Monday 23 July 2018

Silver Spotted Skippers at Aston Rowant NNR 22nd July 2018

For those who remember him, Clive James, who despite being stricken with cancer but thankfully, still with us, is a witty and erudite Australian who lives in England and writes poetry and one of his early poems entitled 'Girl on the Train' began as follows:

What did I do yesterday? Well I'll tell you in brief
Ten quid from the bank and I got out of town with relief...............

And that is precisely the sentiment I felt as another day of sun and warmth flooded into our house, the windows left wide open through the night to cool the rooms. Various, not too taxing commitments, prevented me making my escape before noon but then I was free to go and wasted no time in making for Aston Rowant National Nature Reserve to go in search of one of my absolute favourite butterflies, Silver Spotted Skippers.

They are one of the latest of our native butterflies to fly, usually appearing from mid July onwards. Tiny but feisty and with a surfeit of charisma and character, they zip around just above their beloved downland in a low level flight, always at high speed, erratically darting in various directions, their tiny presence a trial to follow amongst the downland grasses and flora. They are a stocky little butterfly with a rotund, some would call fat body, covered in greyish olive fur and with upperwings the colour of malt whisky. It is the underwings that give rise to its name as they are dull green, randomly patterned with silvery geometric shapes which can only superficially be called spots. Seen close to, their enormous black eyes give them a distinctive look, for all the world as if they are sporting sunglasses, which when you come to think of it is an appropriate analogy considering their propensity for sun worshipping.

I walked from the car park in Cowleaze Wood, the trees somnolent in the heat and across the road into the field beyond, passing some sheep taking advantage of the cool shade cast by a narrow corridor of trees and then I walked downhill and out into a delicious scented warmth that was caressing the southern slope of Bald Hill. A gentle and persistent southerly breeze blew steadily up the hill, enough to cool me and bend to its will the mauve heads of Small Scabious flowers that grew in profusion on the grassy slope. 

A time like this is to be treasured as it feels like I have waited the whole year for these few precious hours which will be over all too soon and may not be repeated until another year has passed. So transitory is it that I feel I must absorb every minute and make the most of the fragile beauty surrounding me.

The whole slope brings a riot of colour as the rich downland flora is now at its zenith, as pink Marjoram, white Burnet Saxifrage, pale mauve Small Scabious, cerise pink Greater Knapweed and Dwarf Thistle, pale blue Harebell, the weird and wonderful, straw white and orange-brown centred Carline Thistle, purple clumps of Wild Thyme, pink and white Rest Harrow and yellow Horseshoe Vetch and Lady's Bedstraw, compete for space amongst the waving grass stems, growing tall above the parched downland sward. 

Burnet Saxifrage

Carline Thistle

Lady's Bedstraw


Dwarf Thistle

Rest Harrow
Small Scabious
Greater Knapweed

The sun baked, dry chalk of the slope provides the ideal habitat for Silver Spotted Skippers, that love nothing better than to bask their furry bodies in the full sun or perch on a scabious head waiting to intercept any passing female.

Silver spotted Skipper
I love to try and watch the males intercepting not only females but almost any insect of similar size that flies near to them, hurtling after a perceived intruder in a wild, brief, careering and crazed flight. Initially I experienced much difficulty in locating and following them, flying as they do at such speed or sitting so well camouflaged near to the ground. 

They are so small, tiny even, and their erratic flight in one so small requires a deal of concentration to follow and ascertain where they land. Many times I failed. Occasionally, I did manage to find one perched on a flower head but frustration usually followed as, no sooner than I moved closer and got ready to take its picture, than it took umbrage and was gone in the blink of an eye, spooked by me or intent on pursuing another insect that had attracted its attention.

I followed a narrow sheep track running laterally across the upper slope and came to an area slightly sheltered from the breeze and here seemed to be a hotspot for Silver Spotted Skippers and gradually I became better attuned to their antics, so that I was able to see and follow them flying about, although they still appeared as no more than minute dark specks against the summer grasses. 

