Tuesday 23 July 2019

Valezina Victorious 20th July 2019

Today I returned to Bernwood, again in search of Silver washed Fritillarys but not for the 'normal' ones but seeking the much less common form called f.valezina. Between 5-15% of the larger populations of Silver washed Fritillary  in central southern England are of this form, which is an exceedingly lovely insect and is eagerly sought after by butterfly enthusiasts such as myself and in my case, to date, with little success.

In this form there is no orange on the wings at all, which is replaced by mainly a dusky grey brown and bronze green but still with the familiar dark markings. On the lower wings there is a distinct greenish hue which from certain angles as the light catches the wings can even shine emerald or aquamarine. The fur on the thorax also has a distinct greenish hue. The underwings too show the greenish hue, often markedly and are slightly paler than normal, with a pink tinge for added delight. It is without doubt a most striking butterfly to look at and is prone to be the cause of mild celebration whenever one is found. This form is always a female, a circumstance controlled by genetics and it is most often found in central southern areas of England which includes my county of Oxfordshire amongst others.

The origin of the name valezina is unknown but the most plausible explanation so far is thought to come from a Greek verb which translated into Latin comes out as valizo meaning 'to be green like glass'. and this form has been given the alternative name of Greenish Silver-washed Fritillary. Frederick William Frohawk, a renowned lepidopterist who lived from 1861-1946 was so enchanted by this butterfly he named his only daughter Valezina.

Their comparative rarity is thought to be due to the fact they appear less attractive to males and that they also behave differently to a normal female Silver-washed Fritillary, in that they prefer to seek out the shaded edges of woodland  or even areas inside the woodland, avoiding the sun to a certain extent. This is thought to be because their dusky bodies are prone to overheating in hot sunny weather. It also, from an enthusiasts point of view, makes them harder to locate, concealed in shade and camouflaged as they are by their dark colouring in the open woodland they favour.

I have to admit that valezina's have become a bit of a bogey butterfly for me over the years. My only glimpse involved a seconds only view of one on a bramble flower before it flew deep into a wood that was inaccessible and, apart from that frustrating moment, it became a sorry tale, whereby I would miss one by minutes or other enthusiasts would tell of one seen the day before and I would go looking the day after and there would be no sign of it. Pictures on the internet of various people's minor triumphs at finding one would add to my angst and even a few days prior to this very morning, Chris, a fellow enthusiast had seen one here at Bernwood on the main track but before he could take a photo it slipped away into the wood whilst I stood just yards away. It has become something of a cause celebre for me to see one and I determined that this summer I would make a supreme effort.

I got to Bernwood at around nine thirty on a day that did not hold out great prospects weatherwise but after a dull and cloudy beginning, which deterred any other butterfly fans from putting in an appearance, the sun won its battle over the clouds and for the most part shone down uninterrupted. I stood on the main track near to the car park and watched as male Silver washed Fritillarys swooped and glided past me as they endlessly patrolled the woodland edge, while others swarmed over a large flowering bramble or visited a patch of  Betony, the striking purple red flowers conspicuous in the green grass

A male Silver-washed Fritillary on a Betony flower
It was far from unpleasant to be standing alone in the sun with a mild warm wind blowing across the track and butterflies streaming past. In fact it was a joy as days like this are all too few.

A Purple Emperor, high above me, sailed imperiously in arrogant magnificence over the tops of the oaks bordering the track and was gone in an instant whilst the delicate silvery underwings of Purple Hairstreaks betrayed their fussy meanderings amongst the dark green foliage of the oaks. An hour and more passed during which time I became aware that a couple of female Silver washed Fritillarys were flying low and enquiringly around the narrow trunks of two Sallow trees opposite me, examining them for a suitable crack in the bark in which to place an egg before moving on to find another. They fluttered around the tree trunks for a moment or two but seemed dissatisfied and moved on. 

The two Sallow trees with the woodland edge behind
Another fritillary came along the track and stopped to examine the slender trunk of one of the trees, but on the side of the trunk concealed from me. For no reason I can account for I thought it looked a little dark. Valezinas have been described as rather like a giant Ringlet (another dark brown butterfly) when flying but then I remembered that female Silver-washed Fritillarys are darker in their general overall colour than the males and dismissed thoughts of a valezina as fanciful on my part.

It was, however, worth a look, despite my doubts and so I left the track and took a few steps through the grass to the slender trunk but could see nothing. Assuming the butterfly had evaded me I was about to turn to regain the track when the same butterfly flew up from the base of the trunk and fluttered a few yards further into the dappled shade just inside the edge of the wood,  settling on a sunlit patch of dead leaves and twigs. It was so brown it was barely visible against the background of dead leaves on which it rested. From the initial angle at which  I saw the butterfly I could see no black markings on its open wings, just an overall brown. Was it an aberrant White Admiral, where the white markings are absent and which I have seen here before? Cautiously I moved closer, praying it would not move off but it remained content in the sunlight on the woodland floor. I stood behind it and there at last I could see the dark markings on its dusky wings and the green hue sometimes shining emerald or blue in the sun - f.valezina! What a moment as years of frustrated hope was finally resolved in this delightful moment of discovery.

