Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Silver Spotted 17th July 2017

One of my favourite butterflies is the Silver Spotted Skipper. It is only found in England and was very rare in the 1970's, almost reaching the point of extinction, with only twenty five or so sites supporting sixty eight small populations, all in the south of England, but it has slowly recovered with sensitive habitat management from conservation bodies, and their current strongholds in The Chilterns, Hampshire, The North and South Downs and south-east Kent now hold  more than two hundred and fifty colonies between them. It is still a rare butterfly but where it does occur numbers can be very high. Historically they were found as far north as Yorkshire but now their northernmost colonies are in The Chilterns on the Buckinghamshire/Oxfordshire border.

Silver Spotted Skipper
It is likely that this skipper will always remain scarce or even rare as it shows a marked reluctance to disperse from existing colonies, even a distance of just a couple of kilometres between an existing colony and eminently suitable habitat seem beyond it.

One of the latest of our native butterflies to be on the wing, some appear in late July but the majority are usually found in August, although this year, after such a warm Spring they are early and already on the wing in small numbers.

Today's predicted sunshine in our fickle climate duly materialised and I took myself to a favourite place called Bald Hill, part of the Chilterns escarpment, where I knew Silver Spotted Skippers were to be found. Leaving the stress and noise of the forever busy M40 Motorway, I followed the old A40 and drove uphill to the top of the escarpment and after a few miles left the car in the tree shaded car park at Cowleaze Wood. I crossed the road, passed through two gates and out of the green shade of the trees into a world of sunlit waving grasses and downland flowers. I was but a couple of miles or less from the Motorway but the noise of this monument to officially sanctioned vandalism, passing slap bang through the  escarpment and Aston Rowant National Nature Reserve was silenced by the contours of the cutting it was sunk into. There was no sound other than that of buzzing insects and Red Kites mewling overhead. I was alone and in  another world for as long as I wished.

Bald Hill is classic downland habitat, a thin soiled, south facing and steep scarp slope, with a mixture of short grass, herbs and flora, and where the Silver Spotted Skipper's foodplant Sheep's Fescue grows. The habitat is maintained by being grazed by sheep in the winter which are then removed in early Spring and the site is left to become a nirvana for this tiny, feisty Skipper and a host of other butterflies and insects.  

As befits its mainly European distribution the Silver Spotted Skipper requires warmer conditions than any other British butterfly during its life span of around six days, seeking out the sunniest and hottest parts of the unshaded slopes where it can sit and bask, mate and lay eggs in its short life, centred on sheep tracks, bare patches and chalk scree baked by the sun.

Of all the skipper species they are for me, after the Chequered Skipper, the most attractive. They are small, no bigger than a Small Skipper but unlike that species they are exceedingly fast flying, zipping forwards, sideways and even backwards at high speed, making them very difficult to follow against the short sward and reflected white sunlight from the bare chalky patches they love. They have character in both form and movement, a streetwise cheekiness, with stout bodies liberally covered in dull greenish brown fur  and large dark, fathomless eyes that for all the world make the butterfly look as if it were sporting a pair of Rayban sunglasses to shade the sun it so loves. I read recently that the fur on butterflies bodies is to trap heat and when a butterfly spreads its wings it is not to absorb the heat through their wings, as there is no mechanism to do so, but to trap it underneath their wings and thence into their fur.

The Silver Spotted Skipper's wings when open are the colour of a good malt whisky or a highland burn, a dark and rich tawny gold. The underside of their hindwings gives rise to their name, being however, not so much spotted but patterned with squares and triangles of silver white on a pale olive base and like all skippers when at  rest, they usually hold their upper and lower wings at different angles but always in the skipper characteristic of a V shape.Two older names known to earlier entomologists were Pearl Skipper and August Skipper denoting both their distinctive patterning and their time of flying.

Today they took some effort in finding and it was only when I descended onto the steepest and barest parts of the scarp slope that I found, over a period of three hours, some twenty individuals, mostly males, scattered across the slope nectaring on Small Scabious. They were hardly still for more than a few seconds before flying off at speed, or sitting on or just above the ground on a grass blade waiting to intercept passing females, and when one passed, flying up at incredible speed to intercept her and together they would fly fast and low over the ground before separating. On one occasion two, presumably a male intercepting a female, commenced a brief, wild circling flight over the slope before making an impromptu and none too textbook crash landing in a flurry of wings on the sward, scuffling with each other as the male pushed his luck. The female was having none of it however and departed almost immediately to fly up and go on her way leaving the male to resume his perch on the ground awaiting the next female to pass by

My first encounter today was fortuitous, in that a bumbling Meadow Brown, coming too close, incurred the ire of a hitherto unseen Silver Spotted Skipper which flew up from its hidden perch in a rage and intercepted the 'brown' before dropping back to earth and settling on some Eyebright.  I lay on my side on the sloping turf to align my camera with its tiny form that I could just about make out in the short grass stems, a green shaded triangle of wings patterned with white angular squares of variable size. It was beautifully camouflaged and without seeing its initial flight I would never have known it was there. I looked down for a second to check my camera and when I looked back up again it had gone. Literally in the blink of an eye

It really was a joy to be out today as Bald Hill in high summer was at its peak of fecundity. The downland flora was in its pomp with  Marjoram offering its small open flowers in clusters of pale pink and darker purple buds to any passing insect, the heavenly blue lilac of Small Scabious flowers were held up to the sun on a single green stalk, pale blue Harebells  hung down from delicate, bent stems, while the purple ragtop flowers of Greater Knapweed, bright pink Common Centaury, golden yellow Cats-ears and tendrils of pink and white flowered Rest-harrow all served to create a carpet of colours, a living palette that stretched away into the distance. The air was delicately scented by the perfume coming from Wild Thyme, their bosomy, dark green clumps randomly scattered across the sward,  each clump stippled with minute purple flowers.


