Monday 23 July 2018

Silver Spotted Skippers at Aston Rowant NNR 22nd July 2018

For those who remember him, Clive James, who despite being stricken with cancer but thankfully, still with us, is a witty and erudite Australian who lives in England and writes poetry and one of his early poems entitled 'Girl on the Train' began as follows:

What did I do yesterday? Well I'll tell you in brief
Ten quid from the bank and I got out of town with relief...............

And that is precisely the sentiment I felt as another day of sun and warmth flooded into our house, the windows left wide open through the night to cool the rooms. Various, not too taxing commitments, prevented me making my escape before noon but then I was free to go and wasted no time in making for Aston Rowant National Nature Reserve to go in search of one of my absolute favourite butterflies, Silver Spotted Skippers.

They are one of the latest of our native butterflies to fly, usually appearing from mid July onwards. Tiny but feisty and with a surfeit of charisma and character, they zip around just above their beloved downland in a low level flight, always at high speed, erratically darting in various directions, their tiny presence a trial to follow amongst the downland grasses and flora. They are a stocky little butterfly with a rotund, some would call fat body, covered in greyish olive fur and with upperwings the colour of malt whisky. It is the underwings that give rise to its name as they are dull green, randomly patterned with silvery geometric shapes which can only superficially be called spots. Seen close to, their enormous black eyes give them a distinctive look, for all the world as if they are sporting sunglasses, which when you come to think of it is an appropriate analogy considering their propensity for sun worshipping.

I walked from the car park in Cowleaze Wood, the trees somnolent in the heat and across the road into the field beyond, passing some sheep taking advantage of the cool shade cast by a narrow corridor of trees and then I walked downhill and out into a delicious scented warmth that was caressing the southern slope of Bald Hill. A gentle and persistent southerly breeze blew steadily up the hill, enough to cool me and bend to its will the mauve heads of Small Scabious flowers that grew in profusion on the grassy slope. 

A time like this is to be treasured as it feels like I have waited the whole year for these few precious hours which will be over all too soon and may not be repeated until another year has passed. So transitory is it that I feel I must absorb every minute and make the most of the fragile beauty surrounding me.

The whole slope brings a riot of colour as the rich downland flora is now at its zenith, as pink Marjoram, white Burnet Saxifrage, pale mauve Small Scabious, cerise pink Greater Knapweed and Dwarf Thistle, pale blue Harebell, the weird and wonderful, straw white and orange-brown centred Carline Thistle, purple clumps of Wild Thyme, pink and white Rest Harrow and yellow Horseshoe Vetch and Lady's Bedstraw, compete for space amongst the waving grass stems, growing tall above the parched downland sward. 

Burnet Saxifrage

Carline Thistle

Lady's Bedstraw


Dwarf Thistle

Rest Harrow
Small Scabious
Greater Knapweed

The sun baked, dry chalk of the slope provides the ideal habitat for Silver Spotted Skippers, that love nothing better than to bask their furry bodies in the full sun or perch on a scabious head waiting to intercept any passing female.

Silver spotted Skipper
I love to try and watch the males intercepting not only females but almost any insect of similar size that flies near to them, hurtling after a perceived intruder in a wild, brief, careering and crazed flight. Initially I experienced much difficulty in locating and following them, flying as they do at such speed or sitting so well camouflaged near to the ground. 

They are so small, tiny even, and their erratic flight in one so small requires a deal of concentration to follow and ascertain where they land. Many times I failed. Occasionally, I did manage to find one perched on a flower head but frustration usually followed as, no sooner than I moved closer and got ready to take its picture, than it took umbrage and was gone in the blink of an eye, spooked by me or intent on pursuing another insect that had attracted its attention.

I followed a narrow sheep track running laterally across the upper slope and came to an area slightly sheltered from the breeze and here seemed to be a hotspot for Silver Spotted Skippers and gradually I became better attuned to their antics, so that I was able to see and follow them flying about, although they still appeared as no more than minute dark specks against the summer grasses. 

Eventually I became competent enough to follow one and see it land and my luck changed as this individual decided to remain perched for more than a few seconds and I was able to get some pictures of it. Even more remarkably it opened its wings to allow me to photo its upper wing surfaces. 

And so I resolved to stand here and allow the skippers and any other butterflies to come to me. It was far from unpleasant as I looked over and down the steep slope to the flat bottom of the valley, where each April the Ring Ouzels come, to rest and hide in the junipers for a few days, before continuing their northward migration. Beyond, the opposite hillside was wooded, deep dark green and mysterious, the bright sunlight causing great shadows to fall across the ground from under the trees. To my right the Vale of Oxfordshire stretched away in all directions into an infinity of fields and hedgerows, the horizon lost in a blue haze of distance. 

Bald Hill and The Vale of Oxfordshire
I was totally alone in a landscape that was soporific in the heat of the day and for a few minutes I transcended my surroundings and entered another world of imagination and fantasy. The distant bleating of sheep on the opposite hillside, the warmth of sun with the breeze blowing on my face and the multi coloured pageant of this special place transported me to another time. In my head some words from Thomas Arnold's poem The Scholar Gypsy, based on the legend about a scholar who forsook Oxford University to roam these very slopes came to me once again. 