Eventually I became competent enough to follow one and see it land and my luck changed as this individual decided to remain perched for more than a few seconds and I was able to get some pictures of it. Even more remarkably it opened its wings to allow me to photo its upper wing surfaces. 

And so I resolved to stand here and allow the skippers and any other butterflies to come to me. It was far from unpleasant as I looked over and down the steep slope to the flat bottom of the valley, where each April the Ring Ouzels come, to rest and hide in the junipers for a few days, before continuing their northward migration. Beyond, the opposite hillside was wooded, deep dark green and mysterious, the bright sunlight causing great shadows to fall across the ground from under the trees. To my right the Vale of Oxfordshire stretched away in all directions into an infinity of fields and hedgerows, the horizon lost in a blue haze of distance. 

Bald Hill and The Vale of Oxfordshire
I was totally alone in a landscape that was soporific in the heat of the day and for a few minutes I transcended my surroundings and entered another world of imagination and fantasy. The distant bleating of sheep on the opposite hillside, the warmth of sun with the breeze blowing on my face and the multi coloured pageant of this special place transported me to another time. In my head some words from Thomas Arnold's poem The Scholar Gypsy, based on the legend about a scholar who forsook Oxford University to roam these very slopes came to me once again. 

Screen'd is this nook o'er the high, half-reap'd field,

And here till sun down, shepherd! will I be.
Through the thick corn the scarlet poppies peep,
And round green roots and yellowing stalks I see
Pale pink convolvulus in tendrils creep;
And air-swept lindens yield
Their scent, and rustle down their perfumed showers
Of bloom on the bent grass where I am laid,
And bower me from the August sun with shade;
And the eye travels down to Oxford's towers.............

It happens every time I come here each summer and maybe the legend is true and if one is receptive the scholar gypsy comes alive within and then it is true. I would like to think so.

Coming out of my reverie I returned to admiring the comings and goings of the various butterflies passing all around me. Most noticeable was the abundance of Chalk Hill Blues, another downland specialist and this afternoon very much in evidence, as the males, the palest of blue with charcoal grey bordering their wings  fluttered along, low to the ground, settling on flowers and grass stems.

Male Chalk Hill Blues on a Carline Thistle

Male Chalk Hill Blues
I found a female, brown and dull in comparison to the male and much scarcer but with a lovely gingerish wash and irregular spotting on her underwings and as I did, so did around seven males, which clustered around her in a frenzy of ardour but she was not interested in mating and after five or so minutes of buffeting her relentlessly the males got the message and dispersed.

Female Chalk Hill Blue

Amorous male Chalk Hill Blues courting a female
Dark Green Fritillarys, big and powerful, hurtled past, seeming enormous after I have become familiarised to following the tiny Silver spotted Skippers. All were nearing the end of their time on earth, dull and worn, their wings frayed and battered from burrowing  into the unforgiving spiky short grass to lay their eggs on the leaves of violets hidden beneath

A very worn Dark Green Fritillary
Then another much brighter orange fritillary of similar size, rocketed past. It was a Silver washed Fritillary and was gone in a flash up the slope. Meadow Browns and Gatekeepers lolloped through the grass, jinking on dull brown wings, then settled to wink bright eyes on flirting wings at me. Marbled Whites were here too, their black and white patterning always attractive and as ever bringing a pulse of excitement. Two more tiny butterflies passed before me, flying almost at ground level and on settling they revealed themselves to be a Brown Argus and a Small Skipper and so it went on, a constant procession passing or flying around me, allowing never a dull moment on this quintessential summer's day.

I did not want it to end but it had to and did as, gently, the lightest of cloud cover slid between me and the sun as if enacting the final curtain call on a performance and in the diffused sunlight the butterflies subsided into stillness as the breeze dropped to a whisper through the grass. 

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