Small Scabious

Common Centaury
This profusion was, of course, attended by many butterflies. By far the commonest were the engaging Gatekeepers or Hedge Browns, to give them an older more countryfied name, feeding on the frothy pink heads of Marjoram or jinking in and out of the bramble leaves. The smaller males opened and closed their wings, as if winking, as they flashed an eye on each bright orange patch of their forewings. Six Spot Burnet Moths, with portly black bodies flew laboriously between scabious heads, landing heavily on the blue mauve flowers and, furling wings of green glossed black and scarlet spots, crawled with black legs and long waving antennae across the petals. A lone Chalk Hill Blue, pale as the sky above, flew at great speed from below me and up and over the ridge. A male Brimstone, palest yellow and bright in the sunlight, hung from some Marjoram, its closed wings forming a distinctive geometric outline whilst  orange and brown Small Heath butterflies rose unsteadily, to  fly weakly from my tread, then almost immediately settled, only to fall sideways on the dry grass as if spent of further energy,


Six spot Burnet Moth

Small Heath
Dark Green Fritillaries, mainly males, almost as big as their cousin the Silver washed Fritillary but a duller ginger brown rather than bright orange, careered at intervals across the downland often to be intercepted by Meadow Browns, possibly mistaking them for one of their own, and then the two would subsequently whirl along at speed before the Meadow Brown realised its error and dropped from the fritillary's slipstream, back into the grass. I came across several female Dark Green Fritillaries in the vegetation, their wings becoming worn to almost transparency where the coloured scales had been erased by the butterfly's constant burrowing and fluttering deep in the grass, presumably looking for violets, their caterpillar's food plant and on which to lay its eggs 

Dark Green Fritillary
Small and Essex Skippers flew daintily and demurely amongst the longer grasses, settling to absorb the sun on flower heads or grass blades whilst Marbled Whites sat on the heads of knapweed, an attractive combination of strong colours, purple pink, black and white amongst the sun bleached grasses.

Small Skipper
Essex Skipper

Marbled White
After a couple of hours wandering up and down the steep slope of Bald Hill I took a leaf out of the Silver Spotted Skipper's book and sat on the short turf and basked in the sun, shining brilliant white from a milky blue sky.

Matthew Arnold based his poem The Scholar Gypsy on a three hundred year old legend about a Scholar who forsook the University and roamed the countryside around Oxford. It was put to music by Ralph Vaughan Williams and to this day the words and music can make me very emotional. Feelings engendered by that bitter sweet amalgam of joy and hope as well as, not really sorrow, but something personal and deep within, a yearning for something that I feel is now forever lost. The poem was written in 1853 and there are many references to places around an Oxford that must have been very different to what it is today. Godstow, Bagley Wood, Cumnor, Fyfield, Wychwood and Hinksey are all mentioned and as I sat, an exquisite line from the poem  'All the live murmur of a summer's daydescribed exactly what I was experiencing at this very moment on Bald Hill, and the poem and the legend on which it is based came to extraordinary life around me.

I looked away from my elevated position, north to the Vale of Oxfordshire stretching to a distance, becoming lost in a blue summer heat haze and rejoiced that I was alive and an echo of the Scholar Gypsy, from down the years, was somewhere nearby.

Why faintest thou? I wander'd till I died.
Roam on! The light we sought is shining still.
Dost thou ask proof? Our tree yet crowns the hill,
Our Scholar travels yet the loved hill-side.

Matthew Arnold 1866


  1. Thank you Ewan for this piece. As a youngster I roamed these areas with my elder cousins and although still visiting Bald Hill myself your prose brought back wonderful memories again.

  2. Hello Steve
    Thank you for your kind comments. Many years ago I lived near Brighton and spent many an enjoyable time on the South Downs and was never happier so naturally I was delighted to find the next best thing at Aston Rowant and Bald Hill. It must have been nice for you before the Motorway came.
    Best wishes

  3. Lovely account Ewan, A species I have yet to see hopefully I can get a day in Oxfordshire possibly Aston Rowant. Regards Brian Hicks. blhphotoblog.wordpress.com Butterflies to Dragsters

    1. Hi Brian
      Bald Hill is right next to Aston Rowant if that helps
      Best wishes

  4. Hi Ewan

    now that I live in Oxon I intend to look harder at butterflies and dragonflies. Currently, the usual travails of chasing folk employed to work on the new house are getting in the way of birding and much else. So I use your blog for second hand kicks and to plan next year's searching. And to enjoy a bit of culture. The latter can be found at Spurn. But it takes some digging out!



  5. Hi Mick
    Every so often I let slip my carefully contrived persona and something bordering on esoteric appears in this blog but it will soon be back to birding!