Thursday 18 June 2020

Struggling with the Blues at Daneway 14th June 2020

I usually try to make an annual trip to Daneway Banks which is situated in the so called Golden Valley near Stroud in Gloucestershire in order to see the very rare Large Blue butterfly. Today  was sunny as I left home but on getting to Cirencester the cloud was sliding inexorably across, restricting the sun to just brief periods. I remained optimistic as the cloud cover was light and patchy but it would be a struggle to find any butterflies if it got any thicker. 

I arrived at Daneway at just after 8am, parking the car in the tiny layby that takes about four cars and was surprised to see there was only one space left so early in the day. The Daneway pub opposite has a large car park but unfortunately they do not allow you to park there unless you use the pub.

It was mild, almost humid when I left the car and made the very steep but thankfully short walk up the road to the entrance gate to Daneway Banks.The sun was non existent but hopefully it would break through the cloud, if only for short periods. The reserve is specially tended to  allow the Large Blue butterfly to thrive, consisting of limestone grassland with numerous anthills on extensive steep slopes although there are more level areas to examine as well.

From past experience I have found it more productive to leave the level main track and ascend some way up the banks, almost to the limit of the slope where it adjoins  woodland. This area is also often overlooked by other enthusiasts, so you are left to yourself but of necessity you have to find your own Large Blue rather than rely on others to find one.

It was currently dull and cloudy with the occasional briefest hint of sunshine before the cloud rolled over again. There were butterflies flying, mainly Marbled Whites and Meadow Browns but their flight was spasmodic and many were settled in the grass, awaiting some sunshine and warmth. I knew how they felt.

I found a small depression in the grass where it was slightly warmer and here were a number of Marbled Whites, 'pancaking' with wings spread wide to absorb any sun that might shine. Although often discounted due to their relative abundance and as everyone is looking for the iconic Large Blues, they are a striking and beautiful insect, the black and white patterning always an attractive, eyecatching sight. The ones I saw were all fresh and unworn so that made them even more appealing.

Marbled White
Wandering on a few paces, examining the tops of plants closely for any sign of a roosting Large Blue, an exercise that is akin to finding a needle in a haystack, unbelievably I found one, clinging to some St John's Wort, its wings firmly closed but its size and underwing patterning left me in no doubt as to what it was. 

It clung to the plant as the gusting northeast wind gently buffeted it but hung on until each gust of wind had passed. I stood and waited for it to respond to any sunshine that might come and half an hour later I was still waiting. A  stronger than usual gust of wind persuaded it to move a short distance but only to settle head down and perch with its wings firmly closed once more. 

Its wings looked a trifle worn and ragged but I would have to wait until it opened them to see how worn it was. Another fifteen minutes of waiting ensued and then a brief burst of sunshine persuaded the butterfly to flutter into some grass and open its wings to reveal it had definitely seen better days, as the wings were torn at the edges and the black markings on the upperwings were very indistinct. I had found a Large Blue but disappointingly it didn't provide a great subject for a photo and therefore the search had to continue.

The worn and ragged Large Blue
I remained at the top of the bank looking down on maybe half a dozen other enthusiasts searching for Large Blues but none seemed to be finding any. There is a small,  hardly visible track here, the kind that sheep make and at the track's edges a reasonable supply of wild thyme, the Large Blue's foodplant and on which the adult female lays her eggs. I walked gingerly along the narrow track and a Raven cronked in the distance. Instinctively I looked up just as my foot disturbed a nigh on invisible Large Blue perched on the thyme flowers. If you see a perched Large Blue or any butterfly side on it is usually not a problem to notice them but if they are facing either towards or away from you they are nigh on invisible as the closed wings appear as the thinnest of lines.

I chided myself for not being more diligent as the alarmed butterfly fluttered off and I lost sight of it. I walked back and fore checking the steep slope below me until I reached level ground but there was no sign of this or any other Large Blue, just Marbled Whites and Meadow Browns.

