Saturday, 6 June 2015

If you go down to the woods ........ 5th June 2015




Following our success at seeing a Glanville Fritillary last Saturday Peter and myself made a date to go and look for both Pearl-bordered and Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries at a place called Bentley Wood that just straddles the border of Hampshire but is mainly in Wiltshire.

Friday arrived and as usual the weather, just like the forecasters, could not really make up its mind. I called Peter from my home in Kingham where the sun was shining only to hear it was pouring with rain in Oxford just some twenty miles away. However the forecast suggested that the further west we went the better the weather would be, and crucially it would be sunny, so we took a chance and resolved to head for Bentley Wood.


Traversing westward through a patchwork of various shades of green that comprised the gently undulating contours of rural  Hampshire and Wiltshire, the sun emerged and we finally came to the turn off for Bentley Wood and proceeded to the small  secluded Eastern Car Park, up a track bowered by leaf flickering green and gold sunlight shining through a myriad of trees.




Bentley Wood SSS1 comprises around 655 hectares of mixed woodland much of it planted in the 20th century. The woods were purchased from the Forestry Commission in 1983 with funds provided by Lady Coleman of Winterslow. The wood is now administered by a charitable trust whose aims are to provide a natural amenity, to ensure its conservation for future generations to enjoy and to provide an income from timber production. Laudably the collecting and or netting of butterflies is strictly prohibited. Over 40 butterfly species have been recorded from here and it is considered one of the best sites in Britain to see Purple Emperors. These occur in July and hundreds of people come to try and see them. Thankfully today there were not hundreds of people and only two other cars were in the car park.

An area called the Eastern Clearing has been felled of trees to create an open habitat suitable for the two species of fritillary we were seeking, with the Pearl-bordered Fritillary frequenting the upper drier parts whilst the lower damper areas attract the Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary. These two butterflies are very similar in appearance and are hard to distinguish unless they can be seen settled and the undersides of their hindwings studied, so it would be fun and educational putting our observational skills to the test.




The Eastern Clearing  showing habitat created and maintained for the fritillaries
and at the bottom more suitable habitat being created by clearing trees
With the car safely parked in the shade we walked a little way back down the entrance track and turned off into the adjacent Eastern Clearing which is regularly cleared of scrub for the benefit of the fritillaries and comprises a wide, open area of grass and emerging bracken, interspersed with the occasional tree and studded with orchids and wild flowers of various sorts. Purple and yellow flowers are said to be preferred by Pearl-bordered Fritillaries and both species seemed, today at least, to favour the spikes of  the purple blue Bugle.

Various indistinct tracks run through the grassland and bracken and carefully following these we separated as we searched for the fritillaries, each going our own way but still walking roughly parallel and in close enough contact to be able to call to one another. Not a butterfly was to be seen and we carried on further into the clearing. Then a small ginger brown butterfly flew past me keeping very low but not settling and disappeared into the distance. A fritillary for sure and judging by the size a Pearl-bordered. I called Peter but by the time he got to me it had long gone. We carried on and then Peter encountered another fritillary. I saw it too. To my eyes it was smaller and probably a Small Pearl-bordered but it too was forever restless and flew away into the distance and was lost to sight against the vegetation.

We subsequently saw several more of both species but none settled long enough to allow us to take a picture but I did eventually locate a very worn Pearl Bordered which settled and enabled us to take some images of it. Pearl-bordered Fritillaries are almost at the end of their short lives now, they hatch earlier than Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries, and this one definitely showed the inevitable wear and tear!

Pearl Bordered Fritillary
Our luck changed for much the better as a little later we encountered the ideal situation for photographing butterflies when Peter found a pair of mating Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries. Clinging to the grass almost at ground level, in congress, they would remain here for ages, hardly moving. The wonderful dappled pattern of their underwings reminding me of the opening line from the poem Pied Beauty by Gerard Manley Hopkins, himself from Oxford,  'Glory be to God for dappled things .....'. The patterns on their underwings were an exquisite mosaic. Indeed for most butterflies I personally find the intricate and subtle patterns of the underwings aesthetically more pleasing than the upperwing pattern.