Screen'd is this nook o'er the high, half-reap'd field,

And here till sun down, shepherd! will I be.
Through the thick corn the scarlet poppies peep,
And round green roots and yellowing stalks I see
Pale pink convolvulus in tendrils creep;
And air-swept lindens yield
Their scent, and rustle down their perfumed showers
Of bloom on the bent grass where I am laid,
And bower me from the August sun with shade;
And the eye travels down to Oxford's towers.............

It happens every time I come here each summer and maybe the legend is true and if one is receptive the scholar gypsy comes alive within and then it is true. I would like to think so.

Coming out of my reverie I returned to admiring the comings and goings of the various butterflies passing all around me. Most noticeable was the abundance of Chalk Hill Blues, another downland specialist and this afternoon very much in evidence, as the males, the palest of blue with charcoal grey bordering their wings  fluttered along, low to the ground, settling on flowers and grass stems.

Male Chalk Hill Blues on a Carline Thistle

Male Chalk Hill Blues
I found a female, brown and dull in comparison to the male and much scarcer but with a lovely gingerish wash and irregular spotting on her underwings and as I did, so did around seven males, which clustered around her in a frenzy of ardour but she was not interested in mating and after five or so minutes of buffeting her relentlessly the males got the message and dispersed.

Female Chalk Hill Blue

Amorous male Chalk Hill Blues courting a female
Dark Green Fritillarys, big and powerful, hurtled past, seeming enormous after I have become familiarised to following the tiny Silver spotted Skippers. All were nearing the end of their time on earth, dull and worn, their wings frayed and battered from burrowing  into the unforgiving spiky short grass to lay their eggs on the leaves of violets hidden beneath

A very worn Dark Green Fritillary
Then another much brighter orange fritillary of similar size, rocketed past. It was a Silver washed Fritillary and was gone in a flash up the slope. Meadow Browns and Gatekeepers lolloped through the grass, jinking on dull brown wings, then settled to wink bright eyes on flirting wings at me. Marbled Whites were here too, their black and white patterning always attractive and as ever bringing a pulse of excitement. Two more tiny butterflies passed before me, flying almost at ground level and on settling they revealed themselves to be a Brown Argus and a Small Skipper and so it went on, a constant procession passing or flying around me, allowing never a dull moment on this quintessential summer's day.

I did not want it to end but it had to and did as, gently, the lightest of cloud cover slid between me and the sun as if enacting the final curtain call on a performance and in the diffused sunlight the butterflies subsided into stillness as the breeze dropped to a whisper through the grass. 

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Saturday 21 July 2018

Ruffs at Titchwell 20th July 2018

Despite failing in my objective to see a rare Lesser Yellowlegs at the RSPB's famous reserve at Titchwell in North Norfolk today, there was still plenty to see and so I spent a few happy hours watching the abundant birdlife on the Freshmarsh at Titchwell.

At this time of year many waders are returning from their northern breeding grounds, some having been successful others not so and they congregate on marshes such as at Titchwell to idle away their time in the long, pleasantly indolent days of late summer, the urgency to procreate having subsided for another year. 

Avocets were present in large numbers, there must have been getting on for four hundred and fifty, and the majority having finished breeding were now congregated on a dry scrape, squatting on the warm ground, their wings dropped to the sides of their bodies exposing their backs to the sun, a  relaxed, concentrated mass of black and white, highlighted by the bright light of another sunny morning. 

Recently fledged juvenile birds, distinguishable by brown rather than black feathering on head and wings, patrolled the mud in one wet corner, sweeping the bent part of their bill through the water overlying the mud in a rapid scything motion to catch any items of prey they might find and managing to maintain an innate elegance even when their long legs were sinking ankle deep in the liquid mud.

Two pairs of adult Avocets, however, were still attending small young which never ventured too far from the reeds surrounding a corner of the Freshmarsh. One of these pairs had two chicks, bundles of precocious grey fluff which were only lately hatched and were wandering around feeding, copying in miniature their parents. They were zealously guarded  by their ever attentive, restless parents which flew at any bird, gull or wader, that  they considered came too near to their offspring, driving off the intruder by means of aerobatic swoops and loud cries. Such a contrast in demeanour to the mass of their fellows, idly whiling away the hours on the scrape. The constant aggression of the Avocet parents had created a no go zone of some fifty metres around the area their young were frequenting and woe betide any bird that trespassed into it. The parents had good reason to be so anxious and aggressive as both Greater and Lesser Black backed Gulls were present nearby on the Freshmarsh and given the slightest opportunity to do so would show no hesitation in seizing and gobbling down a chick. 

Juvenile Avocet
Black tailed Godwits, another wader of some grace, maybe it is due to the long legs and long bills of such species, were also here in good numbers, either feeding, or, unlike the Avocets on the scrape, preferring to stand quietly on their long legs in the shallow water. Those intent on feeding, probed their long bills with a vigorous drilling motion into the mud, the sensitive tips to their mandibles seeking to locate submerged prey. 

