Saturday 17 May 2014

Marsh Mellow 16th May 2014

Marsh Fritillary
Waking up to another beautiful morning of sun and warmth I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and abandoned my plan to go for a morning run.This kind of weather does not come that often these days so I decided to postpone my attempts at fitness and make the most of the sun by seeking out some more rare butterflies.

My destination this time was Lydlinch Common in Dorset. This should have been a two hour drive but turned into a three hour marathon as I encountered traffic problems throughout the entire journey entailing regular cross country detours to avoid snarl ups. This did allow me to see some lovely villages and countryside but took its toll in time.

Finally back on course on the A303 I passed Stonehenge. A World Heritage Site it claims on a huge board by the road. Maybe, but its close proximity to the endless traffic on the road and the huge numbers of sightseers ringing the site remove any magic or mystery the place should hold. Such a shame. 

Onwards, and after winding through some tiny villages I arrived at Lydlinch and again following the instructions in David Newland's estimable book 'Discovering Butterflies in Britain' I found the small layby and entrance gate leading to hopefully my first ever encounter with Marsh Fritillaries.

Entrance to Lydlinch Common

The damp, in places boggy areas the fritillaries inhabit are on both sides of the road and to start with I tried the area south of the road walking up the short swampy track into the reserve and coming to an open area carpeted with the blue of Bugle.

The Common on the other side of the gate
I met a man called Dave staring at the ground. Dave was local and a butterfly enthusiast who kept a close eye on the butterflies of Lydlinch Common. He saved me any uncertainty and wasted time by pointing to the ground and there was a freshly emerged female Marsh Fritillary perched on a plantain. Her fat body, full of eggs waiting to be fertilised, betrayed her sex.

Newly hatched female Marsh Fritillary. Note the really fat body
Dave and I got talking and he told me how last year was very bad for the fritillaries here and how this year they were only now just appearing. At that moment another Marsh Fritillary, a male, flew low and rapidly over the area and then was gone. Dave told me these were the first he had seen in this small area but told me to follow him and led me across the Common to the other side of the road. He told me there was an area on the other side of the road, warmer and more sheltered where he had seen up to five Marsh Fritillaries in the last few days .

As we traversed the Common heading towards the road another orange coloured butterfly flew up and then landed on some Bugle. Both of us were thinking it was a Marsh Fritillary as we approached it but on getting closer Dave identified it as a Small Pearl Bordered Fritillary. This was a real bonus for me as I have never seen this species before. So in the space of fifteen minutes I had seen two new butterflies, well, new for me anyway.

Small Pearl Bordered Fritillary
We crossed the quiet road and passing through the hedgeline entered another open area of low vegetation sloping downwards to the east.

Lydlinch Common on the 'other' side of the road. Many Marsh Fritillaries
 were at the warmer, far end of the Common beyond the flowering Hawthorn
At first there was no activity but as we walked down towards the lower, warmer area, more and more Marsh Fritillaries flew low across the ground before us. The majority were in absolute pristine condition, beautiful in their chequered appearance. The complex strong patterning of orange overlaid with bands of buff, black and white spots is really pleasing and markedly different to most other fritillaries. Walking around encountering different individuals it became apparent that there was considerable variation in colouring and also size. I imagine the larger specimens with fatter bodies were females. Males hatch a few days before the females and some small males were already quite faded which accounts for their old colloquial name, Greasy Fritillary

Marsh Fritillaries- note the colour variation in the top three images
Slowly walking around this small area we reckoned we had seen at least twenty five Marsh Fritillaries, a mixture of males and females. It was apparent that the Marsh Fritillaries were hatching fast. Most were flying low and slow in a distinctive, fluttering flight over the short vegetation but when they met another of their kind, the two or sometimes even three would spiral up at speed to above head height, whirling around before separating and gliding back to almost ground level where they were remarkably hard to follow as they flew over the grass. Dave pointed out that the area had been specially planted with Devil's Bit Scabious, the Marsh Fritillary's foodplant, to encourage them and it certainly appeared to be working in this area.

Dave left and I was on my own in this little paradise. Just me with the fritillaries fluttering over the damp ground and flowers. I found a male trying to mate with a female but she was not interested in his attentions and they fell into the grass and separated. 

Marsh Fritillaries attempting to mate
Another female had just hatched and her wings were still slightly creased and drying. She delicately walked onto my proffered finger before I returned her to perch on a leaf. Her almost closed wings  showed the typical attractive fritillary patterning on the underwing.

Newly hatched Marsh Fritillary drying her wings
I spent a very pleasant hour here just wandering around looking for and at the fritillaries. A few male Brimstones hurried past along the bordering hedgerow and a couple of Small Coppers whizzed between favoured plants.

Small Copper
I left to retrace my steps back to the car, following the same route Dave and I had taken to get here. Where we had briefly seen the Small Pearl Bordered Fritillary I found another couple of butterfly enthusiasts looking intently at the ground. They were looking at a Small Pearl Bordered Fritillary nectaring on some Bugle.

     Small Pearl Bordered Fritillary showing the diagnostic black lines and numerous
silvery white spots on the underwing

There was some concern as to whether it was a Small Pearl or just a Pearl Bordered Fritillary but once we saw the underwing pattern we could discern the diagnostic features that showed it was a Small Pearl Bordered Fritillary. It flew, with a different, stronger, more prolonged and gliding flight than the fluttering Marsh Fritillaries, and was joined by another. 

A Nightingale started to sing from the dense bushes beyond at that very moment and the sun shone on and on, radiating that strong white light that makes the afternoon drowsy, almost timeless, with heat.

This was not heaven but it was close to how I would imagine it to be.

Butterflies seen

Marsh Fritillary 25+
Small Pearl Bordered Fritillary 2
Small Copper 2
Brimstone 5+
Small White 2

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