Monday 3 August 2015

An Otmoor Sunday 2nd August 2015

Today promised a continuous spell of sunshine so I  seized the opportunity with alacrity to make a communion with the butterflies on Otmoor. I left it quite late, not arriving until around eleven and headed along the bridleway towards the grassy bank running between the first and second screens.

The marl track that now forms the bridleway was sunbaked to a solid whiteness, (I nearly wrote sun dried but that is, as we all know, strictly for tomatoes!), hard as concrete and now formed a continuous landing strip for Ruddy Darter dragonflies in their hundreds as they settled flat to the surface, wings thrust forward as if to embrace the heat coming from the shimmering white marl.

The Bridleway
They rose before me as I walked down the bridleway and doing a brief loop around came into land once again, the males showing as blood dark crucifixes against the white track.

A moderate warm breeze caressed the open expanses of Greenaways and a Marsh Harrier lazily patrolled the ditches, seemingly disinterested in serious hunting and just enjoying the buoyancy of the air currents. A casual voyeur of the fields maybe, but ever on the alert to seize any opportunity, no matter how slight, to pounce on an  unsuspecting or unwary victim.

I reached the desired grass bank and amongst the thigh high grasses and flower heads walked slowly along. The first thing I saw was not a butterfly but the larva of a day flying moth. In lurid yellow and black bands it was stretched along a flower stalk, comatose in the sun. It was the larva of a Cinnabar Moth.

Cinnabar Moth larva
I moved on and instantaneously Common Blues rose in abundance before me, literally in their hundreds, the males outnumbering the females by at least one hundred to every female. Common they may be but the beauty of the males is breathtaking.

Common Blue central
The blue wings of the males shone like small square buttons of violet blue against the ground hugging dark green leaves and cerise pink flowers of Red Bartsia, as they fed with wings open to the scattered cotton wool clouds and pale blue firmament above. The Red Bartsia appeared to be their nectaring plant of choice although others, very much in a minority, selected the yellow heads of Ragwort and purple flower tufts of Creeping Thistles. The density and strength of blue of the male 's wings varied tremendously, from a pale sky blue to an almost velvet, lilac blue. Perhaps this reflected their age, the paler ones, older and fading and the newly hatched ones still in a heavenly blue pristine glory, their creation untouched yet by the vicissitudes of the world they would inhabit for such a brief time. Others with wings closed, appeared as tiny, intricately stippled pale triangles glinting in the sun, clinging resolutely to the grass stems and flower heads that swayed them in the wind.

Male Common Blues
Female Common Blue - showing brown tinged underwing
Male Common Blue - showing blue tinged underwing
I never cease to wonder and philosophise that things of such beauty can come about in this troubled world year after year, unknowing of the fact they are part of the sad, slow decline of the earth's natural richness and the probable terminal self destruction of our world that will come about through human conflict, greed, self interest and intransigence.

Whilst driving to Otmoor today, I heard on the radio a recording of an interview with a lady of 92 who had, since the interview, sadly died. When the interviewer asked for her thoughts on why she had lived such a long life she announced that she woke every day determined to enjoy it regardless and to remain resolutely positive. Her words were inspirational, at least to me and who could argue with such a philosophy, and so I determined to follow her example and banished any negative thoughts from my head and looked to enjoy this day as best I could and all those to come.

Amongst  all the blues were other smaller butterflies, they could be described as tiny, hard to follow as they flew in erratic flights on miniscule wings through the myriad grass stalks. At last, one ceased its roaming, settled and then I could see it was a Brown Argus, the colour of freshly turned earth with a lacing of minute orange spots bordering the edges of its wings. Another small butterfly revealed itself to be an Essex Skipper, possessing an appealing diffidence and a delicate grace, only opening its burnished orange wings when it felt secure on its secluded grass stem. So different in demeanour from its thrusting and aggressive cousin the Large Skipper.

Brown Argus
Essex Skipper
I turned to walk back along the track but one last blue butterfly caught my attention, sunning itself on a blade of grass near the hedge, no doubt seeking sanctuary, well away from the opposite bank which most of the males were frequenting. It was a female Common Blue but unusual in that the normal predominant brown colour on the upper wing surfaces was absent, this individual being suffused with a large amount of blue, so much so that only the borders of its wings were the normal brown. It was exquisitely patterned. Yet another fragile jewel in the grass, an aberration no doubt but none the less beautiful for all that. Three people passed me by, in fact walked around me and they could see me photographing the butterfly but did not even give it a glance. I said nothing. It is such a shame they appeared so disinterested as there is so much more to see and enjoy than birds on the reserve.

