valezinas have a dusky blue-green sheen to the upper wings while their undersides are tinted pink. They tend to keep in shade more than regular females, as this one did against the type of background I normally try to avoid, but record shots had to be gained. This is a butterfly I have wanted to photograph for some time.
Things became most interesting in early evening as the falling sun lit up particular bramble patches into which nectaring butterflies became concentrated. In one spot I found several Silver-washed Fritillary of varying sizes all busying themselves and looking lovely. They are such beautiful, photogenic things when they offer themselves to the camera in this way (below), and only too happy to do premium.
After a while a White Admiral joined the proceedings, always settling fleetingly and being at once chased off by other butterflies. But eventually this interloper became more bold and stood its ground. And so the quality of image I have gained this summer whilst concentrating on the species continued imperceptibly to improve.
I felt quite pleased with the evening’s results and so texted Ewan to tell him of the bountiful butterflies on offer here. We agreed to rendezvous at 10am on Wednesday morning (5th) that turned out to be the hottest day of the week. He was at once impressed by this woodland reserve as I had been, saying he had never before seen so many SWF in one place. Again there were dozens of the biscuit brown charmers everywhere along the forest rides. We spent around three hours on site prospecting for pictures, the stand out sighting being a male Purple Emperor (pictured below) that my companion spotted high in some Sallow.
In the afternoon we moved on to Oakley Wood as I had yet to see Purple Hairstreak this season and large numbers were duly found. The commonest of the English Hairstreaks dwells in self-contained colonies, rarely straying far from individual Oaks in which they breed. Many trees at sites where PH occur will be empty but then the wandering observer will come upon one Oak that seems alive with little silver flashes as the hosted butterflies move around nectaring on honeydew. There is one spot about 500 metres from the Oakley Wood car park (SP612117) that is reliable every year, but during today’s visit the Hairstreaks did not come low enough to co-operate for the camera.
At the epicentre of Bernwood Forest’s Oakley / Shabbington / York Woods complex is a cross roads besides which lies a muddy pond. There a Broad-bodied Chaser dragonfly will usually be in residence and this day was no exception. The individual, a male had a favourite perch on dead wood protruding from the centre of the pond, from where it would circulate around various other, more photogenic perches. On one of them I was able to capture the insect against a pale brown muddy background that is quite pleasing (below).
Ewan suggested coming back here the following morning, but having seen and photographed Purple Emperor along the main track through Oakley Wood so many times in past years I preferred to try somewhere new and different. This season I really wanted to find that showcase species further afield in Pamber Forest, north Hants (SU616608) which is where I returned on Thursday (6th). Arriving in what is reputedly the best late morning window of opportunity for ground level sightings I headed for the location where I was told last year the PE master Oaks are.
Just before reaching that spot I came across a White Admiral that I sensed at once would be my day’s co-operative subject. Early in every visit during my current quest there is one of these, after which they seem more difficult to find. But on reviewing the photos this time none were worth keeping. I hung around the supposed Purple Emperor trees for an hour without seeing anything, feeling I really should have done in that time if indeed they are here. Then, becoming bored I set off to explore previously untrodden areas of this ancient woodland.
On my way back to the car another White Admiral appeared (pictured above) that again I felt instinctively would yield results. Eventually it settled and actually kept still for long enough to capture sharper than usual if still shady images. This year, possibly because they are not being battered so much by rain, WA seem to be deteriorating less quickly and hence I am still finding near perfect specimens more than two weeks after first emergence.
Observing and photographing insects well cannot be hurried. Over the past 16 days I have added 21 White Admiral pictures to my collection. I think it could take a long time to gain the premium shot I crave, since this butterfly just doesn’t usually perch against pale-toned backdrops, but for this season at least my quest is now run.