Saturday 3 August 2019

The Last of the Hairstreaks 1st August 2019

Of the five native hairstreak species of butterfly found in Britain, the Brown Hairstreak is the latest to be on the wing, appearing  in the last few days of July and then on throughout August and into September.

They are to my mind the most attractive of the five species. The orange ground colour to their underwings with, on the hindwing, a ragged band of darker orange enclosed by irregular white lines, forming the hairstreak feature from which the second part of its name comes, is both beautiful and very appealing in its subtle yet bright patterning.

Like the other hairstreaks they are a tiny butterfly possessed of immense charm and charisma and just as elusive, which invariably brings a sense of triumph and achievement when one is located.

In Patrick Barkham's book, The Butterfly Isles, he quotes some words by Vladimir Nabokov, a serious lepidopterist as well as a talented author, which Barkham states are the perfect description of the transcendent power of butterflies and what they can do to us. Nabokov's words are as follows: 

 'And the highest enjoyment of timelessness - in a landscape selected at random - is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone. A thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern - to the contraptual genius of human fate or to tender ghosts humoring a lucky mortal'.

Today, being the first of August, seemed an appropriate time to go in search of a Brown Hairstreak and fortunately for me I know just where to go, a grass path forming a narrow corridor bisecting summer's lush, abundant and varied plant growth, enclosed by stands of blackthorn, the butterfly's foodplant and on which the eggs will be laid to hatch next year. Then the tiny green larvae will feed on the blackthorn leaves, pupate and the butterfly will emerge a year from now to complete the cycle of its life. 

I arrived at noon, a bit late possibly, finding myself alone apart from one other fellow seeker of hairstreaks. The day had become one of light cloud and sunny intervals but the temperature was agreeably warm and was even more so in the cloistered confines of the ancient bridle way on which I stood.

Great tumbling banks of bramble hung down from ragged hawthorns where the bramble tendrils had scrambled their way up through the branches of the trees and finally overstretched themselves. A profusion of white and pink bramble flowers  was attracting all sorts of butterfly and insect life, while below, cerise pink flowers of Great Willowherb and pale purple thistle heads stood proud of a sea of green bindweed leaves whilst flat white heads of Hogweed and Moon Carrot added their pungent sickly aroma to the still and sultry air.

The place was alive with Gatekeepers, constantly opening and closing their wings, flashing bright eyes at me, somehow conveying a sense of irrepressible joy and optimism. Meadow Browns, a Comma and a couple of Red Admirals joined in the feasting on the bramble flowers while small darter dragonflies formed up into squadrons to accompany me down the path and brown bush crickets, hopped from my feet, springing mightily into concealment before sidling furtively up a grass stem to reveal themselves once more.

I got talking to the other person here who was accompanied by a small terrier dog. He was from the north of England, somewhat eccentric but quite charming and over a long and rambling conversation I learned he had travelled down overnight from his home in the Peak District of Derbyshire, solely to try to see a Brown Hairstreak. He had arrived at 7am but had only seen some Brown Hairstreaks distantly, flying above their master tree, a large ash situated further down the ride, earlier this morning. He was obviously disappointed at what he had achieved so far and I relayed to him some advice based on my experiences with the Brown Hairstreaks over preceding years. This amounted to the simple fact it was a matter of persistence and luck if you wanted to see a Brown Hairstreak that was close and at something akin to eye level. For the most part they remain high in the trees but will come down sporadically to nectar on bramble flowers and thistle heads. You just have to hope you are around and in the right place when they do!

My new found colleague seemed a little disheartened at the advice I had imparted  but I told him that he should remain optimistic.There was still plenty of time to see a Brown Hairstreak and one or more should put in an appearance today. After half an hour chatting about butterflies and politely admiring pictures of butterflies on his phone that he had taken on various expeditions around Britain, I broke off the conversation as I was keen to concentrate on looking for a Brown Hairstreak. 

I walked only a few metres away and there, on top of an inconsequential and pale mauve thistle head I saw it. The sight that always thrills me. A tiny triangle of orange sat on top of a thistle head. A Brown Hairstreak!

I called to my eccentric colleague and simply said 'Here's one' and pointed at the thistle. He came running. How relaxed I sounded and so off hand, when really I wanted to shout and jump about wildly with excitement. It always takes me this way, the sheer fizzing of adrenalin on finding this elusive and wonderful insect. Even today, after years of finding them, the same electric thrill energised me as if this latest discovery was for the first time ever.

We were in luck as this individual, a female, was in absolutely pristine condition. Maybe it had just emerged from its chrysalis and was now feeding in preparation for mating and laying eggs. The brightness of its underwings indicated it was a female and this was confirmed shortly after as it slowly opened and spread its wings wide, to reveal a band of orange on each of its dark brown forewings. Normally all hairstreaks keep their wings firmly shut when feeding but today was cloudy for the most part, although muggy and warm, so I presume this butterfly was attempting to increase its body temperature by opening its wings wide to allow what sun there was to be absorbed into its furry body. 

I looked on as it probed every tiny floret on the thistle head. Moving its white legs with steps so tiny it appeared to glide. Up, over, under and around the thistle head it tripped its delicate way, a picture of concentration and thoroughness. 

We watched  it for twenty minutes before it fluttered up to settle briefly on the deep pink flowers of a Great Willowherb but dissatisfied, flew up onto a leaf and then over the surrounding blackthorn bushes and was gone.

Just like all the times before it left me wanting more. They are that kind of butterfly. 

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