Thursday 15 June 2023

First of The Year 15th June 2023

It was noon when I turned into the tiny car park of the reserve with room for no more than four cars.The white heat of the midday sun, in this early summer heatwave, bore down on the land, oppressive and sultry, the wind of the preceding weeks now no more than an occasional whisper.

Bird song had all but ceased, apart from a Garden Warbler that persisted in singing loudly from the depths of a venerable oak, all other avian vocalists having retreated to the shade and shadows of the surrounding oak woods.

The managed meadows of the reserve had become a terrestrial firmanent, wild flowers substituting for stars; yellow rattle, buttercup, oxeye daisy and spotted orchid studded the summer grasses with countless individual points of colour. 

The particular meadow I had in mind was but a short walk from the car park.A meadow enclosed by thick blackthorn twice my height, the countless tiny leaves dark green, their hard surfaces shiny in the sun. Bramble grew through parts of the thick mesh of blackthorn but the flowers were still in bud and would not provide a nectar source for the butterfly I sought for a few days yet. 

I was searching for the Black Hairstreak, the rarest of the five hairstreak species found in Britain and restricted to an area of low lying clays, stretching from Peterborough to Oxford with only fifty or so known colonies. Black Hairstreaks are usually only on the wing from around the last ten days in June to the end of the first week in July,  allowing twenty days, give or take, to seek them out, so any opportunity to see them is not to be ignored.

They are frustratingly elusive, spending a large part of their time perched high and out of sight at the top of the blackthorn.It usually requires much patience and persistence to see one well and even more to photograph one but given time, often a lot of time, one or more will venture down to head height and pootle around on a bramble or blackthorn leaf, imbibing aphid honeydew from the leaf's surface.

I wandered along beside the blackthorn looking for this thumbnail sized dark butterfly with its distinctive jerky, jinking flight but found nothing but Meadow Browns and Marbled Whites.

I have visited this particular site many times, over the years I have lived in Oxfordshire, and have come to know the hotspots in the blackthorn where one can hope to have more than an even chance of encountering a Black Hairstreak. I  stopped at one of these and waited.

This is my preferred method but it requires some leap of faith and often an hour or more can pass with nothing to show for it.Today was different. Ten minutes had hardly elapsed and then at head height a Black Hairstreak jinked its uncertain way towards me and settled on a bramble leaf at eye level.

This minor miracle of chance was not about to be ignored by me and I took the insect's image many times, too many probably but the excitement of the moment can enthuse you this way. The butterfly was pristine, maybe just hatched today, not a scratch or bramble tear in its wings to disfigure its perfection. Judging by the upward angle of the tails on its hind wing it was a female. A miniature triangle of furled wings, it edged its way around the leaf's surface on thread thin legs, its alternately banded black and white antennae probing for the desired honeydew.

I was pleased with the results from my new camera but as I reviewed the images in the camera's viewfinder the butterfly gave me the slip, for on looking back to the leaf where it had perched there was nothing.I chided myself for taking my eye off the butterfly if only for seconds and now had no idea where it had gone, maybe some distance or it could be hidden in the dense foliage almost in front of me.I would never know unless it flew again. 

I stood for twenty minutes more and eventually saw the hairstreak rise from the blackthorn a few yards to my left and disappear over the top of the hedge. 

Ninety minutes had passed. I considered myself fortunate to have been granted this brief audience with such an uncommon butterfly and left it at that.

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