Monday 7 July 2014

Aston Rowant NNR 7th July 2014

If you are willing to tolerate the sound of constant Motorway traffic and can remain calm and untroubled by the endless stream of cars passing up and down I can recommend Aston Rowant NNR at this time of year.The chalk grassland, now in the height of summer, is a joy to behold. A profusion of native downland flora carpets steep slopes with an endless panoply of colour. One gets a sense here of what the land must have been like before it was altered by modern farming methods but at least there is, in this nature reserve, a wide area devoted to maintaining our heritage. It is just such a shame that a Motorway bisects it.

My main hope today was that the Chalk Hill Blue butterflies would be on the wing but at first I could find no evidence of them. Huge numbers of Small Skippers floated dreamily through the grasses, so much more demure than their brash cousin the Large Skipper. They were everywhere. Small Tortoiseshells basked on the sun warmed bare earth or fed on bramble flowers and countless Marbled Whites, like scraps of discarded black and white newsprint, fluttered from my advance across the verdant slopes.

Small Skipper
Marbled White
Small Tortoiseshell
Banks of Pyramidal Orchids stood in ranks, their  thickly clustered cerise pink flower heads contrasting with the yellow of the rock roses, catsears and horseshoe vetch. The occasional Bee Orchid, with a strange twisted fleshy stem and flowers that  imitate a bee stood, exotic and alien amongst the Pyramidal Orchids

Pyramidal Orchids
Bee Orchid
Great clumps of thyme, pale and pink purple rose up, round and plump as pillows in the downland sward as inumerable insects savoured the nectar of this and every other suitable flower. Butterflies were on the wing everywhere, the slopes busy with their comings and goings but especially in those areas sheltered from the strong breeze.

Sheltered banks harbouring many butterflies including Chalk Hill Blues
The main northern slope of Aston Rowant NNR
A small pale butterfly disappeared past me up the slope, blown helplessly into the distance by a gust of breeze. I walked down the slope and at last a Chalk Hill Blue rose at my feet and flew a short distance and settled to feed on the rich yellow flowers of horseshoe vetch. I followed it and quietly satisfied at my find, watched it feeding. It flew off and as is often the way I now kept encountering Chalk Hill Blues wherever I went, their spotted, pale silvery blue undersides glinting in the sunlight as they swung on the grass heads. I followed another and as it settled it opened fragile wings to reveal the exquisite sky blue colouring shading into a delicate grey that smudged the outer edges of its wings. What a beautiful creature. All were in absolutely pristine condition so presumably had only emerged very recently.

Chalk Hill Blue

I walked onwards and following the path came across a very strange gathering. Six male Chalk Hill Blues were clustered in close proximity to each other in the grass by the track.They did not appear to be doing anything much, certainly not mating as there was no female to be seen. Possibly they were attracted to something but I could see no nectar source just plain ordinary grass. I left them to it after a few minutes, none the wiser as to what they were up to.

Chalk Hill Blues indulging in mystery behaviour
Five of the six Chalk Hill Blues
I carried on upwards and around the back of the hill. Here it was quieter, the topography dulling the sound of the traffic. My quest was now to find Frog Orchids. I knew they were here somewhere but never having seen one I was taking a risk that I would recognise one when I saw it. I need not have worried. Understated and well camouflaged against the surrounding vegetation they still stood out as orchids always do by their strange and unusual  appearance. I counted around forty in just one small secluded area and was pleased to have found them without too much trouble.

Frog Orchid
Three hours of walking up and down steep slopes is tiring but one only notices it when all ambitions have been fulfilled. Mine had been fulfilled and now tiring, I turned for home, walking one last time for the sheer pleasure through the downland grasses and flowers  A Chalk Hill Blue flew past me and then settled in the grass, closing its pale wings and becoming almost invisible amongst the innumerable swaying grass stems. A suitable valedictory to yet another fulfilling day

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