Butterfly therapy: a celebration of roosting Blues + Silver Spotted Skipper – 14th Aug

Two days ago, having paid very little attention to downland butterflies this season, I made only it’s second visit to the Chilterns escarpment. Feeling confused and fragile in spirit after two gruelling shifts at work over the weekend, I needed to clear my head and spending the afternoon extracting more weeds from my wildlife garden wasn’t going to achieve that. So I went out to do some butterflies instead.

Conditions were lightly overcast as I walked out onto the noisy hillside above the M40 motorway at BBOWT’s Aston Rowant NNR (N) (SU733967). But plenty of butterflies were still active and I was at once reminded of the wealth of wild plants at the reserve. In the early years of this decade I would spend many days in summer wandering sites such as this, counting every species and taking bad, grassy photographs. But there are only so many British butterflies to record and hence more recently that enthusiasm has waned. Last year it had been difficult to get motivated at all, but it would have been a pity to pass by the late summer specialities in 2017.

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Adonis Blue (male) on Parsley sp

The pale, floppy forms of Chalkhill Blue were immediately apparent, keeping low to the ground and striking up many a grassy pose that I ignored. The objective now is always better, premium pictures but flower head shots of this downland specialist were less likely in the cool breezy weather. All around tiny Brown Argus (pictured below, right) ghosted about in the long grass as they do, always hyperactive and fiercely territorial. And a few fiery Small Copper (centre) stood out in places. Meadow Brown numbers are now waning but here some were still in good condition (left).

Before long I began to come across Silver-spotted Skipper, one of the August specialities at this and other Chilterns escarpment sites. This diminutive, moth-like butterfly is often first seen buzzing about the downland sward in a blur or darting sideways from the observer’s footfall. When settled they have a pleasing penchant for intriguing poses on flower or grass heads and are always photogenic. Having many good pictures of SSS in my collection I tried to find new angles or back drops, without great success. Here (below) are my day’s better results, with some concession to grassiness.

But my heart still wasn’t in it, having done all this so often before. As I continued I pondered how when abroad I can become immersed totally in experiencing new and different (for me) butterflies and dragonflies so all else becomes unimportant. If it was possible to dwell all my existence alone in beautiful wild places, luxuriating in such communion with nature I could remain very contented. But the human psyche doesn’t work like that. Ultimately there is always the need for company and unsatisfactory involvement with one’s own kind; and so all the frustration, conflict and hurt that goes with it. More’s the pity but thus is life.

And so I walked on, the traffic noise from below being a constant reminder of that downside of life’s mix. Having crossed the prime SSS area I climbed back to the top of the hillside then walked all the way back down, directly through the hotspot for Adonis Blue but without finding any of the latter. It was now around 4:30pm and conditions were becoming duller and cooler with the imminent onset of light rain. Then an episode unfolded that illustrated most aptly why I still do all this, and made the afternoon out worthwhile after all.

In a sheltered spot near the foot of the hillside I first noticed a nicely posed female Brown Argus (pictured above) in a large clump of Knapweed, then became aware of other roosting Blues in the vicinity. Brown Argus is indeed a species of Blue. Was she aware of the smaller male behind her? I expect so and also that he had things on his mind. A kind of dance then ensued as the pair seemed to assess one another tentatively, but then she flew to one side leaving the male to his own devices. A case perhaps of faint heart ne’er winning fair lady.

I next became aware of various Common Blue all roosting in the straggly, swaying vegetation. And the more I looked the more I found. This is a butterfly that in my experience is difficult to photograph well, too often appearing fuzzy somehow in top wing and washed out in underwing shots. But on this occasion they just seemed to stand out in the failing light, and with the right exposure compensation I was able to gain my best ever premium pictures of the species (below). Hence I remained here for some time, re-motivated once more and relishing a reminder that insects can and will deliver new variations on the old experience if sufficient time and patience is expended in the field.

