Friday 28 June 2019

A White Letter Day 28th June 2019

Today promised to be the hottest day of the year so far, as a heatwave sweeps up from France to encompass the whole of Great Britain. Starved of sunshine and the opportunity to go butterflying for so long I determined that today I would go in search of another of our native hairstreak butterflies - the White Letter Hairstreak.

This hairstreak is generally accepted as being both elusive and rare. It is entirely dependent on Elm trees and since the onset of Dutch Elm Disease its numbers have crashed but it is now making a recovery as it has adapted to colonizing the elm suckers that grow from the diseased root stock until they reach the age where they too succumb to the disease. Although there is now less concern about its situation it is still a species in a worrying long term decline. A familiar and depressing story concerning most of our native butterflies

However it may not be so rare as first thought. There must be many areas of small elms that go unchecked or un-noticed and it requires a great deal of patience and determination to wait under elms to see if there is any indication of their presence. So possibly this butterfly may be more numerous than is currently thought

Elusive it certainly is, as the adult hairstreaks tend to spend most of their brief lives up in the tops of the elms imbibing honeydew from the leaves and are consequently hard to see. The tiny butterfly mates and lays its eggs in the elms and the larvae feed on the buds, flowers and leaves of the elm. Sometimes you can see the adults jinking in erratic flight above the elms as males tussle with each other. 

For those like me who wish to see one close up there is one ray of hope. They will come down to bramble flowers to nectar and this is the opportunity to see and photograph them, often just a foot or so away. A certain place at Chazey Heath, Oxfordshire is the place for me, as there a row of small elms grow on one side of a sunken lane whilst on the other side is a dense mixed hedge bestrewn with bramble. At this time of year the brambles have come into an abundance of emergent pink flowers and whiter older flowers.

The lane, elms and bramble hedge
Such a situation could almost be made for White letter Hairstreaks. It is the perfect combination for them as they can descend from on high to nectar on the bramble flowers before flying back up to the elm tops. Mind you it can often involve a considerable wait before one appears but the delay is always well worth it when finally, triumphantly, this little gem of a butterfly is found, delicately tripping about on a bramble flower, immune to the close attention of admirers such as myself.

The bramble flowers where I found the White letter Hairstreak
I arrived shortly after 1030 am, the sun already warm and bright and walking down the lane turned a corner to stand by the bramble hedge. No more than two minutes had passed before a tiny brown butterfly flickered in an erratic, spiralling flight past my shoulder and landed on a bramble leaf. Bingo! It was an almost instantaneous and very unexpected result as I found myself admiring my first White letter Hairstreak of the year. The tiny insect was disinterested in feeding but perched on the leaf, perfect in form and obviously freshly emerged. It tilted its closed wings, a tiny triangle of brown, at an angle to maximise its exposure to the sun. For a minute it remained on the leaf and then it was gone, flying over the hedge,  vanishing just as suddenly as it arrived.

I was in two states of mind now. Pleased I had at least seen one but definitely eager for more prolonged views. Half an hour passed with nothing to get my pulse racing but then another small flicker of brown, so insignificant it could just as easily be missed, indicated another hairstreak had arrived and it landed further down the hedge. I approached and like the other one it was sunning itself on a leaf but it was restless and it too departed in less than a minute.

Deflated I determined to give it another half an hour and wandered the short length of the bramble hedge checking each and every flower. Nothing. I walked back down the short length of hedge Again nothing.

I stood half way along the hedge so I could cover any hairstreak's arrival from the nearby elms  but there was no sign of one.

Then I saw it. A minute brown triangle, bringing me deep joy, for I had found a hairstreak nectaring on a bramble flower right on the edge of the hedge and at head height. Perfect for viewing and photography.  How did it slip my notice? 

It systematically covered each stamen of the flower, its tiny legs moving it, as if invisibly, across the flower. Up, down, around and under the flower, it checked every angle for nectar before walking on tiny steps to another adjacent flower on the bramble spike.

Superficially they are very similar to the Black Hairstreaks I had been watching earlier this month. It's main distinguishing feature is a black line running along the inner edge of the orange margin to the underside of the hindwing rather than the Black Hairstreak's row of black dots

Its long tails, two projecting points, one on each hind wing suggested it was a female. It fed on, uncaring about my camera lens. Occasionally bees and hoverflies, the bane of butterfly photographers tried to muscle it off its flower but the butterfly with an irritable flick of its wings sent them on their way.

