Monday 3 June 2019

The Handsome Adonis 2nd June 2019

Today's weather was predicted to be a variable affair of alternating cloudy and  sunny spells but with a warm humid airflow making it pleasant to be out. I took a chance and headed for Aston Rowant NNR to look for Adonis Blues which should be flying at this time of the year.

From the car park at Aston Rowant I made my way through the small wood  and out into the open downland and onto the track leading across the top of the steep chalk slope where the blues were to be found. It is a beautiful place of waving grasses and short turf, crossed by occasional narrow tracks, created by the sheep that are grazed here in winter to keep the turf short, thus allowing the downland flora to thrive in the summer.

Unfortunately a supreme example of official vandalism resulted in a great gash being carved through this lovely countryside some years ago to facilitate the construction of the M40 Motorway which now bisects the reserve. Consequently one has no choice but to put up with the constant noise of traffic passing north and south on the Motorway but after a while it becomes less intrusive on the ears and with more than a bit of imagination reminiscent of waves breaking on the shore. 

If that were not enough to put up with, Oxfordshire is now being blighted with HS2, destroying everything in its hugely destructive and mind bendingly over budget path, and for what? Twenty minutes cut off a journey time? Yet more officially sanctioned stupidity has surfaced more recently to threaten the Oxfordshire landscape, as an express way for motor traffic is proposed to run from Oxford to Cambridge through yet more of the county's untouched countryside and in the process destroying more prime butterfly habitat. It has to stop, it really has.


The downland today was, as if  it was a grounded stellar firmament, comprising of thousands of bright yellow flowers, Rock Roses, clustered in constellations as far as the eye could see, each tiny plant with a short thread thin stem supporting a delicate flower head, bending to the strong breeze blowing up the slope and through the taller grasses.

Rock Roses in profusion
Horseshoe Vetch was also here, the Adonis Blue's foodplant, its deeper yellow flowers growing discreetly in thick clusters and only just outnumbered by the rock roses.

I left the main track and partially descended the slope at an angle and it was not long before I encountered a female Common Blue, wings spread to receive warmth from the currently non existent sun as the day went through one of its periodic cloudy spells. This female was not the usual uniform brown but had much blue in her wings, making her rather attractive and exceptional to look at.

Aberrant female Common Blue
Soon afterwards an absolute brilliance of blue shone from the dull green turf as a previously hidden male Adonis Blue opened its wings to similarly garner whatever warmth it could to its body. I sat for a while and looking around I could see other males, their wings shining like blue bright shards, betraying them amongst the green turf and yellow flowers.

The sheer beauty of this native butterfly is a marvel. One's eye seems drawn irresistably to the electric blue of its upper wing surfaces, which shine vividly, looking  at times almost metallic, as the butterfly creates angles progressing over a flowerhead. 

As soon as the sun came out a procession of males hustled busily across the downland as they inspected the slope, searching for an unmated female. They flew low and fairly fast across the ground but if they rose more than a few inches the strong breeze took them away up the slope whilst others settled to cling determinedly to flower heads,wings firmly closed as the periodic strong gusts of wind threatened to shake them from their resting place. Resolutely they clung on until each gust faded then took wing again. 

Upperwings of male Adonis Blue
Upperwings of female Adonis Blue

Underwing pattern of Adonis Blue
Many of the males had seen better days and their wings had become frayed and torn. One had a great chunk missing from a wing but even so he was determined to try his luck with an equally ragged female.

Adonis Blue male that has seen better days on Horseshoe Vetch

Male Adonis Blue trying it on with a ragged and unreceptive female
Many Common Blues were also on the wing, the males looking similar to the male Adonis Blue but usually the sheer brilliance of blue on the latter's wings was enough to identify it even from a distance, but not always.

Male Adonis Blue nectaring on Horseshoe Vetch
The Adonis Blue has always been a scarce butterfly and is restricted to the southern half  of England with Oxfordshire and the Cotswolds being about as far north as they are found. They like steep, south facing, unfertilised and grazed chalk slopes which is exactly what is available at Aston Rowant NNR, straddling the Buckinghamshire/Oxfordshire border.

Adonis Blue colonies are small, close knit and insular and the butterfly finds it difficult to expand with even a large hedgeline acting as a deterrent to a colony expanding. The national population reached a nadir in the late 1970's as the downland sward reverted to taller unsuitable vegetation due to the virtual elimination by mxymatosis of rabbits which grazed the sward. The mid 1980's saw a gradual return in numbers as both the rabbit population recovered and suitable habitat was created and artificially maintained for the Adonis Blue by various nature conservation bodies. The warming of temperatures in Britain has also helped. 

Tiny but pristine Brown Argus whizzed around also, so small it was impossible to follow their progress for long, as they merged and were finally lost to sight in the breeze swept grasses. Occasionally I would come across one sunning itself on a flower head or blade of grass  whilst others whirled about, virtually at ground level. By standing still I would sometimes get lucky and one would  settle close to me.

Brown Argus
I walked back through the yellow rock roses feeling the warmth of the earth radiating from the slope as the male Adonis Blues continued their quest for a female. Soon it will be all over for these individuals but another generation of Adonis Blues will hatch and fly in August.

Something well worth waiting for and to look forward to.

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