Brown Hairstreaks are the last of the hairstreak family to appear, usually not being seen on the wing until August. Like most of the hairstreaks they are generally elusive and hard to find. Up to this year I had only ever seen one on a flower head, low down and allowing close views, all the others have been high in trees either sunning themselves on a leaf or fluttering around the tree tops.
The rather grandly named Roman Road at Otmoor RSPB Reserve which is in reality no more than a narrow short track running between two overgrown densely vegetated hedgerows is a favoured place for them, complete with a master Ash and plenty of Blackthorn bushes. After my long distance excursion to Cornwall and back yesterday I needed something less frenetic and more calming, so today I headed for Otmoor to wander down the green, lushly vegetated track that constitutes the Roman Road.
I love meandering down here, with the track at this time of year almost invisible, being overwhelmed by the profuse summer vegetation and one feels lost to the world. Being so sheltered it is a paradise for insects. They are everywhere on the flowerheads of various plants. Insects of all kinds; butterflies, dragonflies, damselflies, hoverflies and insects that are so weird and wonderful to look at but have to remain anonymous due to my lack of knowledge about them. My main aim today apart from relaxation and tranquillity was to just wander, hopefully in seclusion, away from the main part of the reserve and to find a Brown Hairstreak. I meandered through the grasses and between the bramble and blackthorn hedgerows until I came to my favourite spot. It is a recess of brambles, Wild Angelica and grasses with the brambles growing well above head height. Because it is recessed, it is sheltered from all sides and is virtually untroubled by the wind from whatever direction it comes. Consequently there is always a profusion of butterflies and other insects in this natural cul de sac, sunning and feeding on the bramble flowers in quiet seclusion.
Today was no exception with a myriad of insects coming and going, busy feeding on the frothy flowerheads of pink stemmed Wild Angelica, revelling and sinking in the white flowerheads like children playing in deep snow. A Small Copper, tiny and pugnacious, gave me a thrill of expectation of a hairstreak but no, it's orange, black spotted forewings although beautiful in their own right were not quite what I was anticipating. A Comma footled about on the bramble leaves, reluctant to leave the sun patches whilst larger Meadow Browns, Gatekeepers and Brimstones came and went. A Speckled Wood flew fast and low and settled, wings wide to the sun, on a hawthorn above the brambles whilst Brown and Southern Hawker dragonflies patrolled around the bushes and along the track.The sun was shy mid morning but eventually the cloud moved and the track and vegetation were bathed in full sunlight. I stood quietly, feeling the effects of the long journey of yesterday but unwilling to acknowledge how tired I was. A small movement from the corner of my eye told me a small butterfly had landed on an angelica head close to where I was standing. A few steps to my right and I peered at the white mass of angelica flowers. A Brown Hairstreak was settled on the flower head nectaring for all it's worth, creeping over each tiny flower, probing diligently with it's proboscis as it went.
Upside, downside and even underneath the flower heads it went heedless of my close proximity. It fluttered to another umbel of flowers. I tickled it's body with a blade of grass and it opened it's wings in mute protest but remained stoically feeding on the flowerhead. Slightly tatty and worn but the all brown upperwings revealed it was a male.
I watched it for an hour or so before it flew down and savoured the grass at my feet.Then it flew up onto some nettles and then away into the hawthorn trees above the blackthorn bushes, adopting a position at the end of the leaf where it could scan the ride.
I wandered further along the track and found other Brown Hairstreaks also ensconced on Wild Angelica flowerheads and feeding. As I went back and fore along the track it became apparent that there were a number of this enigmatic and usually elusive butterfly feeding exclusively on the heads of Wild Angelica. I counted a maximum of eight which is surely unprecedented. I came across yet another, after some time, that was obviously newly hatched, pristine and orange of under-wing, with an indescribable inner delicate beauty.
A vision of fragile loveliness, so elegantly perched atop the angelica head, it's white furry legs and underbody contrasting with the orange under-wings crossed with the delicate white lines from whence the name hairstreak originates. I repeated the tickling process with another blade of grass and it opened it's wings to reveal two bright orange spots on the upper-wings. It was a female. I again wandered the track which was little more than a few hundred metres in length and marvelled at this opportunity to view this confiding, beautiful butterfly at length and so very close. They were absolutely heedless of my presence. I touched them with the tip of my finger and they refused to move so intent were they on feeding. For a couple of hours I entered their world in the quiet and peace of the Oxfordshire countryside. Such a contrast to yesterday's frenetic and wearisome exploits in Cornwall.