It fluttered from a flower to a leaf and hung there for a minute or two, then fluttered back to a flower. 

It seemed dissatisfied with the flowers and flew onto another leaf where it systematically crossed back and fore over the leaf sucking up honeydew with its proboscis. Maybe it fancied a change of diet from bramble flower nectar. Who knows? I watched as it became still and sat content on its partly shaded leaf. More than half an hour had passed since I first encountered it.

I was reluctant to leave as these rare encounters are to be treasured but I had an appointment elsewhere.The sun was hot now but a pleasant warm breeze kept the worst of the heat in abeyance.

A wonderfully rewarding experience on this glorious summer's day

More from The Farne Islands 20th June 2019

Back on Glad Tidings Three we were ferried over the sea on the short trip to the island of Inner Farne, home to hundreds of terns and where we were to spend the afternoon. The cheery wardens greeted us on the concrete jetty and gave instructions and dire warnings to be ultra careful where we trod as the tern's nests and young were often right by the track we were to follow up onto the island.

Once disembarked we prepared to make our way along a narrow track which runs up to the chapel, the warden's accommodation and a small visitor centre in a derelict barn.

On both sides of the landing stage was an area which was home to a number of nesting Arctic Terns with small young and beyond them many terns were perched on the rocks loafing, preening or just fast asleep. Probably they were off duty terns, taking a break or birds that had failed in their breeding attempt or were yet to make one. I checked the terns for a Roseate Tern as they nest nearby, south along the coast on Coquet Island, but I could not find one, although someone had seen one earlier. I did however find a couple of second year Arctic Terns which at that age normally stay in their winter quarters and do not return north or get their full breeding plumage until the year after.

Second year Arctic Tern

Adult Arctic Tern with its chick
The minute we set foot on the track we were set upon by irate adult Arctic Terns convinced we meant their young or eggs harm and determined to deter us from going any further. It was quite a hostile welcome as the terns hovered in front of your face screaming harshly or above your head making an angry clicking noise whilst using their stiletto like blood red bills to stab the top of your head. How appropriate that their bills are red as they can draw blood if you do not have any head protection. 

These stabs were not just a cursory peck but a full on vicious assault and could be extremely painful even through the protection of whatever headwear one was wearing. Some terns even settled on a person's head, much to the amusement of others passing by, and provided great photo opportunities.

Behind you!

Mrs U modelling the latest in tern headwear
Most of the time the terns concentrated their ire on us but occasionally you would look down to find a couple of terns with their two bills locked, tussling with each other in the vegetation, neither bird prepared to give way.

Most of us had  been pre-warned about the terns and taken the precaution to bring and wear a hat of some sort but a few did not and had to suffer the painful consequences.

Everyone got the same treatment from the terns as we made our way up the narrow track, taking great care to not tread on any of the young terns, which were sometimes literally inches from our feet by the side of the track although most nests were further back, half hidden in the lush green plants and nettles that grew in some profusion.

Thankfully the tern chicks are prone to remain where they are, hiding in the vegetation until a parent arrives with a sandeel, when they emerge and run to the parent to be fed.To prevent those right by the track from running onto it and potential harm from unwary visitors, the wardens have placed chicken wire barriers around the vulnerable nest sites so the adult tern will either land inside the wire or feed the chick through the wire. The terns invariably brought a single sandeeel for their young on each feeding visit, the sliver of fish shining silver in the sunlight, clasped between the terns red mandibles.The adults, incidentally, show absolutely no fear of any human visitor and will fly right to your feet to feed their young.So you have to be careful not to tread on them either!

We ran the gauntlet of irate terns and made it to the buildings where we found an area less prone to a tern attack and watched our fellow visitors  suffer as they too made their way up the track. A constant accompaniment of screaming and clicking terns followed wherever we went. The only safe place was inside the visitor centre and it was a relief to go in there for a few minutes to  steel ourselves before risking another tern assault.

Normally you can also visit the historic chapel but the area was considered too vulnerable to allow anyone to go inside as the terns have nested right in the doorway this year. 

Despite their aggression it really was a privilege to see the terns so very close, often inches from your nose! Their delicate white and grey plumage with a sooty black cap, blood red bill and feet form an extremely attractive combination. Combine this with their slim elegant profile with long pointed wings and white outer tail streamers and they are quite beautiful and graceful, especially in flight.

Arctic Terns are very much in the majority on Inner Farne with the closely similar Common Tern present in only small numbers. I could find only one on our visit perched on the rocks with the other off duty terns.

