Monday 26 June 2017

Buglife Bonanza 23rd-25th June 2017

Friday 23rd June

At this time of year I always give myself a break from birds and make time to concentrate on my second passion, namely butterflies.

The recent spell of decent summer weather in England has helped enormously in bringing butterflies out in good numbers, so today I headed back to Finemere Woods in Buckinghamshire, a BBOWT Reserve where a couple of weeks ago I had the good fortune to find some Black Hairstreaks.

From the road where I parked I followed the dusty track that leads through the fields to the woods, the verges now thick with the  grasses and flowers of high summer. Flowers with old country names redolent of past times, such as Meadow Sweet, St John's Wort, Lady's Bedstraw, Tufted Vetch, Rough Chervil and Milk Parsley attracting numerous Large Skippers. A Weasel, 
a tiny cylindrical body of brown and white, so swift in passing it was almost an illusion, crossed the track in a millisecond and was gone into the lush grass. 

Large Skipper-female
I came, via a metal gate, to the main ride through the woods which is only a few hundred metres long.Today it was windy and the tops of the trees were shaking in the strong wind, the leaves rustling and sighing as the gusts of air struck them and bent them to its will. It was however mild and below, in the ride, it was sheltered and calm with the sun shining down from an unpredicted blue sky

The Main Ride
Butterflies, with such short lives, were taking what advantage they could of the sun to complete their life cycle and found the more secluded, sheltered parts of the ride much to their liking. There was a profusion of that most unassuming of butterflies, Ringlets, dark brown almost featureless and perpetually inhabiting the cool grass, jinking and fluttering through the green blades and settling on areas of crushed grass to absorb the sun through their spread wings. They rarely ascend to any height preferring to remain at or near ground level, only occasionally settling on a bramble leaf a few feet above ground but soon returning to the ground to join their fellows, forever bobbing along in the grass. Meadow Browns were also out in force, mixing with the Ringlets but often flying higher, at head height  or above amongst the bushes, settling to feed on Bramble flowers or sun themselves on a leaf. They always impart a cheery demeanour, no doubt an impression gained from the bright eye markings on their upper wings which are a defensive mechanism against predators such as birds. To complete the set of grass loving butterflies inhabiting the lower levels of the ride were Marbled Whites, present in smaller numbers but the majority pristine, and emerged only recently. The intricate black and white markings on their wings as they cling to a grass stem make them so much more conspicuous and glamorous than their lowly cousins the Ringlets and Meadow Browns.


Meadow Brown

Marbled White
Small Tortoiseshell
I thought I had the wood to myself but further up the ride found another enthusiast lying prone across the track obviously photographing a butterfly or insect. On joining him I found he was photographing a Purple Hairstreak. The butterfly was, unusually, in the grass and disinclined to move for anything or any reason. On placing a finger under its legs it would walk onto it and on being returned to the grass insisted on remaining in its chosen spot on the ground. I was delighted as normally I am used to seeing these tiny butterflies flying high up in the Oak trees they favour and not almost comatose at ground level. We took its photo when its wings were closed showing the exquisite patterning of varying shades of grey on its under wings enlivened by two black centred spots of orange at the hindmost edge of the closed wing

A different Purple Hairstreak to the one above!

For me all butterflies have so much more attractive patterning to their underwings than their upperwings. Eventually the hairstreak opened its wings to reveal that it had seen better days and was, unfortunately, quite a tatty specimen but no matter we got some images of its purple upperwings.

We left the hairstreak in peace, still sequestered in the grass and watched as others of its kind flitted and circled above the leaves of a stand of Hazel trees, settling on a chosen green leaf and methodically walking ever so delicately across the entire leaf sipping up the aphid honeydew with their proboscis as they went, before fluttering onto another leaf to repeat the process. 

