Sunday, 2 August 2020

Silver Spotted Skippers 30th July 2020


If there is anything that I can now be certain of in these turbulent times it is the fact that every year there will come a day in July when the sun shines and the wind is soft from the south and the downland at Aston Rowant will shimmer with an abundance of multi coloured flowers and butterflies.

That day this year was almost the last of the month and, with a heart temporarily free of worries and anxieties for the future of my world, I moved in spirit, lock, stock and barrel to the alternative world of  the Silver-spotted Skipper that flies over the downland at Aston Rowant at this time of the year.

I left it until noon, when the sun had brought an intense heat to the south facing slope of downland sward where I knew the sun worshipping skippers love to bask and feed on the heads of field scabious and horseshoe vetch. I followed a sheep track that snaked through a living impressionist painting, a canvas of pastel shades created by flowers of many kinds and colours, the pale mauve of scabious and blue of harebell, bright yellow catsears and low islands of pink and purple marjoram rising above the swaying grasses, the summer wind all the while carrying the tantalising sweet scent of wild thyme. 

Hundreds of Chalk Hill Blues, males mostly, were busying themselves for as far as I could see, the males forever  restlessly searching for a female, crossing and re-crossing the sward, low to the ground, their wings the pale blue of a watery sky and when one came to rest, the wings, open to the sky, appeared almost grey, smudged charcoal along their extremities, the pale blue at its most intense at the base of the wings and on the thickly furred body.

Male Chalk Hill Blue

Mating Chalk Hill Blues
The focus of my quest was not so obvious as the blues and it took me some time to locate one. I knew from past experience how small Silver-spotted Skippers are but each year the surprise is the same and I marvel anew at just how tiny they are. It takes a while to get accustomed to their will o' the wisp behaviour, the tiny insects un-noticed by me, rising at my approach from where they bask on the exposed warm chalk of the narrow track, or appearing like some minor blemish on a pristine scabious head, so insignificant they are easily overlooked.



Initially hard to locate, as they are on every visit, they have their favoured hot spots, areas on the south facing, steepest slopes of downland that have the maximum exposure to the sun's rays. Here they reside, scattered in small numbers across the downland, absorbing the sun that gives them the impetus to enact this last energetic instalment of a life that began as a tiny white egg, laid at the base of  their foodplant, Sheep's Fescue, a year ago.

It takes me a while to refresh my memory as to where these hot spots are but eventually I find one and then another but even so the tiny insects contrive to lead me a merry dance through the sward, for they are innately restless, hardly still for more than a minute, often much less. Time and again after finally finding one, as I get down on my knees to take its photo, no sooner am I in position than it speeds off on some mission and invariably I lose sight of it and complainingly rise to stand confounded.

I know Mr Packham would decry my saying it, but butterflies definitely exhibit their own unique character and none more so than this tiny, hyperactive insect. Its plump furry body and huge black eyes impart an image of robust energy, powered by high octane nectar,  forever restless, feisty even, as it sits, a perfection of camouflage on a grass stem or flower head waiting to intercept a female or chase off any butterfly or insect, large or small, intruding into what it perceives is its domain.

A Silver-spotted Skipper nectaring on Wild Marjoram
With wings closed the olive green base colour, stippled with irregular white markings, can render them virtually invisible, matching the infinite patterning of light and shade in the grass as they cling to their chosen blade or stem. 


So small is their overall form, the white markings can only be seen from very close quarters and to achieve that close encounter, nine times out of ten the butterfly frustrates you by taking alarm as you close in on it and leaves you staring at nothing but grass. It is gone, literally in the blink of an eye, as I can testify only too well.

A Silver spotted Skipper perched on Horseshoe Vetch
But that is the challenge, a bittersweet enjoyment, bitter as you try to find one and then, when you do, lose sight of it almost immediately as it somehow gives you the slip. Sweet when finally you find one that deigns to perch on a flower head for more than a few seconds and allows time to be photographed.





A Silver-spotted Skipper nectaring on a Field Scabious
I spent hours here today and for good reason, as it brought solace to my soul and a diversion from the ills of the world. These days I live for the moment, daily recharging my spirit by various encounters with the natural world that is all around us. I did not want to leave as this was my day. A day I had nurtured in my heart and looked forward to through eleven intervening months.


Eventually the heat became too much, my ageing body wearied and rebelled at the strenuous effort required to wander up and down the steep slopes, but I now had a new day to remember, one that would carry me through what is going to be a difficult year until next July, when I will come here once more to greet another generation of the Silver-spotted Skippers of Aston Rowant.    







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