Arctic Terns are one of the most nomadic bird species in the world migrating a phenomenal  60,000 miles a year from the Arctic to the Antarctic, spending their entire lives in virtually perpetual summer. Despite all the hazards and dangers they must encounter on such a migration and with such a lifestyle, they can still survive for a very respectable twenty five to thirty years.

Of course the tern chicks were ever popular. Small balls of greyish brown fluff spotted with dusky grey and black they stood in ones or twos, each in their own little alcove, created by the adults, in the vegetation awaiting the next arrival of a parent bringing food. Other chicks on the shore secreted themselves in crevices in the yellow lichen encrusted rocks where their mottled down made them camouflaged and inconspicuous. Most of the terns had by now hatched their eggs and some of the chicks were at the stage where they were developing their wing feathers but I did find one adult tern  still on a nest with a single egg.

Arctic Tern egg

Arctic Tern chicks
We continued up the track which was now a boardwalk and traversed the top of the island towards the lighthouse. Everywhere that there are terns so their white droppings daub the walls, rocks and the bright green lush vegetation that covers the top of the island. The lighthouse was a popular place both for the birds and for us the visitors, where many of my fellow visitors found bench seats around the white walls to sit on and have a snack or watch the never ending spectacle and individual dramas of the breeding seabirds.Life in the fast lane personified.

Just beyond the lighthouse we came to the cliff edge, roped off for our safety, these being the very same cliffs we had sailed under at the start of the day. Here there was another congregation of Puffins which needless to say proved very popular. So many people were trying to get a photograph of them that it was a bit of a scrum in the restricted area available but somehow everyone managed to remain content. The Puffins looked on with their usual bemused expression. Who could blame them?

The Puffins that were breeding here on Inner Farne were also subject to harassment by gulls but by Black headed Gulls rather than larger gulls. The gulls would lurk in a small group on the ground and set upon any Puffin that came in with fish in its beak and did not disappear down its burrow at the speed of light.

Right on the cliff edge Shags were also nesting, the adults a beautiful bottle green with each feather fringed black making them look scaly, their reptilian attitudes enhancing the likeness to miniature dragons. The young are clothed in a dull sooty brown fluff and at best can only be described as not very pretty but eventually they will get their adult feathers and be as their parents.

Razorbills were also here. My particular favourite. Two in particular sat in silent harmony on a precarious sun bleached shelf of rock, calmness personified amongst a chaos of sound and activity, emanating from the breeding birds all around them. Their plumage in the sun was made contrasting black and white so they looked like they were in evening dress. One delicately nibbled the other's head feathers in affection, a re-assurance of the pair bond, before they both settled back into quiet contentment. Whisper it but they almost looked smug, as if they were a cut above the racket coming from the common rabble of seabirds all around.

Towards the end of our visit I began to tire of taking photos of the birds and just sat on a bench with my wife and a Dutch lady and chatted about the day and our experiences.The Dutch lady had come all the way especially to see the ever popular Puffins - I told you so - and was very happy with her experience.Who could not be?

She had not brought a hat and had taken a bit of a battering from the terns on the way up so my wife lent her a spare hat which saved her a repeat of the experience when we returned to the landing stage to get back on Glad Tidings.

We duly returned to the mainland, only two or three miles across the sea and disembarked. The trip was over and now away from the crowded boat we could catch a moment of peace and space and reminisce on the day over a cup of coffee.

That evening after another superb Italian meal in Seahouses we walked the short way back to the quay and stood looking out to the Inner Farne and the lighthouse we had stood under just a few hours earlier. Over there the business of breeding and its accompanying raucous soundtrack would be continuing but it was quiet and still on the deserted quay now as the evening drew in. Everyone had gone home. All the boats were moored, empty of people and silent. The hurry and bustle of this morning on the quay was a memory, the colourful, poster daubed sheds now closed and shuttered for another day until it all commenced again tomorrow morning. 

The sea took on the gentle swell and mystery that seems to come with approaching night and the female Eiders were just silhouettes as they shepherded their young on the darkening water, while the sun set the sky on fire beyond Bamburgh Castle. 

We turned to leave.

I doubt that I will re-visit The Farnes as I have done this trip four times now and the numbers of people going to see the birds are now too much to make it totally enjoyable in my opinion but I do think this visit was the best of them and I feel that now is the time to leave it at that and move on to other things  .................