Purple Hairstreaks
Standing in the ride we were confronted by a large butterfly flying low and powerfully up the ride towards us at some speed. It had to be and it was. His Imperial Majesty, a male Purple Emperor, just now descended from the trees to grant a brief audience. He settled for a moment but was fidgety and not at ease, searching for a spot that contained the minerals and salts he desired but there did not seem to be anywhere to his satisfaction and after an all too short spell on the ground he swooped up into the Oak treetops and was gone. What can one say about this butterfly that has not already been said? The ultimate in Britain's butterflies, thrilling, enigmatic, charismatic, frustratingly elusive and always leaving you wanting more.

Purple Emperor
My fellow enthusiast departed and I walked on in the hope of another visitation from a Purple Emperor. At the end of the ride in a small circular area of open grass completely surrounded by Oak and Sallow two males were looking for females, gliding majestically in and out of the pale grey green Sallow leaves, around and around, in a slow but powerful and effortless flight. One eventually perched for a minute or so, high up on a sunlit leaf before resuming his quest.

Purple Emperor
Silver Washed Fritillaries had also passed up and down the ride but most were disinclined to settle, forever seeking something of which I was unaware. A courting pair flew around each other in a complicated whirligig dance along the ride for minutes on end, each butterfly fluttering in close harmony and proximity to the other but again they failed to settle. A couple of males disputed the rights to a head of Bramble flowers but intolerant of the other's presence soon departed in opposite directions

Silver washed Fritillaries-males
White Admirals, scarce and always thrilling to see, glided at some height through the dappled light and shade amongst the Oaks, as ever their ethereal flight enchanting and forever graceful. With no more than an occasional flick they would sail on flat open wings hither and thither, often appearing over the top of a high Oak to glide down in a graceful spiral, like a falling leaf, taking a matter of seconds to reach almost ground level before ascending to disappear  through the branches at the top of the tree, only to return seconds later. Flying this way, at the height they do, can often get them confused with Purple Emperors but to me their flight is even more graceful, more manoueverable, with more prolonged glides than the Emperor.

Occasionally one would remain lower, cruising over the grass and brambles before coming to a brief fluttering stop on a Bramble flower or leaf and spreading dark brown wings wide to display a white diagonal stripe across each wing

White Admirals
I walked further up the ride and disturbed several Commas, their ginger wings, ragged edged like pieces of a jigsaw, then a larger similarly ginger coloured butterfly flew towards me up the ride and settled on the sun warmed track where it was mainly free of grass. It was a female Silver washed Fritillary.

Silver washed Fritillary-female

Saturday 24th June

Saturday and my wife was exhibiting this weekend at a small craft show in a barn at the delightfully named Potato Town, which is not a town at all but a microdot of buildings on the road to Banbury. My main interest was in the country garden surrounding the barn as on an ornamental willow in the garden were up to eight Puss Moth caterpillars.

The caterpillars are fascinating as over a period of thirty days they rapidly grow from a small black almost invisible caterpillar into a fleshy green monster with a forked tail.When almost mature they are bright green with a black saddle outlined in white and their head is contained in folds of green outlined in rose pink. When the caterpillar is disturbed it adopts a defensive position where it retracts its head into the fleshy green and pink folds and rears up with the head presented as if enlarged, square and pink while the forked tail is simultaneously raised. It maintains this position until it is satisfied the danger is past and then resumes a more normal appearance. They are remarkably well camouflaged, clinging tightly with their claspers to the thin shoots of the willow bush and in the strong wind buffeting the bush today were completely unphased by the constant motion as they were swung about violently on the shoots they clung to

The caterpillars on this particular bush were of varying sizes from very small to almost their maximum size of three inches, so presumably they were from eggs laid at different times. A pleasant half an hour was spent seeing how many I could find secreted in the bush. I found eight but probably there were more.

Puss Moth Caterpillar

Sunday 25th June

I had signed up for a guided butterfly walk today to Strawberry Bank and Daneway Bank, both reserves managed by Gloucester Wildlife Trust. I had been to Daneway Bank before but Strawberry Bank was new to me.