A photo-celebration of roosting Common Blue butterfly

Here and there butterflies were concerning themselves with rather more than roosting. The rhythm of insects actually pumping away is always sensuous to behold, well it is sex after all. This mating pair of Common Blue (pictured below) were getting things on with gusto and loving it. Images as good as this cannot be planned or anticipated, they just leap out and happen now and again. And so the photo opportunities continued to improve.

Having done Common Blue justice I next went in search of other roosting Blues, capturing first a male Chalkhill Blue on an enticing flower head (below, left) and finally a male Adonis Blue (right). The full set of Blues for the site had thus all contributed to what was ultimately a rewarding exercise, and I returned home to the editing suite feeling partly refreshed but still world weary.

At the petrol station last night I was back on form behind the counter. Pleasant to deal with customers made a comeback against the inky grunters and pushing, impatient obnoxiae; and there were no technology issues that I couldn’t deal with. And so I awoke this morning with a different kind of warm glow from that other essential communion with people. But thank heaven for butterfly therapy!


Back at home in Garsington’s shanty town I have acquired a crop of Large White butterfly larvae (pictured below). Like the twice yearly Scarlet Tiger caterpillars these ascend the walls of my park home to pupate under the eaves or soffit boards, and every time I look there seem to be more. They are strong crawlers and fast climbers but are being parasitized by the larvae of some much smaller life form. When one began to spin it’s cocoon on my rear window I was intrigued by the prospect of seeing when the adult would emerge. But the next time I looked the unfortunate, writhing larva was being eaten alive before my eyes … yuk!

I suspect others that seem to have died and shrivelled further up the structure have suffered the same fate, but several have pupated successfully, including one below my kitchen window (above, right). When I got home from Aston Rowant on Monday, another caterpillar was trying out my front door (centre). It was still there yesterday morning so I moved it to the rear wall where it might find a little more adhesion. Oh dear … more munchers on the plot, but that after all is what a wildlife garden is for.

Late summer Hairstreak and Hawkers at Rushbeds, Bucks – 10th Aug

Today offered a window in what has been more than three weeks of conveyor belt Atlantic weather since the previous insect post in this journal. My choice was to try to track down some Brown Hairstreak butterflies at a new and different location, and in the process hopefully photograph Southern and Migrant Hawker dragonflies that are also on the wing at present. When I visited BBOWT’s Rushbeds reserve in the first days of July (see here) I had noted some areas that looked like ideal habitat for Hairstreaks and resolved to check them out later in the season. So that was where I headed this morning.

The soggy second half of July and start to August has been good for my wildlife garden at home, that is currently under re-establishment, but not so for getting out and about. It must also have helped Brown Hairstreaks that having emerged early this year in common with other butterflies, will have suffered less of the harassment they always endure with the change in the weather. After all butterflies are quite capable of getting on with reproducing their species away from human gaze, whatever the conditions.

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Mission accomplished – premium Brown Hairstreak

I started the day at Oxford’s Otmoor RSPB “home for nature” where the yearly Hairstreak bun fight has resumed in earnest during recent rain breaks. But that situation may also be of wider benefit if the destructive attentions of butterfly tourists can be concentrated at one welcoming site. My reason for going there was to see Common Redstart on land adjacent to the reserve these birds frequent at this time of year. I found two females and in making a complete hash of photographing them gained one of those images (below) that look more like a painting but to me are strangely pleasing.

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Female Common Redstart in oils (or dodgy record shot?)

On waking to fair weather I had just wanted to get up and out and there was no point in going to my insect destination too early. In the event I lost time due to a road closure and HGVs not being able to pass one another on the diversion around it. So it was not until 11am that I arrived at the southern edge of Rushbeds Wood (SP672154). Here there is a lot of Blackthorn, the BH food plant and bramble banks; and the hedgerows were bursting with an abundance of autumn fruits. It didn’t take long to come across a first Migrant Hawker dragonfly in its immature colouring (pictured below).

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Migrant Hawker (immature male)

This was one of the forms I most wanted to capture today. It is still early in this autumn hawker’s flight season and many of the insects being observed will be of this brown and mauve, grey-eyed appearance. In early July it had been the emergent Southern Hawker that were in their own immature colours, now today along this woodland edge I encountered several brightly patterned adults, both male and female (below).

