Tuesday 26 May 2020

Wood Whites in Northampton 24th May 2020

Butterflies possess a delicate and fragile beauty that makes them forever attractive. Combine this with the fact that they are, in the main, colourful and for the most part frequent unspoilt areas of habitat that are usually located in areas of great natural beauty and you can see why they prove irresistible to anyone with more than a passing interest in them.They somehow seem to recapture in our psyche an age of innocence, past times of childhood, imagined or not, that have long since vanished and the flash of colour when they open their wings cannot fail but to brighten the day.

Butterflies do not have personalities but each species is bestowed with its own behavioural characteristics that create the impression they do. Wood Whites are the smallest of our white butterflies and have a distinctive shape caused by their oval wings and long slim body. They have all white wings that show a faint shadow of grey on the undersides and both sexes possess a  smudge of black on their forewings. Wings which they only open in flight, as the minute they settle they are firmly closed. Small and creating an impression that they are as delicate as tissue they have a flight which is slow and hesitant, fluttering, almost constantly at ground level, through the stems and blades of grass.To fly a metre or so above the ground is, to a Wood White, the equivalent of taking a trip into the stratosphere and they forever dither along by the grass fringed tracks, the males looking for females to mate with, the females seeking out trefoils and vetches on which to lay their eggs.

Today, I went to meet Peter in a wood in Northamptonshire where we hoped to find Wood Whites which thrive here on a specially maintained habitat of grass verges, courtesy of The Forestry Commission.

Sadly our arrival coincided with the clouds rolling over, blown our way by a strong southwest wind. Hardly conducive to searching for butterflies. Nevertheless with the eternal optimism that is a pre requisite for any butterfly enthusiast in Britain's capricous weather we set off along the broad rides to find precisely nothing. You could hardly blame the butterflies which were no doubt hunkered down in the grass and vegetation, out of the wind and threatening rain.

Forty five minutes later after staring at countless blades of grass and flower buds, untroubled by sun, it began to rain and we sought shelter under the surrounding trees. For fifteen minutes it was very unpleasant as we stood and in my case getting increasingy chilled, wet and miserable. I had mistakenly worn shorts expecting sunshine but now the wind and rain whipped around my bare legs to add to my misery.

Looking to the heavens we could see further huge banks of ominous grey cloud but beyond was an expanding splash of blue, somewhere the sun was shining but would it come our way? We stood and waited as the blue patch with infinitesimal slowness edged towards us. Finally it was above us and with it came welcome sunshine. I felt the warmth on my skin and rejoiced as it looked like we were now in for a prolonged spell of sunny weather and our search for Wood Whites could recommence.

Expectantly we looked around for the butterflies taking to the wing but there was absolutely no sign of a butterfly apart from one Small White which disappeared into the forest.

Peter walked down a grass ride that was more sheltered from the wind and soon afterwards he hailed me with a shout that he had found a roosting Wood White, settled on a nettle leaf. 

Although complaining about the weather it had in fact, to an extent worked in our favour as it had made the butterflies lethargic and unresponsive, chilled by the cold and wind and now it would take them a little time to warm up and become active.

Wood White
We took the opportunity to photograph this oh so dainty insect as it clung to its leaf, apparently dead to the world. The warming sun soon persuaded another Wood White to take to the wing and it came on hesitant flight along the ride until it reached the roosting butterfly, whereupon it promptly landed right in front of it, head to head and the two communicated by regular rapid flicks of their wings, opening them for a fraction of a second then closing them. We presumed the roosting butterfly was a female and the other a male and the wing flicking was part of the male's courtship of the female. The wing flicking went on for a couple of minutes before the male gave up, realising its attentions were unwelcome and he moved on.

Male Wood White with wings spread molesting a female

A pair of Broad bodied Chaser dragonflies had also become active, sunning themselves on dead and broken bracken stalks. Dragonflies do not enthuse me as much as they do Peter but nonetheless they are attractively coloured insects although rather fearsome looking when examined closely.The stuff of nightmares but I have plenty of those at the moment thank you!

Broad bodied Chaser male

Broad bodied Chaser female
Slowly more Wood Whites emerged, their slow, ground hugging flight identifying them. We found others perched as well, looking transiently beautiful on blades of grass, Greater Stichwort and Tufted Vetch flowers.

These were the first brood of Wood Whites to emerge this year, there will be a second brood in July and August.

Wood Whites were the only butterfly we saw apart from a male Orange Tip which briefly settled to nectar on a vetch flower.

Orange Tip male
At around lunchtime we called it a day and it was just as well we did as an unwelcome and unpleasant heavy rain shower descended on the wood.

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