The weather as I arrived in the rural village of Oakridge was not encouraging, in fact it was downright depressing with a fine drizzle and low cloud as I met up with a dozen or so fellow enthusiasts come to see Strawberry Bank which lies below the village and is part of a series of very steep sloping meadows accessed from the village by footpaths.

Undeterred by the weather we headed down the footpath and as we did the sun broke through, blue sky was visible and matters became much more pleasant. The aim here was to see Marsh Fritillaries but I thought we were a bit late for this and it turned out I was right. No matter, at least I now knew of a place not an hour from my home where I could see Marsh Fritillaries next year. Marbled Whites were everywhere, and as at Finemere most were pristine and obviously just hatched out. Is there any finer or more attractive image than a Marbled White, an intricacy of black and white perched on the cerise purple head of a Greater Knapweed?

The best butterfly we found was an immaculate male Small Blue, clinging to a grass blade before finally being blown away by the strongly gusting wind. So tiny and delicate, this the smallest of the blues is the least colourful but on close examination it is still exquisite. They are an unadventurous insect, the small colonies of usually less than thirty individuals often restrict themselves to less than two hundred square metres of habitat. It has the widest distribution of any blue butterfly, colonies being found from northernmost Scotland right down to southern England but conversely it is rare and local in every region it inhabits

Small Blue-male
Now in full sunshine we moved on a few miles by car to Daneway Banks, a reserve specially created for the re-introduction of the Large Blue with the first specimens coming from Sweden, and I am delighted to say it has been very successful and the Large Blue is thriving here. I visited Daneway two years ago and had great success in finding the Large Blues, so I was looking forward to re-living the experience but first we had lunch in the Daneway Pub garden, right by the reserve and itself not unpleasant, before heading up the hill to the reserve entrance.

Daneway Banks and part of our butterfly group
Steve, the leader of our walk had brought some pheremones to attract clearwing moths and once on the reserve and when the sun came out hung up a tiny white sack containing pheremones to attract Six belted Clearwings. Five minutes had barely passed before three males arrived. An almost instant result. They are tiny moths, with a wing span of 19-24mm and have a thin wasp like black body with six yellow rings and as the name implies wings that are clear of any markings.There are also two noticeable tufts of yellow, one on each side of the end of its body. They are nationally scarce and for me were a new and most welcome insect to encounter as normally they are extremely hard to find let alone see, hiding as they do in their food plants, Horseshoe and Kidney Vetch. Pheremones are a new and innovative way of attracting male moths of difficult species such as this into the open.

Six belted Clearwing
Daneway Banks was recently in the news for all the wrong reasons when a notorious butterfly collector was observed with a butterfly net trapping Large Blues on the reserve in June 2015 and when police raided his home they found at least one specimen of a Large Blue from Daneway Bank. He was found guilty and given a six month suspended sentence this year and it was the first ever prosecution of its type and therefore made headline news in the media.

Today the only people present were genuine enthusiasts armed with nothing more than cameras. It did not take too long to encounter a Large Blue and we clustered around this rare and protected insect to admire it as it fed. Although it is called 'Large Blue' it is in fact only slightly larger than a Chalkhill Blue and the blue of the upperwings is not as bright as on other blues possessing a unique steely grey tinge to it with black markings, as if someone has scattered ink spots, on the forewings and when they fly they look dark against the green grass, purple orchids and the yellows of the catsears and vetch.

Large Blues
The reserve is quite extensive and wandering around its slopes we found six or seven Large Blues with many, due to the cloudy conditions, unwilling to fly which was a bonus as they then sat still for the camera. In hot sunny weather they are energised and become far more active and difficult to pin down. We watched one perched on an orchid with wings folded under a temporarily cloudy sky.

The sun slowly filtered through the cloud, the air became warmer, the butterfly gently, tantalisingly partially opened its wings and as the sun came through, spread them wide and took to the air.