Through all this I was careful not to trample habitat, only treading where other people had already trod, not moving around too much once on a subject and always trying to look where I was putting my feet. I would like to think of this as a best practice model. After walking in such a way as far as possible to the western edge of the reserve, I retraced my steps then continued to the east of the exit gate from the woods. This looked even better for Brown Hairstreak with huge, mature Ash towering above extensive stands of Blackthorn and a brambly under storey.

I was at this point joined by a Butterfly Conservation transect walker with whom I am acquainted. He confirmed this is indeed a site that is both managed and regularly monitored for BH, but neither of us saw one today. Of the butterflies that were on the wing the few remaining Silver-washed Fritillary (top left, below) were very worn, quite a contrast to their majesty in June and July. Meadow Brown and Gatekeeper were still active but the myriad Ringlet of mid-summer were all gone.

Some butterflies always seem to photograph well and others not. Green-veined White (bottom right, above) are definitely in the former category. This second brood individual shows bolder patterning than the paler insects seen in spring, and the rather striking veining with creamy yellow highlights and pale green eyes always seem to stand out from a suitably subtle backdrop. Common Blue rarely make a good top-wing picture, but the underwing shot (bottom left) was worth saving. The top right picture is the drab form of female Common Blue Damselfly, yes really and always an interesting variant to come across.

It was now early afternoon and I next walked the main ride through Rushbeds Wood without observing anything more of note. At the northern end of the reserve lies a wild flower meadow that is surrounded on three sides by Blackthorn hedges. In mid-summer this area teems with common grassland butterflies but by this time of year it has been mowed. As soon as I walked through the gate from the northern edge of the wood a small brown butterfly flew up from the grass at my feet into a hedge to one side. This looked promising and indeed I was connecting with a fresh female Brown Hairstreak.

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Oh you beauty – female Brown Hairstreak

Almost at once the sun went in and a cool breeze blew up. As a result my butterfly kept stock still for some time just inches from my admiring gaze, glistening in all her pristine beauty. I changed to my macro lens, set my entry level Nikon to its freeze the action sports setting, then commenced upon the kind of peaceful communion and oneness with an insect in the field that I most crave. This is only possible when butterflying or dragonflying alone. If insects are not chased about, surrounded and jostled they will give of themselves freely in this way. I have enjoyed dozens of such encounters at the back of beyond in Portugal, Cyprus, Morocco, the south of France and elsewhere and today was just the latest such occasion.

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And a little closer … but she doesn’t mind

It wasn’t going to get better but I still walked a quick circuit of the meadow without seeing any more Brown Hairstreak, before returning through the wood to my start point. This had been a most rewarding day out. I had encountered all my sought after wildlife whilst crossing paths with just one expert naturalist and two genial dog walkers. After rather too much recent rain whatever the benefit to my garden, it goes without saying that I returned home with spirit well and truly refreshed.

Marsh Sandpiper and Black-winged Stilt at Cliffe Pools, Kent – 31st July

Having followed reports of a juvenile Marsh Sandpiper on the north Kent marshes for the last few weeks, now seemed a good time to go to see it. This is an eastern European and taiga-breeding wader that I had recorded previously in Cyprus in 2012, so it would be a British list addition. But as most citations on RBA stated the bird was being observed distantly, I waited until there was more of interest at the site to make a day out worthwhile.

The RSPB-managed Cliffe Pools reserve (TQ721769), on the Thames estuary just east of Gravesend has a mixture of big salt water lagoons, fresh water pools and grassland; with a network of visitor trails. It attracts large numbers of waders and wildfowl and has hosted other scarcities such as Lesser Yellowlegs and Terek Sandpiper in recent years. This is one of three English sites where Black-winged Stilt have bred in 2017, and as the end of July approached Spoonbill, more than 1300 Avocet and 1700-plus Black-tailed Godwit were all present here.