Mating Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries
When we first ventured on the reserve there was no one else to be seen but  as we admired and photographed the mating fritillaries we were noticed by other enthusiasts who had subsequently arrived and inevitably they rushed over to join us. The pleasure of our isolated communion with the mating fritillaries was now over and we left to wander further around the clearing finding yet more fritillaries of both species although never in any number and always singly, apart from the pair mating. Also noticeable were the large numbers of Common Lizards, their presence betrayed by the gentle rustle and movement of the grass as they left the warm earth and scuttled for cover.

A Tree Pipit sang, the long terminal notes of its song coming from some tall trees in the distance and a Garden Warbler serenaded the morning from a large Oak nearby. The morning wore on and at mid day Peter suggested we go back to the car for some lunch and then we could resume our search for more fritillaries in the afternoon.

Forty or so minutes later we returned to again wander the Eastern Clearing following roughly our course of this morning. There were now markedly less fritillaries in evidence. Later at home, reading up about these two fritillaries I learnt that they are generally most active at the beginning and end of the day with the males patrolling and feeding but during the middle of the day mating and egg laying take priority. 

The mating fritillary pair had now been commandeered by three people who, despite requests to photographers on the notice board in the car park not to trample the vegetation, were flattening the surrounding vegetation in their quest to get the ultimate image. It really is so annoying. We studiously circumvented them and resumed our fritillary search further away, following a track that headed down and westwards. Pretty soon we came across a single Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary fluttering low in the grasses which obligingly settled on a leaf with its wings spread. This is what Peter wanted, what both of us wanted and we got our pictures.


Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary
Happy with this outcome we made to leave. The mating fritillaries were still attended by one of the inconsiderate photographers. He had been there over an hour. How many images can you take before it all gets silly? We left and as there was plenty of time remaining in the day decided to go to Cotley Hill on the other side of Salisbury, where if we were lucky, we would find yet another fritillary species but this time it would be a Marsh Fritillary.

It had all been going so well up to now but the Friday afternoon traffic, never good around Salisbury began to get on Peter's nerves. Everything was perceived to be going against him as he drove us to our destination. Slow moving tractors, lorries, narrow lanes, buses, camper vans, road works and inconsiderate drivers. It was nothing more than the normal Friday afternoon traffic to me but to Peter it was something almost personal. Thankfully before any other hazards imagined or otherwise materialised we arrived at Cotley Hill, an understated chalk downland reserve on Ministry of Defence Land and equanimity of mind and body was restored. 

We stepped over a stile and then through an entrance gate, heading uphill, following a narrow, sinuous chalk white track between banks of nettles and Cow Parsley whose pungent sickly smell permeated the air. A frayed and faded Peacock and then a slick fresh Red Admiral flew onwards up the path before our progress until the path opened out onto an area with a wonderful bank of chalk downland flora and summer grasses to our right. Almost immediately we saw a Marsh Fritillary, a little faded but quickly followed by another completely fresh specimen and then another. A newly emerged Adonis Blue put in a welcome appearance. Electric shining blue against the rich yellow  of the Horseshoe Vetch flowers. A jewel of a butterfly. The bank was alive with various butterflies, not only a profusion of Marsh Fritillaries and Adonis Blues but a full supporting cast of Common Blue, Small Blue and feisty little Brown Argus complemented by Grizzled and Dingy Skippers whilst Five Spot Burnet Moths, like red and black humbugs flew dreamily amongst the yellow catsears and buttercups.


Marsh Fritillary

Adonis Blue
Grizzled Skipper
It was at this moment my camera gave up the ghost, announcing on the screen that it was terminally incompatible with my lens and resisted all attempts at rectification. I did not do a full Basil Fawlty but remained calm. Peter had his camera so he could do the honours while I just luxuriated in this precious and all too brief time at this lovely spot.

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