I got to the far end of the reserve and retraced my route, again ascending to where the mounds of thyme were located, as I knew if any Large Blue was flying there would be every chance it would end up there. I reached the desired spot where I had recently and inadvertently flushed a Large Blue and placing one foot down, another Large Blue flew up! Or was it the same one as before? Again it had been virtually invisible and I had to hope it would not fly too far away. To my great joy the butterfly flew only a short distance, a matter of a metre or so, circled around, fluttering indecisively, keeping me on tenterhooks as it selected a place to perch. Finally it pitched into a tangle of short grass stems and perched head down, for a few tantalising seconds remaining with wings partially open, then closed its wings and looked like it would not be opening them soon.

I endeavoured to take a photo of it but the grass stems were in the way and no matter how I manouevred myself I could not get a clear shot. I moved my fingers closer and closer to the insect, making no sudden movement, praying I would not cause it alarm, as I gently plucked the offending grass stems away. The butterfly remained static and I breathed a sigh of relief.

It was now a waiting game, the same as it was concerning the first one I had found. It was well camouflaged in the grass and herbs and if I had not seen it land I would never have known it was here. I stood precariously balanced on the steep slope, steep enough that if you slipped you would fall some way and maybe hurt yourself. I prepared for a wait and for twenty long minutes the butterfly perched immobile and with wings firmly closed, an inconsequential triangle of fragility. I looked up at the clouds and there was no sign of the break in them that would bring some welcome sunshine. I hung on for another fifteen minutes and felt the slightest touch of warmth on my bare arms as a glimmer of sun shone through the clouds. The Large Blue shifted its position, walking onto some thyme flowers  turning its wings to absorb the warmth and, fraction by fraction began to open its wings but not wide enough, before the sun retreated and the butterfly shut its wings once more, again perching head down.

Another long wait began, I cannot recall how long and then came another interlude of weak sun, beaming down on the two of us as the butterfly, with agonising slowness began to spread its wings once more. Please, please continue. I  willed the tiny insect to co operate and the sun to do my bidding and they did, until finally the butterfly had its wings spread. 

I discovered that it was my good fortune to have found a pristine individual and I made the most of this opportunity to photograph it as it opened its wings almost to their fullest extent.What a beauty it was, absolutely in mint condition, so probably newly hatched, maybe even this morning. It turned once more to absorb the sun and I knew it would remain here until sufficiently warmed to take flight.

I stayed with it for fifteen minutes and then waved to a couple of enthusiasts below me to attract their attention.They joined me and I pointed out the butterfly, which had now closed its wings as the sun once more disappeared. They knew what to do. Stand like I had done and wait until the sun came again.

I left them and made my way back to the car but my day was not finished.

I decided to go to Weymouth in Dorset to see a Rose coloured Starling.This was an adult male frequenting someone's back garden and, according to images I had seen, giving great close up views. It was an opportunity that was too much to resist as adult male's in their pale pink and glossy black plumage are very, very attractive and striking, putting our less colourful Common Starlings firmly in the shade.

Since May there have been increasing reports of large numbers of Rose coloured Starlings on the move, leaving their breeding areas in eastern Europe and Asia and moving west. Hundreds have been reported from Hungary, Italy and southern France and by June 6th no less than 41 had been recorded in Britain with others still arriving.The reason for this invasion is unknown but is thought to be linked to a lack of locusts on which the starling feeds. They can turn up virtually anywhere in Britain and in the most unlikely and unexpected of places, such as back gardens, usually attracted by the flocks of Common Starlings and their many juveniles, at this time of year visiting bird tables in a noisy throng. Some Rose coloured Starlings can be very wary but others are ridiculously tame. This one was the latter.

A long but pleasant drive across the southwest found me leaving the clouds behind and arriving in Weymouth in bright sunshine and blue skies. I found the small housing estate with little bother and joined three other birders standing in the road which overlooked the back garden in question. Fortunately the owners were more than friendly and had no objections to us invading their privacy although I always feel uneasy about such situations.

In fact we did not have to look directly into the small back garden as the Rose coloured Starling would either perch obligingly on the fence or in a large Ash tree and even once on the garage roof! It also fed in a cherry tree in next door's garden and for the next hour I thoroughly  enjoyed myself watching its comings and goings in the sunshine.

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