The track from the second screen and beside which I found the butterfly below
The beautiful aberrant female Common Blue
In the heat of midday I took the long walk back to the public path called the Roman Road, that forms the boundary on the eastern side of the Reserve. The darters were still splaying themselves like sun soaking holiday makers on the bridleway whilst Brown Hawkers cruised in the airspace above, zooming into the edges of bushes as if to land but then backing off, dipping down and continuing on their way, endlessly investigating.

I came to the Roman Road, my desire was now to find a Brown Hairstreak. 

The Roman Road
The last of the hairstreaks to appear they are much coveted by butterfly enthusiasts, indeed anyone  it seems these days with a camera, and people now come from far and wide  to see and photograph them at Otmoor, Today there was a couple from Cambridge, another couple from Northampton and other lone individuals from who knows where.

Since Otmoor has become more widely known for its hairstreaks it has attracted an increasingly larger number of people who seem to have little care or understanding for the environment frequented by the hairstreaks. The photo is all that matters. Large areas of vegetation have been trampled, literally flattened where people have tried to stick their macro lens or bridge camera right under the hairstreak's proboscis. It started with the Black Hairstreaks and has continued with the Brown Hairstreaks. You can tell where the hairstreaks have come down to nectar by the inroads of trashed vegetation. The RSPB use a number of volunteer wardens and it might be an idea to have them patrol this area occasionally rather than just wander the wider reserve or at least put up temporary signs asking visitors to curb their irresponsible behaviour. There again I doubt it will make much difference.

Trampled vegetation
The Roman Road is the area on Otmoor to see Brown Hairstreaks, with the butterfly enthusiasts waiting patiently for an individual to descend from its favourite Ash tree to imbibe nectar from the various flower heads below. When one does descend it can remain nectaring for a considerable period of time, over an hour sometimes, and is seemingly impervious to anything and anyone, so much so you can tickle it gently with a grass stem if you have a mind to do so and it will usually just mince its way on white legs so thin they are almost invisible, to an adjacent flower head. Only when it has had its fill of nectar will it ascend back to the top of its favoured tree.

A male was feeding on a thistle head in just such a fashion when I arrived, with four photographers carelessly trampling the vegetation to get at it. A couple of years ago the hairstreaks favoured angelica and bramble flowers but today, at least, it seemed the Creeping Thistle was the flower of choice. Always thrilling to see, as any creature so elusive is, it turned and wandered over each thistle head probing its tiny proboscis into the minute purple florets of the thistle.When it was facing right you could see that a fair sized chunk of both upper and lower right wings had been lost, presumably to some unknown predator but on facing left the butterfly appeared pristine in all its pale orange and white lined underwing complexity.

Male Brown Hairstreak
The same male Brown Hairstreak showing a portion of the right wings missing
I looked down the Roman Road, luxurious in full blown, blousy, late summer munificence. The rhubarb pink of the Greater Willowherb flowers and the frothy cream heads of  Meadow Sweet forming combined lines of colour like the filling in a giant green cake. 

A Comma butterfly careered out of nowhere into the sleepy airspace around a bramble patch, swirling and swerving in manic gyrations as if it was a boy racer impressing the girls with some souped up car, then without slowing in speed hurtled off down the Roman Road into the green distance and was gone in a flash of orange. Gatekeepers, the majority of them being smaller males, fluttered endlessly, jaunty and bright amongst the tangles of bramble and bindweed. Meadow Browns and Ringlets, even a Speckled Wood brought their cheery presence to the shelter of the track. A Marbled White, its wings ravaged into origami shapes  by a predator still managed to fly to the thistles and a Silver Washed Fritillary in a similar battered state landed on some Meadow Sweet but soon cruised onwards. 

Another Brown Hairstreak, this time a female, showing flashes of orange on the upperside of her forewings paid a brief visit down to eye level but was gone in a few seconds up and away into the blackthorns, possibly to lay eggs. I never saw her again.

All the while a pair of Spotted Flycatchers fed their two offspring high in the Ash trees overlooking the Roman Road, flying up above the tree tops to seize an insect, then stalling in the air to fall back to the trees, bringing the captured insect to their young, whose wheezing calls insistently demanded ever more sustenance despite the fact that when the adults were not around they could and did catch their own insect prey.

By now it was early afternoon and hot and thirsty I set off back to the Car Park, my day fulfilled and at its logical end but not before admiring a male Brimstone feeding on a Greater Burdock flower head, its pale green, leaf like profile another example of the wonders of evolution and something to ponder on the drive home.

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