I watched the valezina for five minutes as it sat unperturbed in the dead leaves, occasionally shuffling about to adjust its position but then it flew up and I lost sight of it against the dark background of trees as it headed deeper into the wood.  I would have liked to watch it for longer but it was not to be and though I searched around the general area, it was gone.

Let us fast forward another hour, during which I encountered only one other butterfly enthusiast but more than my fair share of dog walkers! The time was enlivened by finding a Roesel's Bush Cricket in some long grass and then another Purple Emperor glided above me and settled high up on an oak leaf. It remained for a few minutes but then as I checked my camera for a brief second, on looking back I found it had gone and I never saw it again.

Roesel's Bush Cricket
Purple Emperor
Eventually I found myself standing by a 'crossroads' of tracks where the main hardcore track was met by a grass track  just a hundred yards down from the car park. Turning onto the grass track which forms part of a signposted butterfly walk, courtesy of the Forestry Commission, I commenced to follow this pleasantly secluded  butterfly trail, enclosed by bushes and trees of high summer on either side.

Part of the Butterfly Trail at Bernwood
The margins to the track abound with wild flowers and are consequently alive with butterflies. The prominent presence of many Silver washed Fritillarys was augmented by hordes of the ever appealing bright eyed Gatekeepers, their wings flicking open to reveal the eyes on their orange splashed brown upperwings and then closing, as if they are winking at you. Feisty Large Skippers, which belie their name and are in fact very small, were also here in large numbers, zooming up from their perches low in the grass or brambles to intercept others of their kind or even the much larger fritillarys. Ringlets and Meadow Browns, those journeymen amongst the rarer more exotic  butterflies, jinked along amongst the grass or sat on sun baked bare patches of earth and a Peacock suddenly opened its wings, to startle me with four huge colourful eyes, one to each wing. If the butterfly was not so comparatively common its beauty would be far more remarked upon and marvelled at, I am sure.

Large Skipper

The Silver-washed Fritillary's were concentrating on the profusion of betony flowers growing between the track and the woodland edge and, as I passed by, their bright orange presence seemed to be everywhere, flitting from betony flower to betony flower, hardly still for more than a few seconds. 

Half way down I came across yet another patch of betony with its ever attendant fritillarys. I caste an eye over them and there, right before my unbelieving eyes was another valezina. Contrary to all that is advised about them liking shade, this one was fully in the sun though not far from the wood's edge, feeding avidly on a betony before flitting to another flower, showing no particular hurry and it even allowed me to approach to within inches of its dusky presence.

This individual was in slightly better condition than the earlier one and I stood in the sun and photographed it from every angle possible and then stood back and just admired it, again savouring the rare satisfaction of finding my very own valezina .

It was obvious it was going nowhere and appeared to like this small particular area of betony. I must have remained with it for over thirty minutes and then decided to walk to the end of the trail before coming back to watch the valezina some more.

I returned to the spot where the valezina had been and of course, on arriving, found it had gone. A slight feeling of disappointment was soon forgotten as I reminded myself that today I had certainly rectified my ongoing failure to find a valezina. I rejoined the main track and on an impulse walked to the far end of Bernwood and then walked back. On getting to the butterfly trail, my obsessive nature persuaded me to again venture along the trail in the hope that the  valezina would, by some slim chance, have returned but predictably  I was disappointed. I walked onwards to the end of the trail and turned to walk back marvelling yet again at the profusion of butterflies making the most of the sun and sheltered warmth of the track. 

As I began my return  I found two Silver washed Fritillarys mating, one of which was a valezina! There is little subtlety about the process with each insect joined end on end by their fat bodies and there they remain until the process is over. They looked very vulnerable and exposed lying in the grass and an attempt at flight was heavy and laboured. However the male persisted on seeking flower heads from which to nectar on - a bit like having a pint whilst having sex - and the female had no choice but to be dragged around until the process of mating was complete and they could separate. Procreation is the be all and end all for butterflies and with such a short time on this earth there can be no delay. The still firmly attached couple finally fell back to earth in the grass and I left them to it

I walked on and arrived to where the valezina had been about an hour ago and looked once more at the purple spikes of betony standing proud of the grass and the first butterfly I saw was a valezina! It was on top of a betony flower, sitting quietly, not feeding but quiescent, if butterflies ever are such a thing. I could hardly believe my eyes but here it was inches from me. 

Had I missed its inconspicuous presence on the way down or had it arrived in my absence?  It did not really matter. What did though was, that on closer inspection, I could see this individual was different to the other two I had seen. So now I had seen four valezinas in the space of  five hours after years of hardly seeing one at all. Consequently yet another thirty minutes passed in blissful worship of this most coveted of insects.

There is of course a point where sensory overload sets in and my senses told me that such a point had been reached, if not passed, but it was impossible to leave the valezina. The dilemna was resolved when the butterfly flew up from the flower and then around me and with a final flourish ascended up into the surrounding birches and oaks to disappear into the forest. I waited but it never reappeared.

It had been quite a day and now, hot and thirsty but absolutely elated, I finally left Bernwood Forest at three in the afternoon.What is it that they say about buses? 


  1. I think you actually saw 4 valesina's as the copulating pair look as though the female is also one! Enjoyed reading this account.

  2. Hi Billy - Yes you are right! Thank you for pointing this out.