Monday, 7 August 2017

6th August - Shipton Bellinger & Broughton Down, Hampshire

Today was all about butterflies, and hopefully, a couple that I had not seen before.  The destination to start with was Shipton Bellinger, a village on the Hampshire and Wiltshire border with and area that is not a managed nature reserve, but is known as the best place to find Brown Hairstreak, a butterfly that has passed me by, but hopefully today I will finally see one.

Parking in the car park on the edge of the village and headed west along a bridleway, which then split into a path that was lined by hawthorn bushes.  There was a little rain about under overcast skies, but all around there were signs of blue sky about and while the forecast was for heavy showers later in the day the hope was that there would be sufficient sunshine to bring the butterflies out.  It was quite early at 8.30, but the idea was to be in place for when the sun came out, and not missing anything

The first butterfly to show though, was in the rain and was no surprise it was a Meadow Brown, fluttering past me and settling in the grass.

There are several identified places where you have a good chance of finding the Brown Hairstreak, the first was a line of ash trees, and an open field, but with it still quite overcast and cool I decided to head on, passing the next place a small triangle of hawthorn scrub beneath an ash tree.  I was heading for a long line of scrub that was at the back of a field that looked like if the sun came out would be good for butterflies.  Right now though it was still cloudy but was beginning to warm up.  The line of bramble and hawthorn looked like this.

Walking along it, and realised I must be in the right place as there were areas where the grass had been trodden down, probably in an effort to get close to something.  However in some of the other areas there was dog mess which was not very pleasant.

Stopping to check the Meadow Browns that were the commonest butterfly about at this time I noticed this Red Admiral warming up close by.

With the Meadow Browns were also a few smaller brown butterflies that would get you thinking it was the one, only for it to turn out to be a Gatekeeper.

The clouds were breaking up, and when the sun finally came through it would set off the butterflies.  With the Meadow Browns on the bramble flowers as I walked through the longer grass I disturbed a very small butterfly, which settled on the low flowers in the grass, and thankfully opened its wings to reveal a Brown Argus.

Walking up and down the edge of the field there were now plenty of butterflies about, a male Common Blue was the next to appear.

There were plenty of Red Admirals about, flying around defending territory, and alos nectaring on the many bramble flowers.

The bramble is always a big attraction to the butterflies and it was no surprise to find a Speckled Wood spread out on a leaf.

Two Commas too were present again the bramble flowers the attraction.

The sun now out, and the time 9.45, a flash of orange and black, taking off from the grass caught my eye, the butterfly was small, and flew in the characteristic fluttering flight of an hairstreak.  I watched as flew to the bushes, and was thankful as it settled at a good height and in view.  As I walked up to it I was in no doubt it was what I was hoping for, a Brown Hairstreak.

This is a female, and unusually the female in this species is probably the more beautiful, with forewings that contain large orange patches on the upper side, and a lovely orange brown on the exposed underwing.  The female was once considered to be a separate species and known as the "Golden Hairstreak".

It sat quite at ease, and allowed a very close approach, and some lovely photographic opportunities.

This is the largest hairstreak found in the British Isles. It is a local species that lives in self-contained colonies that breed in the same area year after year. This species can also prove elusive, since it spends much of its time resting and basking high up in tall shrubs and trees. Mid morning is considered the best time to see them when they come down to nectar on the popular bramble flowers.

There is one generation each year, this is one of the latest species to emerge in the British Isles, with adults first seen on the wing in late July or early August, and can be seen into September.

The males are the more-elusive of the two sexes, congregating high on ash "master trees" that are positioned around the breeding area, where they feed on honeydew.  Females also spend their time on the master trees until the eggs have matured and they are ready to lay. They then disperse and alternate between basking in the warm sunshine, feeding from nectar sources, and egg-laying. Egg-laying sites are typically in sheltered areas at the edges of woodland or hedgerows where younger growth that is south-facing is favoured, which is exactly the habitat this one was now sitting in.  The foodplant is typically Blackthorn, and she will crawl among the branches of the foodplant, feeling the branches for appropriate sites, when egg-laying.

There are so many pictures you can take of this beautiful butterfly so we wandered away, and found a confiding Holly Blue.  There had been several about but this one was the first to allow approach and the chance to photograph it.  Not long after this picture the hover fly buzzed it and it was gone.