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Marsh Sandpiper, April 2012

Hence the time seemed right for a visit, but having dipped three out of my last four national birds – a female King Eider duck in mid-Wales being the most recent – I needed a talisman to change my luck. Ewan duly obliged, accepting an invitation to partake of a little Mediterranean birding in soggiest English July. We arrived on site late morning and set out to find “Radar Pool” where the Marsh Sandpiper was being reported on RBA.

I soon became distracted by the numerous Migrant Hawker dragonflies along our route, while Ewan strode on ahead as is his wont. When I caught up with him he was talking to three local birders who put us onto the Marsh Sandpiper: a talisman indeed and an immediate connect! Our target was associating with two Greenshank and somewhat resembled a smaller version of the latter. It is just about visible in this picture (below) along the shoreline, right of the furthest right Egret; but I really should have brought my digiscoping kit. For a comparison photo published on RBA recently see here.

cliffe pools.1703The bird then moved through a gap onto a larger lagoon to the east of Radar Pool and gave us good if always distant views. I recalled at once the species’ delicate jizz from my experiences five years ago at Phassouri Marsh on Cyprus’ Akrotiri peninsula. MS is between Wood Sandpiper and Redshank in size, with a very fine dark bill, slim body and neck, and long spindly legs. It has a dainty walk and rather deliberate downward dabbing bill movement. The species inhabits grassy lowland marshes and pools and migrates through eastern Europe to winter in Africa, the southern Middle East and India. There are typically several British records each year.

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From our second viewpoint large concentrations of Avocet and Black-tailed Godwit were indeed visible, as well as two Spoonbill and numbers of Little Egret and common waders. It now remained to find the Black-winged Stilts, and the local birders directed us to where they had last observed them. But as we walked around the reserve’s perimeter track a Peregrine put all the waders up, so a bit of a search ensued. Ewan forged on ahead again and when I eventually re-joined him he had located the family party of seven Black-winged Stilt from the northern edge of the marsh.

Two pairs have fledged seven chicks following long term habitat creation work (see here). This was my third British encounter with a rather special water bird that I have watched on numerous occasions in southern European wetlands. It would be difficult to tire of such a beautiful, even exotic looking species : tall, slim and elegant with those endless red legs that seem barely capable of supporting the body weight. As with the Marsh Sandpiper the birds were too distant to photograph, so here instead is my best archive picture from Tavira marsh in Portugal. For recent pictures of the Kent birds see here.

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Black-winged Stilt, May 2014

This had been a very satisfying day out and the extensive marshland reserve of Cliffe Pools had not disappointed. The vast open spaces and untroubled environment for birds here reminded me of Alkborough Flats on the Humber estuary where I went to see a Purple Gallinule last October (see here). For me there is just too much going on at many Royal Society for Populist Birdwatching (RSPB) reserves for visiting them to be enjoyable. But today’s more tranquil site is how I prefer things to be and testimony to all the fantastic conservation work the charity undertakes, before the mass marketing that funds it all sets in and spoils everything. If only there was another and better way.

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Migrant Hawker (immature male)

Everywhere around the visitor trails today there were reminders of approaching autumn: flowering Buddleia, ripening Blackberries and newly flying Migrant Hawkers. I had gained one more bird on my British list and hope the summer’s bad run of form is now over and more new birds will be added in the shortening days of the passage season ahead.

Blue-eyed Hawker and Scarce Emerald at Canvey Island, Essex – 13th July

The county of Essex where I grew up has some choice odonata specialities, two of which prior to yesterday I had recorded just once each. These are Blue-eyed (or Southern Migrant) Hawker dragonfly and Scarce Emerald damselfly that occur in marshlands along the northern shore of the Thames estuary. When both were reported last weekend from a particular drainage dyke on West Canvey Marsh this was an opportunity to experience them properly. I had seen just one deformed individual of the first-named before (see here), while the latter was a matter of removing all doubt.

