Monday 20 June 2022

Hairstreaks and Peregrines 15th June 2022

On what was predicted to be one of the hottest days of the year I decided to attempt a double delight by going to look for some local Black Hairstreak butterflies and then, in the afternoon, check out a family of Peregrines, on a church just over the county border in Buckinghamshire.

Oxfordshire is fortunate in being one of only three counties that provide a home for Black Hairstreaks, the rarest and arguably the most sought after of Britain's five native hairstreaks.

Mid morning and the sun was shining brightly but a gentle breeze provided some welcome respite from the heat as I wandered along the side of a blackthorn hedge looking for any sign of a tiny butterfly, jinking amongst the topmost leaves and twigs, which is where Black Hairstreaks like to spend most of their time, imbibing honeydew from the surfaces of the leaves.

I  was alone in my quest and for a good length of the hedge found nothing but many bees and other insects going about their lives. About three quarters of the way along and with disappointment becoming a distinct probability I found what I was looking for. No more than a tiny black outline against the bright sunlight. one could so easily miss it, as it flitted briefly from leaf to leaf, having been disturbed by a passing insect. So small and indistinct are they, that it is always a trial to follow their erratic progress but finally it settled.

Moving my position I endeavoured to get the sun behind me and, with this achieved, I was then able  to discern the intricate patterning on its wings. It was pristine and thus presumably a newly hatched individual. For quite some time it remained, frustratingly, where it was but then was disturbed once more by another bee bumbling its way through the leaves and to my immense pleasure the butterfly flew out from the hedgetop and downwards to settle in the long summer grass, almost at my feet.

I have seen them do this before but it is not that usual. However I accepted this good fortune and determined to make the most of it. The tiny insect spent a minute or more in the grass, wandering up and down stems as if confused at where it found itself. It was not long before the inevitable happened and it made a direct flight back into the top of the blackthorn. Here it took up a more usual position, sat on a shiny and hard, narrow blackthorn leaf and here I left it.

Despite another hour wandering along the rest of the hedgerow I was not able to find another and after talking to fellow butterfly enthusiasts later, I learnt that the hairstreaks seem to be scarcer than normal this year. With our capricious weather some years are better than others for our butteefly species and it would appear that this year is not so good for Black Hairstreaks or at least in this part of Oxfordshire.We will see.

From my current pleasant rural surroundings I now took to the motorway for a few miles south to eventually turn off and drive to the picturesque town centre of Marlow which lies on the River Thames in Buckinghamshire. My destination was All Saints Church, where a pair of Peregrines and their recently fledged young are currently in residence. A chance conversation with a fellow Farmoor birder a couple of days ago had alerted me to this opportunity.

The church lies in the heart of Marlow, at the end of the busy high street just before it crosses the bridge over the river. I was convinced parking, as it is in most towns now, was going to be a problem on this sunny day with so many people out and about enjoying the sun while sitting outside the cafes and pubs lining the street.

I was therefore pleasantly surprised to find that parking on the high street was free for an hour and there were spaces available. A walk of a few hundred metres from where I parked my car was all that was required to bring me to the churchyard and looking up to the impressive spire, there was a juvenile Peregrine perched on a buttress fast asleep in the afternoon heat.

There was a gathering of mourners standing outside the church door having attended a funeral so I discreetly positioned myself by a yew, well away from them so as not to be thought insensitive. Scanning the spire with my bins I found two more juvenile Peregrines at the other end of the buttress and then much higher, perched half way up the lofty spire, one of their parents which by its size  looked to be the female. She preened and sat quietly on her perch, constantly looking up and taking an intense interest in any passing bird as if sizing up whether to give chase.

Two of the departing mourners came over to talk to me about the Peregrines, telling me this was the second or third year they had bred here and they had become quite a celebrated feature of the town.

The sleepy juvenile awoke, preened for a while, took a long lazy stretch of its wings and then proceeded to shuffle around on its perch of solid masonry, the next best thing to a proper cliff. It stretched its wings once more and then moved along to nibble at a dead pigeon that one of the parent birds had presumably brought for it.

I remained for about an hour, watching and photographing the Peregrines and then retraced my steps back into the busy throng of cars and people in the high street. Marlow seems a nice town but I was glad to leave the mass of people and head for my home in a more rural and quieter part of Oxfordshire.

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