Friday 29 May 2020

Pearls in The Wyre Forest 27th May 2020

I arranged to meet Peter this morning at the end of a rural lane in Worcestershire that starts in some unexceptional housing and then descends in a series of steep winding curves to a small dusty area cut into a hillside that serves as a car park for the Wyre Forest NNR. Arriving a little early I stood by my car in the pleasant sunshine, in a place I had never visited before, but that was quite beautiful with huge oak trees towering over me and the land dropping away on one side into a narrow valley, the bottom of which contained an old mill house and the winding flow of Dowles Brook.

Wyre Forest is part of the largest area of ancient lowland, coppiced oak woodland left in England and the reserve comprises 549 hectares, a mosaic of grassland. meadows, old orchards and areas of scrub.

Even at 10am the car park was almost full but we managed to secure the last two spaces for each of our cars.  It obviously was a popular spot, with more and more cars arriving and as we walked into the reserve, following a wide pathway which used to be an old railway track, we and other pedestrians were constantly having to be aware of fast moving mountain bikers.

Not exactly a relaxing experience but we were soon to turn off the main pathway into another, quieter world that was far from the busy recreational thoroughfare we were currently walking along.

Our mission today was to find both Pearl Bordered and Small Pearl Bordered Fritillaries. Peter had been here last year so knew where to go, which were some tree enclosed meadows down by Dowles Brook, the meadows especially managed to enable both species of fritillary to thrive and prosper.

However, we had not gone far on the main pathway when we found our first Pearl bordered Fritillary, a very tatty and faded specimen that had only three wings but seemed little inconvenienced by such a handicap when it flew. Not a very satisfactory start but soon we found others, quite a few, that flew and settled while we followed and photographed them to our heart's content. It is always such a treat to see these rare and much desired butterflies, an innocent pleasure in a complicated world. 

A faded Pearl bordered Fritillary nearing the end of its flight period
A man passing by us stopped to ask what the butterfly was we were showing such an interest in. We told him it was a Pearl bordered Fritillary and in return he told us where there was a nest box occupied by a pair of Pied Flycatchers. He whispered enigmatically, 'Remember. Look for Box 33'. We thanked him and made a note to check out this information later but it was fritillaries first.

Pearl bordered Fritillary
Turning off the main pathway we entered an area of woodland scattered with numbered nest boxes for presumably Pied Flycatchers to nest in although some were occupied by Great and Blue Tits. Descending on a rough track into the valley bottom we came to the mill and crossed the brook. 

The Mill House
We eventually diverted into the specially maintained meadows for the fritillaries. There were meant to be both species here and after some delay we found our first Small Pearl bordered Fritillary flying fast and low over the grass but not willing to settle. Despite its orange colour it was surprisingly hard to follow as it flew erratically across the grass, to be lost in the distance.

Small Pearl bordered Fritillary
Soon we began to locate more fritillaries and it took some effort to differentiate the two but after a while we became relatively proficient as we encountered examples of each, fluttering around. Small Pearl bordered were, as their name would imply, noticeably smaller than their larger cousin and seemed much brighter, presumably because their flight season has only recently commenced in contrast to that of the Pearl bordered which is earlier and now, most of those we saw, were beginning to look faded. The underwing markings of the two species, when you could see them,  were diagnostic. This was by no means an easy task as the butterflies resolutely kept their wings open when they ceased flying and nectared on the various meadow flowers.

The easiest identifiable underwing differences, for me, were twofold. First the black spot in the centre of the lower underwing on the Small Pearl bordered was large and very obvious whereas the Pearl bordered had a much less definitive spot. Second, the row of seven white 'pearls', a line of markings towards the outer edge of the hindwing were outlined in black in the case of the Small Pearl bordered and orange in the case of the Pearl bordered.

Small Pearl bordered Fritillary showing a black dot in the cente of its hindwing and the seven white 
triangular pearls edged with black chevrons
Pearl bordered Fritillary showing a much reduced black dot on its underwing plus the seven white pearls are edged with orange chevrons

Small Pearl bordered Fritillary - above two images
Looking at the butterflies settled with open wings, Peter told me to look for 7-3-0 on the outer edge of the forewing of the Small Pearl bordered Fritillary. These are three marks that vaguely resemble the figures 7, 3 and zero.The markings are not the same on the Pearl bordered and as if this was not enough information to assimilate, the dark markings on the tip of the forewing of the Small Pearl bordered are usually joined whereas in the Pearl bordered they are not.