This is the fourth season since Blue-eyed Hawker arrived in England around here. When news got out from Wat Tyler Country Park on the southern outskirts of Basildon in 2014, the odo equivalent of a mass twitch ensued. Prior to then there had been just three national records. In mainland Europe the species is present permanently only around the Mediterranean, but there can be influxes further north in hot summers. It’s range in Essex has expanded somewhat since 2014, thankfully since a country park in the school summer holiday is not an ideal environment for serious observation.

I parked at South Benfleet railway station and walked out across Benfleet Creek, arriving on site just before midday. Opposite a local authority recycling facility a public footpath gives access to a stretch of sea wall (TQ779852) to the southern side of which lies the ditch in question. It didn’t take long to encounter a first Blue-eyed Hawker (pictured below): a medium sized, bright blue hawker with even more vivid blue eyes. Even by dragonfly standards these are seriously beautiful creatures, if a little prone to grassy poses.

The weekend post on the BDS sightings page cited more than 30 males along the length of this dyke. I continued to walk westwards and began to see Emerald damselflies as well, but were they of the right variety? I had forgotten to read up on the diagnostics before leaving the station car park, but now some of it came back to me and on the back of the camera these insects looked right for Scarce Emerald. Company arrived at this point in the form of two more odo hunters, one of whom said this was the place to see what is a highly localised damselfly 20 years ago. But both were much more interested in the star hawkers.

On reviewing my pictures (below) they all showed the correct characteristics for Scarce Emerald. Abdominal segment 1 and half of 2 are blue, with two darker spots on the blue part of segment 2. In Common Emerald both segments are plain blue. The second key diagnostic is the inner anal appendages that in Scarce Emerald are broader and more inwardly curved than for common. Brooks and Lewington also cites squarer shape of the pterostigma (black wing tags) and brighter blue eyes.

It had been much easier to identify this insect positively here than at nearby RSPB Bowers Marsh a year ago (see here). Then just one or two had been mixed in with Common Emerald and were in immature colouring. There were many more at the Canvey Island site this time as the BDS sighting had stated. So all doubt concerning what was the final species on my English damselfly list has been well and truly removed.

I next continued searching along the dyke for more Blue-eyed Hawker, counting 12 males on the walk out but there seemed to be more on the way back. One of the people I spoke to had counted 21, so between 20 and 30 at this site seems a reasonable estimate. I only hope there are females around too so this most attractive dragonfly can continue to establish itself, but I didn’t see any mating pairs on this visit. What I did see at intervals were hovering males at head height, patrolling up and down the ditch.

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Blue-eyed Hawker (male)

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BEH has a penchant for hovering, keeping still for relatively longer than other hawkers, which makes it easier to photograph. The upper picture, above was the icing on the cake of a pleasing experience, while I also like the lower capture of the dragonfly through it’s own wings. It is always a bonus to obtain flight shots. This had been a fairly brief visit of around three hours, in between peak periods on the M25 motorway, and I would like to come here again for longer in the future. With more reports getting out on-line I suspect this site will be very well attended this summer.

A Black Darter in Berks and much more at Decoy Heath, Pamber Forest and Silchester Common – 6 & 10th July

I always enjoy a visit to the heathlands of the Hampshire basin lying between the old A4 and A30 trunk roads, since in Oxon we do not have this habitat in which much special wildlife can be found. Last Thursday (9th) after concluding my butterfly business in Pamber Forest I moved on to BBOWT’s Decoy Heath reserve (SU613634) a little to the north, to see if any Downy Emerald were still about. This is a hidden gem of a place and one of the best odonata sites in Berkshire with 23 species having been known to breed.

There are three large ponds here, one of which is now seriously off-piste, and other areas of shallow surface water that often dry out. I didn’t find any Emerald dragonflies this time but Common Emerald damselfly (pictured below), a site speciality were much in evidence. These long-bodied, metallic green and blue damsels struck up some nice poses as they are wont to do, being an insect that rarely disappoints.

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Common Emerald damselfly

At the most open of the ponds I was surprised to find a lone male Black Darter (pictured below), my first ever record at this site. The closest to home I had observed this acidic heath-dwelling specialist before was Thursley Common in Surrey, so this was a very welcome find. I view these dark and diminutive darters with their rock star shades of eyes as rather dashing and mysterious. This individual remained faithful to the same perch from which it ventured out and returned continuously. So it could only be photographed into the sun, though that did make for some interesting Chernobyl effects.