Fortunately, it settled again, not being able to resist the bramble flowers.

At the far end of the line of trees there was a large butterfly circling the bushes, finally settling on the bramble again and turning out to be a faded and tatty Silver-washed Fritillary.

Coming back again in the grass another lovely Brown Argus, probably just emerged.

Easily identified from the other Blues due to the fact that they could be seen high up around the trees, there were many Holly Blues about.  This one though was very obliging, opening it wings, something that that they rarely do, this being the first time I have captured this.

Red Admirals continued to patrol the area, holding their territories, but also settling at times to warm up.

All three whites were seen, as was a very elusive Small Copper.  There were also a lot of Brimstones about, but interestingly only females.  After the first Brimstones of the year, back in the spring , that just speed past you never stopping the second broods seem more inclined to sit about.  This female allowed me to get very close.

There were more sightings of Brown Hairstreaks, but these were frustratingly flight views high around the trees.  We would follow them, but they seemed to avoid settling in good view.  Finally one did come down and land on a bush that was accessible, and even better it was a male.

This is a warmth-loving butterfly, and is rarely seen on overcast days. On sunny days the adults will rest with wings open, absorbing the sun's rays on their dark brown wings which gradually close as they warm up.  Today though was a mixture of both, and we had to be content with closed wing views.

The male doesn't have the vibrant bright orange of the female.

One of the many butterfly hunters present then pointed out a Hornet Mimic Hoverfly.

At almost 2cm long the Hornet Mimic Hoverfly, which is also known as the Belted Hoverfly, is the largest in Britain. As its name suggests, this fly is an excellent mimic of the Hornet but is harmless. Only a very rare visitor to the country up to the 1940s, in recent years it has become more common in southern England and is still spreading northwards, perhaps as a result of the warmer climate.

Then another female Brown Hairstreak was found, and this was even more confiding than the first, sitting calmly on a leaf in a very accessible place.

Quite a crowd had now gathered, and this female was providing plenty of excellent photo opportunities

Different angles, with some lovely backgrounds

I then scrambled through the scrub to get a front on view.

A truly beautiful little butterfly with much to appreciate from the front view as well as the under wing, so glad that finally I had managed to catch up with it.

With rain threatening it was time to move on and call time on the Hairstreaks.  Walking back the rain came down, and it was a rush to get to the car.  Away in the distance thunder rumbled, and the hope was that in driving to the next destination was not going to be where the storms were.

The next place was to be Broughton Down, the target here, Silver-spotted Skipper, another late emerging butterfly that in the past due to summer holidays I had not managed to see.  Arriving the sun was out, and after lunch set off through the woods and up on to the down.  The path made its way along side a field where poppies lined the edge of the wheat.

The clouds bubbling up all around sent dark shadows across the fields of wheat.

From the woodland the path headed down and out into the open downland.  Flowers were everywhere.  Brimstones and Small Whites seemed to be everywhere, and unlike Shipton there were even numbers of both male and female Brimstones.  The light purple Scabious flower heads were an attraction to the Six-spot Burnet moths 

They seemed to be on every Scabius flower head.

As well as the Silver-spotted Skipper, the other target here was the Chalkhill Blue, a downland specialist, I had seen several Common Blues as I walked across the down, but finally found a Chalkhill, their paler blue colouring easy to pick from the deeper blue of the Common Blue, once again the scabius was the attraction.

Often seen in bright sunshine in their many, today despite the sunshine they were hard to track down.  Their numbers should peak at the end of July, early August, but this year as has been the case with many of the butterflies in Hampshire they have probably emerged early, and their numbers are now on the wane.

This is a male, being a pale sky blue, while the females are a chocolate brown. I wasn't able to find any females.  The adults use a variety of nectar sources, and the males will also visit, often in some numbers, moist earth or animal droppings to gather salts and minerals. 

The distribution of this butterfly follows the distribution of Horseshoe Vetch which, in turn, follows the geography of chalk and limestone grassland. This butterfly is therefore restricted to England, south east of a line running from West Gloucestershire in the west and Cambridgeshire in the east.

