Thursday 23 June 2022

Black Hairstreaks Revisited 20th June 2022

I was somewhat disappointed with the results of my search for Black Hairstreaks the other day.True I had found a couple but only saw them for a few minutes before they flew back up into the tops of their favourite blackthorn bushes.

I knew of another place that I considered worth trying which is situated just over the Oxfordshire border in Buckinghamshire. Much of the land about here has been decimated by the expensive folly and vanity that is HS2 but the quiet lane I had in mind manages still, to retain a vestige of rural charm, peace and quiet while a mile up the road the countryside is being scandalously trashed in the name of progress.

The road is bordered by a hedge, containing amongst other plants, Wild Privet and, best of all, the hedge  is allowed to grow freely and not be flailed to pieces. Behind the hedge is a narrow bridleway running between the hedge and a wood of mature trees and this small, almost forgotten area is the haunt of a colony of Black Hairstreaks. Some  years they are present in good numbers but in other years not so. I had not been here for a couple of years so did not know what to expect but hope springs eternal so I went to find out.

On a pleasantly sunny afternoon, hot enough to partially melt the tar on the road, I wandered down the bridleway checking the privet blossoms which are a favourite nectar source for the hairstreaks. The  white waxy cones of flowers dispersed a sweet scent, not at all unpleasant, to linger on the air.

My initial stroll along the length of the hedge brought qualified success, as I found a Black Hairstreak but with tattered wings, the edges frayed and torn from wandering through the blackthorn. It was also well above head height, on top of some privet growing through the blackthorn and almost immediately got into a fracas with one of the many Meadow Browns also nectaring from the privet and departed into the trees. 

Getting to the end of the hedge I returned along the other side which borders the road but with no further success, until about half way along I came to a generous patch of privet and stopped. I often find it useful to halt my progress, to stand and look for a while, waiting, as often a hairstreak will eventually reveal itself, for they can at times become almost invisible when seen head on or from the rear as their wings are tissue thin. One has to wait while they move around the cone of flowers they are examining to give a side on view, when they are more likely to be discovered, appearing as a mouse brown coloured triangle.

My eyes were constantly registering the many Meadow Browns as they restlessly flitted and flickered around the flowers. They too are dull brown, although larger but can superficially look very much like a hairstreak until examined more thoroughly. After checking inumerable Meadow Browns I finally found what I was seeking. A Black Hairstreak and better still, one that was fresh, maybe even hatched this very day. It was imbibing nectar incessantly, wandering up, down and around each cone of privet flowers,  probing for nectar and once every flower in the cone had been given the once over and emptied of its nectar, the hairstreak would move onto the next and repeat the process. This is the way of Black Hairstreaks, nothing will deter them when on their quest for nectar and you can almost touch them without any response, so engrossed are they in feeding.

For half an hour I watched it feeding, delicately traversing the cone of flowers, head up, head down, a bravura balancing act as its tiny, thread thin legs gripped the flowers to hold it in position and its two antenna moved independently, like a blind person with a stick, to reconnoitre the flower's surface. A blundering Meadow Brown managed to disturb it, the two butterflies whirling up into the air in conflict before realising they were not the same species or in competition. The hairstreak went and sulked on a leaf of an overhanging tree but it was not long before it descended to nectar some more.

I became completely absorbed, transfixed, entering into the hairstreak's world and its brief life on earth  being enacted before me. I found myself wondering what constitutes a Black Hairstreak's world or any hairstreak's for that matter.What is the extent of that world, surely just a matter of a few feet of hedge leaves and privet flowers, maybe also the tree above. There is nothing beyond in their compass. This is the sum of it and for thirty minutes I joined the hairstreak in another less troublesome, less complicated universe.

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