Another first for me here was White-legged Damselfy (pictured below), a further site speciality. So many damsels are difficult to capture well, but this species has a nice knack of settling against interesting backgrounds. The pastel tones of blue, green and brown are both unmistakeable and to my mind very enticing. Other odo species observed on this visit were Blue Emperor dragonfly, Four-spotted Chaser, Ruddy Darter and Common Blue Damselfly.

Four days later on 10th I returned to try to photograph the Black Darter in a better light. Conditions were now cooler and upon my reaching the pond he was the first dragonfly I found, perched on a protruding stick (pictured top right, below) some distance from the location favoured first time around. I then spotted another male, but on checking out the first perch again realised this was the same individual moving between the two. Thereafter he frequented an area of rushes close in to the nearest shore (other pictures, below) and with the sun behind me that was mission accomplished quite nicely.

As on my earlier visit, this appeared to be the only one of its kind on site, though the species is a wanderer and often occurs at non-breeding locations. It was notable how the resident four-spotted enforcers and big boss Emperors seemed to leave the dark vagrant alone. Indeed my Black Darter was most often displaced by Common Blue Damselfly. In addition to those species already noted, Brown Hawker, Black-tailed Skimmer and Large Red Damselfly were also seen this time. And once again Common Emerald and White-legged Damselfly offered themselves to the camera well (pictured below).

This is the site where odo watching all began for me. Several seasons ago I came here looking for Grayling butterflies and ran into an Oxon birder who had just seen a Brilliant Emerald. He suggested I get into dragonflies too and I replied they don’t keep still for long enough. Then he said: “That’s the challenge”. A couple of years later I took up his advice and the outcome has been endless hours of motivation and enjoyment.

Decoy Heath also has an important population of Adder that is sustained by BBOWT’s habitat management. I came across this contented couple (below) absorbing what warmth was on offer, before they realised there was company and slid back into their burrows. I presume the smaller snake in the foreground is the male, since females are often much larger. It is always good to get reptiles into this journal … I just adore ’em!

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Mr and Mrs Adder

I next explored some interesting footpaths to the immediate south through what is an extension to the ancient woodland of Pamber Forest. I don’t usually bother with moths in the field, on the reasoning that trying to pay attention to everything is too distracting. But a Black Arches (below, left) roosting on a tree trunk just caught my fancy. It is a common woodland species in southern England.

In the afternoon I went back to Pamber Forest but this time instead of heading south from the usual parking area (SU616621) I walked eastward into what is known as Lord’s Wood. Then I reached an area through which a brook flows that floods to form a large pond in especially wet times. This I understood to be a prime location for Common Goldenring dragonfly. While scanning for them from a low wooden footbridge a Holly Blue (above, right) began foraging around the stream bed beneath. Though a common or garden species this butterfly is somehow easy to overlook and tricky to capture, so it is always good to add another image to my collection.

I was at this point engaged pleasantly by a quite exceptional dog walker who actually took an interest in what I was doing rather than talking at me about her dog. As we chatted a Common Goldenring appeared below us. But though I caught two more glimpses this dragonfly didn’t patrol the stream bed for long and I could not relocate it. Numbers of Beautiful Demoiselle were also active in this place.

It remained to pay my annual respects to the Silver-studded Blue (pictured above) on neighbouring Silchester Common. The hotspot for these tiny blues is at the northern end of that heath near a classic car dealership (SU621625), but today I walked in from the village of Pamber Heath to explore a little more widely. This is a declining butterfly restricted to southern English heaths, but locally very numerous. At the peak of their June to August flight season the ground here can seem alive with SSB in places, but today things were strangely quiet.