It lives in discrete colonies which can number hundreds, where its foodplant, Horseshoe Vetch, is found in abundance. It is also a warmth-loving butterfly, and is typically found on sheltered, south-facing hillsides, again exactly where I found this one.

I found myself walking slowly through the grass, carefully avoiding the scabius and stemless Thistles that covered the grass, then an orange movement caught my eye, ad it landed on the stem of a scabius and waved in the breeze.  Here was the second new butterfly of the day, a Silver-spotted Skipper.

This is the only skipper found in the British Isles that has the distinctive white spots on the underside of the hindwings, which give the butterfly its name.  The problem here though was that in the strong breeze and the lightness of the flower stem it was constantly moving and very difficult to actually get a shot of the white spots.  I had seen them, but the camera hadn't.  This first skipper, then "skipped" off, and I had to search for more.

I found several nectaring on the stemless or dwarf thistles, and quickly realised that this was their favourite at this time, and started to check every flower.  Very soon after realising this I found another, and at last a good view of the "silver" spots on the under wing.

The thistle itself is interesting, the flower heads just appear to lie on the ground, although they do have a stem of about two centimetres, they also have the spikey leaf floret of the thistles.  They are mainly found on grazed grassland on calcareous soils

Wandering up and down this sun bathed part of the reserve, I searched for more Chalkhill Blues, and skippers without much luck.  I did though find a very worn and faded Dark-green Fritillary, that despite its condition still was able to zip about powerfully into the wind, but would also frequently rest.

A second Dark-green Fritillary was disturbed from the path, but quickly returned to sun bathe, again a rather faded individual as they come to the end of their flight period for the year.

Another flower that was spread across the open grassland at this end of the reserve was the Harebell, the light and delicate sky blue petals constantly moving as the breeze blew across the grass.

 It was now time to drop down to the bottom of the down, to check out the more sheltered area of the down.  However before walking down the hill there was time to take in the view away to the north east, and the passing storm that thankfully had missed us.

 Broughton Down is a wonderful example of chalk grassland which has a steep chalk ridge surrounded by woodland.  The reserve is managed by the Hampshire Wildlife Trust aand is also designated an SSSI.  With the sunshine out, wandering along the many trails through the grassland there was no better place on a summer's afternoon.

Heading down the hill it soon became clear that this sheltered spot was the best place to find the Silver-spotted Skippers.  This is another warmth loving butterfly, and they will seek out the warmest patches of ground to bask. Despite the north easterly aspect there was plenty of sunshine on the slope, and the butterflies here were a lot more confiding.

Like most skippers, this is a fast-flying butterfly that flies close to the ground, and was difficult to follow when it took to the air. Fortunately they were interested in nectaring this afternoon and soon could be found on a suitable flower head.

And while occupied you could get in nice and close.

The larvae food plant is Sheep's Fescue, but the adult is partial to the many different thistles, here the Stemless was dominant, or the plentiful scabious, but for this one any nectar was good.

Yet more Dark-green Fritillaries were on the wing, with several landing on the grasses.  In all I counted seven here.

Reached the bottom of the slope, and the number of skippers dropped, and finally disappeared to be replaced by the imitable Meadow Browns.  Coming up from the bottom of the slope there was a small clump of valerian with a person looking intently into it.  Getting closer a Silver-washed Fritillary was point out, but this time it was not the normal Silver-washed but the sub species "valezina".  This form occurs in a small percentage of females where the orange brown colouring is replaced with a deep olive green.

This was a rather worn specimen, but this in no way took from the beauty of the butterfly.  Apparently the famous lepidopterist, Frederick William Frohawk who was responsible for several books published on butterflies at the turn of the twentieth century was obsessed with this form, and named his daughter Valezina, after it.

It was totally obsessed with the flowers, crawling all over them, while being joined by a Brown Argus and meadow Browns.  As the wind caught its wings it showed the lovely washed green colour on the underwing.

As the Fritillary flew away it was a trek back up the slope and back to the car.  A very successful day with both targets found successfully with some excellent views, and in total 20 species seen in the day.  Now into August this will probably be the last true "butterfly day of the year", the birds are starting to move and the interest will definitely turn to them, but for now it was all about these beautiful insects.

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