Tuesday 16 July 2013

Butterfly Sunday Memoriam 16th July 2013

Scorchio! Yet another day of light and warmth lifting my spirit. It's just impossible to be downcast in this prolonged wonderful weather. Determined to make the most of it I was out again at the first opportunity looking this time for White Hairstreaks in the south of Oxfordshire. I was kindly shown this site by Peter who accompanied me and we arrived mid morning at a small area of elms flanking the side of a narrow and virtually traffic free lane with flowering bramble growing in profusion beneath the elms and on the opposite side of the lane. There was already one other hairstreak enthusiast there, otherwise we were alone. He told us he had not seen a hairstreak before we arrived so we spread out the better to cover the small area and increase our chances of seeing one. 

Even by mid morning it was getting uncomfortably hot so I sought the shade of a tree and scanned the brambles from there but without the desired result. Our fellow enthusiast briefly saw a hairstreak but it was gone in an instant and long before we could get to see it. There were plenty of other butterflies. A Peacock, with rich ruby red wings flashing four blue and white eyes on the uppersides, scrambled over the bramble flowerheads slowly flexing it's wings as if to gather in the sun. Gatekeepers fluttered on seemingly endless unsatisfied quests in and out of the bramble leaves together with Ringlets and Meadow Browns. An occasional Marbled White flew down the lane whilst Small Skippers fiddled about in the long grasses growing on the verges and a Small Tortoiseshell lazily inspected some nettles, possibly preparing to lay some eggs. 

Time wore on and the sun increased evermore in intensity. I was by now feeling just a little weary and careworn when a call from our fellow enthusiast further up the lane alerted us to the fact he had found a White Letter Hairstreak. He very kindly came down the lane to meet us and guide us to the spot, a bramble hedge opposite the elms, but by the time we got there in all of less than a minute, it had moved on. We followed the bramble hedge, inspecting the flowers, hoping, and there it was further up the hedge. 

We found it nectaring on a large clump of sunlit, pale purple bramble flowers and in typical fashion showing little obvious concern at our close proximity. As with all hairstreaks it was an understated gem of an insect, very similar on it's undersides to a Black Hairstreak but with an obvious white W on the brown underwings, a subtly different pattern of spotting on the brighter orange band on the lower hindwing and two obviously longer, white tipped tails at the tips of the lower hind wings. It fed unconcernedly, occasionally flitting onto another bramble flower and we watched it for about fifteen minutes before it suddenly flew off up into an elm. We waited awhile but it never returned and we reluctantly accepted that it was gone and unlikely to return. 

It was now noon so we did our best to live up to Noel Coward's Mad Dogs and Englishmen routine and instead of retiring to some shady nook to drowse the afternoon heat away we set off for Bradenham Banks in nearby Buckinghamshire. This is a well known butterfly site but neither of us had been here before so it was very much an open book. Reports of hundreds of Dark Green Fritillaries and slightly lesser numbers of Small Blues gave a definite impetus to our visit. 

Now a small diversion in my narrative, so please indulge me. Over twenty five years ago my wife and I were married in the very old and charming little Unitarian Church in the village of Ditchling which lies just under the north slope of the South Downs in the fair county of Sussex. 

Ditchling Unitarian Church
We were members of the twenty or so congregation and our cottage was just a few yards from the church. Every summer the church would hold a service in July called Butterfly Sunday.They had held this service every year since the early seventeen hundreds and it still goes on to this very day. It is called Butterfly Sunday because originally the worshippers were dissenters from the established churches and those who lived on the southern side of the Downs  had to walk over the Downs to The Unitarian Church in Ditchling. In those less intensively farmed times there was always a host of butterflies to accompany the worshippers as they made their way up and over the steep Downs via Ditchling Beacon and thence down to Ditchling Village.  I got a real feeling of dejavu when we arrived at Bradenham Banks as it is also a huge area of sloping grassland not dissimilar to the South Downs and absolutely teeming with butterflies and native flora. Looking at the vast area of grasses, the sheer variety of wildflowers and butterflies I imagined it must have been a very similar and heartlifting sight and experience for those dissenting worshippers in Sussex all those years ago. The number of butterflies here was just incredible. Dark Green Fritillaries were everywhere settling on Scabious and Knapweed to feed but constantly active, never remaining still for long. 

Dark Green Fritillary
Walking through the grasses and wild flowers, clouds of Marbled Whites, Meadow Browns and Ringlets flew up at my feet. Jinking and bouncing off into the sunlit grasses to seek sanctuary in the further depths of the field. There was a constant procession and movement of insect life as the butterflies urgently went about their lives, spiralling in twos and threes above the waving grasses, feeding on the native flower heads and just making the maximum of the benign weather and the poignantly short time they had to fulfil the final chapter in their brief life as a butterfly. How can such beauty be extinguished in so short a time? But then again it's very transience contributes in no mean manner to it's continued appeal.

Marbled Whites
As a finale we climbed up through another sloping grassy meadow to the edge of some dark green woods, passing through patches of Kidney Vetch, now mainly woolly with seed heads but still with the occasional butter yellow flower, Wild Thyme gloriously pungent as you ran a hand through the leaves, pale blue Scabious, bright yellow Lady's Bedstraw and a host of other wildflowers. On reaching the edge of the wood we followed a sun bleached track running between wood and meadow and sought the tiny and non descript Small Blue amongst the vegetation by the track. At first we could not find any but then Peter found one and as we became accustomed to what to look for we found a good number of them. Miniscule masterpieces almost like a speck of dust and so hard to follow as they flew amongst the grasses and their favourite Kidney Vetch. 

Small Blue female
So our day came to an end and we descended the sloping field and back down to the main path. We never saw another soul in this wonderful place until we were leaving. I was happy but a melancholy settled upon me for a while as I thought of Butterfly Sunday, my former church in Ditchling and my fellow congregationers all those many years ago, also enjoying the butterflies as they followed their hearts over the Downs. I like to think that maybe at Bradenham, just for today, we were united if not physically at least in spirit.

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