Eventually I came across a very small number of females and glimpsed just one male. The preference in photographing all heathland butterflies is to capture them on Bell Heather, as in the right hand image. After some patchy attempts the sun went in just as I took up position over the miniscule female pictured. This insect then remained so still for so long I was able to completely re-educate myself on f-stops and other camera settings in the search for sharper images. The results are quite pleasing, but I was puzzled as to why so few SSB were on the wing here today at what has been a prolific site on some past visits.

These had been two more very pleasant outings with the camera just relaxing and seeing what could be found. If there is no particular agenda much more time can be focussed on gaining better quality images. And as always I returned home to the editing suite at peace with the world, with my spirit refreshed.

More summer butterfly and odo days as premium White Admiral edges closer: 3rd – 6th July

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.

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Damaged Valezina SWF

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.

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A Purple Emperor moment in Rushbeds Wood

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.

European Bee-eaters at East Leake Quarry, Notts – 29th June

This excursion owed most to the need to hit the road and see something after weeks of limited national birding options. I have seen any number of Bee-eaters in southern Europe (pictured below), where to my mind this is one of the most charming and evocative of summer visitors. So with up to seven birds present 110 miles from home in the East Midlands all this week, putting the beautiful EBE onto my British list offered sufficient motivation for a much needed day out.

It seems plain that small numbers of these birds have been roaming England this summer, being a species that is tipped to expand its range northward due to climate change. Indeed some passed through Oxfordshire in late May but were seen for around eight seconds by just one sharp-eyed patch worker. Since last weekend a cluster has been frequenting an active gravel extraction site East Leake Quarry (SK564248), a little to the north of Loughborough and fairly close by the M1 motorway.

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East Leake quarry on a dull and damp day. The Bee-eaters favoured the large Ash tree in the centre

I arrived there late morning in drizzly conditions and was surprised by the number of birders cars parked in a roadside lay-by and an RSPB-stewarded field opposite. ‘Well if there’s this many people here the birds must be showing,’ I thought. But on reaching the viewing area close to the quarry (pictured above), I was told they had flown off around 40 minutes earlier. Recollections of recently dipped Marsh Warbler and Elegant Tern stirred inside me but there was nothing to do but wait.

After about 20 minutes a first European Bee-eater was called and pretty quickly five birds alighted into the trees pictured below, left. The right hand photo is intended only to convey how this tick for blighty was first seen by myself. The unfolding action was viewable just from a limited area, and this prompted some chuntering by people standing further back who seemed to expect an unrestricted view. I was reminded of last autumn’s Dusky Thrush twitch in the Peak District, so maybe such grumpiness is a matter of dealing with dour Derby folk.

In the meantime Adam had arrived on site, and we stood around chatting about Oxon birding matters, insects and plants to occasional disapproving glances, until the Bee-eaters chose to show themselves more openly. Eventually, at around 12:45pm three of the birds settled in dead branches at the crown of the Ash tree featured in many of the published pictures on RBA (see here). Now everyone present could see them well, as had been the likelihood all along, and they proceeded to put on a bit of a show.

I just love the way multi-coloured Bee-eaters move and sound and nothing else resembles them. Time and again the three birds here would glide out from their perches like over-sized hirundines to catch, well presumably bees. This was the first time I have actually seen them perched with prey in their open bills, that they would then knock against the wood of the tree to stun or kill before swallowing. In the light I was not going to get good pictures and so I used my digiscoping kit with my camera set to its highest ISO rating.

The edited results (above) resemble water colours and I rather like them despite their obvious lack of technical merit. As always they show how these birds were seen and prove that I am not making all this up. Adam and I left at 2pm though the Bee-eaters continued to entertain their audience until mid-afternoon and were reported again in the evening. It had been a little incongruous to watch birds so suggestive of balmy Mediterranean landscapes going about their business on a dull and dour English summer’s afternoon. But this is likely to become an increasingly frequent sight here and adding EBE to my own British list was a thoroughly worthwhile experience.

Addendum: On 20th July the RSPB announced that one of three active nests being guarded had hatched chicks. This represents only the third British breeding record in the last 10 years. See here for details. By 2nd August all three nests had hatched young but shortly afterwards it was announced they had failed and the birds left the site.