Adult female (left) and male Black tailed Godwit (right) of race L.l.islandica
Note the larger size of the female compared to the male

Adult male Black tailed Godwit of race L. l. islandica
There were maybe a couple of hundred godwits present, many still in their brick orange breeding plumage and showing characters of the race islandica that mainly breed in Iceland with smaller populations in The Faeroes and even The Shetlands. Subsequent to breeding many choose to winter in Britain. However one bird, already in its complete grey winter plumage with an enormously long bill, fed on its own and looked much larger than any of the others. Some in the hide considered this bird to be of the race limosa which is much rarer here although it breeds in Britain in very small numbers, and also on mainland west and central Europe eastwards to Russia and central Asia. Personally I was circumspect as I do not have much experience in comparing the two races and also it has to be borne in mind that female islandica are larger than male islandica but this individual did indeed look larger compared to all the others and its bill was markedly long. I learnt later that two limosa were supposedly identified a few days earlier in precisely this part of the reserve. 

Adult Black tailed Godwit of the race L.l. islandica
In amongst the throng of Black tailed Godwits I found one Bar tailed Godwit, its legs being slightly shorter, its bill long like the Black tailed Godwits but noticeably upturned towards the tip and, as its name suggests, with a very different tail pattern.

Then came a definite highlight  as four small waders, slightly larger than Dunlins, slimmer in profile and more elongated of body, their bills  longer, slightly down curved towards the tip, came into view in my scope. They waded through the shallow water, probing their bills and their foreheads deep into the water to search the submerged mud and in the process passing in front of a line of resting godwits. They were adult Curlew Sandpipers, still in a blotchy partial summer plumage of reddish orange underparts and spangled brown, buff and grey upperparts.

I also counted at least four Spotted Redshanks near them and like many of the waders here today, in a transition of plumage, so they appeared as a patchwork of black and silvery grey as they moult out of their black summer breeding plumage into their more familiar winter garb of grey and white. They have an elegance denied to a Common Redshank due to their longer and thinner bill, longer legs and less stocky build. They are also more prone to wading up to their bellies in water and occasionally will swim. 

Mediterranean Gulls were calling constantly and checking the gulls loafing on the sun baked scrapes I found at least fifty, many of which were recently fledged juveniles. They were easy to distinguish from the juvenile Black headed Gulls associating with them due to their greyer brown and markedly scalloped upperparts, slightly larger size and thicker bill. The adults were still mostly in their lovely summer plumage, appearing in the bright sunlight almost totally white, apart from their black hoods

Gingerbread coloured Bearded Tits, although, as they are not tits, preferably called Bearded Reedlings, variably streaked with black on their backs and wings and therefore all juveniles from what I could see, pinged away with their distinctive calls as they moved as a hyperactive group through the reeds. They never really came into the open but hid low in the green leaves and stems of the reeds, or if they did show themselves, it was all too briefly, perched on a reed or hopping around at the base of the reeds on small  bare areas where the water had receded. They were never really happy about leaving the sanctuary of the reeds, preferring to seek out seeds in the dark recesses at the margin of reed and mud, holding their long tails aloft for fear of getting them muddy. I must have counted at least ten but never saw an adult.

I can see you!
Juvenile Bearded Reedling
However what really gained most of my attention was the presence of over a hundred Ruff, some wading in the thick liquid mud, feeding constantly, finding I know not what but the mud made it look thoroughly unappetising. All were males and all, to a greater or lesser extent, were in that transitional stage of moult where they are partially in both summer and winter plumage. one even had vestiges of its ruff remaining The variety of colours and patterning was quite bewildering and it is rarely that I see Ruff in this transitional plumage phase or even in such numbers. Male Ruff generally outnumber females anyway and presumably these males having performed their breeding function at the leks, where males congregate for courting and mating with females, are now finished with their contribution and have left the females to care for and raise the young.

Male Ruffs in transition from summer plumage to winter
The constant activity of the birds was a joy to watch and, as happens by watching, slowly other birds came to be noticed such as a Common Sandpiper, bobbing and creeping along by a distant shoreline or  small parties of Dunlin, fussing about amongst the longer legs of the Black tailed Godwits and Avocets. An adult Little Ringed Plover appeared from nowhere and proceeded to run along by a narrow channel of water. Shelduck, Mallards, Shovelers and Teal swam further out in deeper water and six Spoonbills, for once not asleep, stood by the reeds preening in a far corner of the Freshmarsh.

A pair of Marsh Harriers flew over the populous scrapes of the Freshmarsh and immediately were mobbed by the Avocet parents with young. Their cries of alarm seemed to stimulate the entire flock of Avocets resting on the ground and all rose in a whirling mass to encircle the harriers which beat a hasty retreat.

Five minutes of massed confusion and a blizzard of birds finally resolved itself as the various factions drifted in lazy circles back to ground and settled  once more in the sunshine.

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