Small Pearl bordered FRitillary. The 7-3-0 feature is clearly shown on the left forewing as are the joined dots on the tip
of the same forewing
But enough of the technicalities and let us enjoy the fritillaries for what they are, beautiful insects which bring me much joy, that sense of enjoyment enhanced by the magnificent surroundings in which they were enacting their short lives on a wonderful early summer's day. We had the meadows entirely to ourselves for most of the time and made the most of it, walking through the lush grass and yellow buttercups, the steep slopes of the valley rising on either side of us and Dowles Brook bisecting the valley, sluggish from lack of rain but still chuckling and gurgling wherever rocks impeded its timeless progress below the green shade of the overhanging trees. Above us the sky was an unsullied forget-me-not blue.

Every so often we would see the burnt orange colour of a fritillary flying before us. the recently emerged Small Pearl bordered noticeably brighter than the Pearl bordered, now coming to the end of their flight season and with a faster more busy flight action. We followed them hoping one would settle but almost all were males, relentlessly patrolling, looking for a female to mate with. Occasionally one would settle and we tried to make the most of the opportunity but were often frustrated by the butterfly's ability to adopt positions not conducive to getting an aesthetic image that captured their essence and beauty. Countless were the times that a blade of grass interfered with the perfect image or cast a wayward shadow over the insect. We persevered and persistence got us the images we desired and in a way we enjoyed the challenge. Me, mainly wanting shots of the underwings, which in all fritillaries show a wonderful mosaic pattern while Peter was more desirous of an upperwing image.

Small Pearl bordered Fritillaries
The morning passed, unheeded by us, towards noon and we found in the far corner of our favoured meadow a fritillary hot spot. We had become aware it was better to stand and wait for the butterflies to come to us in this corner, rather than allow our enthusiasm to cause us to chase after them, often fruitlessly. 

So we stood patiently and were duly rewarded.

Small Pearl bordered Fritillaries
It was pleasant at the far end of the meadow. A place that was tucked away, hidden and secret from the regular passers by on the other side of the brook. There was a small drop to the brook below which  had formed a pool in the right angle caused by the bank jutting outwards. 

A fallen tree across the brook and some boulders were providing a temporary home for a family of Grey Wagtails, the adults chasing flies to bring to their fledged young, all the birds, adults and young constantly bouncing their hindparts and tail up and down. A curious movement, that in Grey Wagtails is accentuated by their long tail, the longest of any wagtail species in Britain.

Grey Wagtail - male
The unremarkable muddy bank of the brook, below where I stood, was suddenly transformed as a flash of bright blue betrayed the exotic and entirely unexpected presence of a Kingfisher which flew off up the brook to be followed shortly after by another. I moved my position to examine the bank more closely and sure enough there was the obvious entrance hole to their nest.

It was a true rural idyll and for a while I stood and forgot about the butterflies and embraced this moment of pure nature in a near perfect day. Mindfulness and Mother Nature inextricably entwined and working their magic once again on my soul. These are such strange times we are living through now, with every day seeming the same as the one before and the one after as our human world comes to a temporary hiatus, yet nature all around us, at this time of year, is never more energised and vital.

Mayflies were hatching and on wings of gossamer, shining in the sun, rose in slow spirals from the brook, fragile, ephemeral insects in the final stage of their life cycle, rising into the still sultry air only to be extinguished by a pair of Blackcaps, which had a nest nearby in a bramble clump and were taking full advantage of this bounty. Repeatedly the male and female Blackcap would fly out from the alders on the bank and seize the defenceless insects.

We walked back through the meadows, not an unpleasant experience in itself, the day now become hot and the shade bringing a welcome cooling greenness. Spring is almost over now and nature is at its most bountiful but the summer solstice will be here in three weeks and then it is a slow gentle decline from this profusion of growth and fecundity.

We took up the challenge from our earlier unknown passer by and went in search of the Pied Flycatchers and on a footpath skirting an area of sun dappled oak woodland reserved for birds found Nestbox 33 and its occupants, a pair of Pied Flycatchers feeding what appeared to be recently hatched young.The male was bringing all the food, tiny green caterpillars, and the female remained in the box for the most part, just looking out from the hole on one occasion.

Pied Flycatcher male at its nestbox
We left them and following the footpath eventually rejoined the main pathway with its attendant dog walkers, mountain bikers and families out to enjoy themselves. I felt a sense of loss at having left our secluded meadow and butterflies but we walked a half mile or so along the pathway but it was now hot and we were tired. An app. on my phone told me we had walked over four and a half miles so we called time and headed back to the car park, stopping to enjoy one last Small Pearl bordered Fritillary that was feeding on some bright yellow Horseshoe Vetch by the pathway.

At the car park I took some refreshment and then took out my bottle of 80% alcohol hand sanitizer. 'Cheers! ' came a voice from the car adjacent to mine as a man raised his bottle of sanitizer in acknowledgement.

These are 
indeed the strangest of times .

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