Wednesday 14 May 2014

I do like a Burgundy 14th May 2014

Duke of Burgundy
When I say I like a burgundy it is true that a nice bottle of the red infuriator goes down a treat but today I refer to something just as good, the Duke of Burgundy butterfly. I had never seen one and decided to rectify the matter by making a visit to Dunstable Downs in Bedfordshire. When I finally saw one, OOOH! I got a hint of cowslip, speedwell, kidney vetch, buttercup and meadow grasses. A bouquet of chalk downland. Just as good as any red burgundy.

I am getting ahead of myself though. Not quite sure where to go I found the location I was looking for courtesy of a book called 'Discover Butterflies in Britain' by David Newland. Arriving at just after 10am the weather was ideal with unbroken sun although a cool northwest breeze was blowing. Despite a small map in the book it was not absolutely clear what path to follow or what was the best area to check. I was high on a ridge overlooking the Vale of Aylesbury  and Whipsnade Zoo, with a steep slope below me and sunken tracks between high banks of chalk downland. With the steady breeze blowing logic suggested that the best bet was to drop down a little and wander along the sunken tracks which were free of wind and trapped the morning sun.

Sunken downland track. Along here were Duke of Burgundy, Green Hairstreak
Grizzled Skipper, Dingy Skipper, Brimstone and Orange Tip
I followed a track winding gently downhill and then came to a dip where the track rose up along the side of a slope. So far it was not that promising with only a Green Veined White and an Orange Tip putting in an appearance. Still, it was early from a butterfly point of view and it would warm up as the morning progressed. I followed the track for a few metres as it rose along the side of the slope and almost immediately came to a hawthorn bush festooned with blossom. 

The Green Hairstreak hawthorn headquarters.Up to fifteen  Green Hairstreaks
at least were on and around this particular bush
The scent from the blossom was overpowering, sickly sweet and pungent. Much more interesting was the sight of many small dark brown butterflies flying around the bush which they seemed to have made their headquarters. At first I could not make out what they were but as they settled I saw they were Green Hairstreaks. I have never seen so many in one small space. There must have been fifteen or more. As my eye became accustomed to them  I found yet more settled on the flowers or on the surrounding vegetation invariably with their wings closed and their emerald underwings angled to catch the rays of the sun. Ever restless they would fly up and tussle with each other regularly, sometimes with two flying together at incredible speed, whirling round and round, exactly mirroring each movement of the other. These appeared to be territorial spats between males but could just as easily be a male and female in courtship. I watched them in amazement, admiring their beauty and just savouring the moment.

Green Hairstreaks
Well, a good start but not the main item. A few more steps along the track and another small dark butterfly rose up from my feet and then another. I watched them spiralling together, low over the ground and then separating, they quickly settled. I looked in my bins where one had landed and there was a Duke of Burgundy butterfly. This one as luck would have it was a little ragged of wing but it was a Duke. My first ever.

A Duke fallen on hard times!
Small, hardly bigger than the hairstreaks and looking very dark to the naked eye. This one allowed very close approach, as indeed did all the ones I encountered later and I could see the upperwings were dark brown with the forewings showing a chequering of orange spots and the hindwings a border of  orange spots at the hind edge of the wings. The underside of the wings were very difficult to see as the Duke constantly kept its wings open to the sun.

Obviously I wanted a photo but this ragged specimen with torn wings was no good. I looked for the other one and in no time at all found it a little further up the track sunning itself on some bramble leaves. This was much better as it was in pristine condition. An absolute beauty.

Male Duke of Burgundy
For the next hour or so I just wandered  a few metres up and down the track admiring and photographing the Dukes. Invariably they would settle with their wings open to the sun and it took quite a while to get  a shot of the marvellous marbling on the underwings.

Duke of Burgundy showing the beautiful marbled underwing pattern
The Dukes seemed to confine themselves to a very small area which they patrolled and guarded. I counted three but whether they were all males or a mixture of male and female I could not tell although if guarding a territory, which appeared to be the case, presumably they were males

My wanderings found other goodies as well. A Grizzled Skipper superficially similar to the Duke but with white spots all over the four brown wings, white fringes to the wings and a fat furry body, settled on a buttercup and several Dingy Skippers, as ever looking washed out and threadbare even when in a pristine state, fluttered around and tussled with the Dukes. A host of other insects whose identity was beyond my knowledge shared the plants with the butterflies.

Grizzled Skippers

Dingy Skipper

Two unidentified bugs getting it on in  the sun.
Thanks to Wayne Bull for identifying these as sawflies
In the end, sated I sat on the bank amongst the cowslips, relaxed in the sun and just enjoyed my surroundings with butterflies all around me. Four Red Kites wheeled high overhead disputing the airspace with the next door Gliding Club. A Garden Warbler chortled its song from deep in the hawthorns and a Common Whitethroat, as ever irrepressibly cheery, warbled its frantic little song from some nearby scrub

Now with my aim well and truly achieved I felt the desire to enjoy and explore this special place some more. I was completely alone as I followed yet another sunken track.

At least 6 Duke of Burgundy were along this section of track
Sure enough more Dukes materialised and in the end I must have counted close to fifteen, all in groups of three or four. Another more chalky track harboured many Dingy Skippers and a few Dukes but Grizzled Skippers were much harder to find and I saw no more than three or four all morning. Green Hairstreaks must have been in three figures. They were everywhere, on hawthorns although never in such numbers as on the first hawthorn, in the chalkland grasses flying up from my feet and on low growing brambles.

Clustered Bellflower (id courtesy of Wayne)
I spent three hours in all, wandering around and enjoying this wonderful reserve. Weary and hot from climbing up steep slopes I rested under a beech, in the shade with the breeze whispering through leaves that in the sunlight coloured my skin pale green. I went back for one more look at the hawthorn bush with all the Green Hairstreaks. They were still hard at it, restless and energetic as ever, flying in and around the May blossom and with that lingering memory to cling to I left. What a magical morning 

Here in this short space were 3 Duke of Burgundy, 15 Green Hairstreaks,
6 Dingy Skippers, 2 Grizzled Skippers and 1 Brimstone
My final sight of a Duke of Burgundy

Butterflies seen:

Duke of Burgundy 15+
Green Hairstreak 100+
Grizzled Skipper 4+
Dingy Skipper 30+
Orange Tip 2
Green Veined White 1
Peacock 1
Large White 1
Brimstone 10+

1 comment:

  1. Hi Ewan, Looks like a mating pair of sawflies sp poss Tenthredo celtica?