Sunday, 1 June 2014

The Frisson of Fritillary Hunting

After my failed attempt to catch up with some Marsh Fritillaries a couple of weeks ago I've been keeping a keen eye on the weather, waiting for a good sunny day so I could have another crack at them. It says something about just how wet and miserable a May it's been that today, the 1st of June no less, was the first day when there was any decent sunshine at all since that last outing. Thus, despite the fact that it was a weekend, I negotiated a pass to see if I could make amends for my failed trip to Barbury Castle. 

Having done some more research I decided that the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust Strawberry Banks reserve in deepest darkest Gloucestershire was probably my best bet: it looked like the closest site where I could pretty much guarantee seeing some Marsh Fritillaries. What's more there was a Pear-bordered Fritillary site close by which I could stop off at afterwards to see if I could pick up a bonus Fritillary species. The forecast was for full-on sunshine in the morning though becoming partially cloudy by the afternoon. Therefore I decided to make an early start of it to get the best of the weather and left Chateau Gnome at 8:30 on the one hour journey to the site. There were some very winding, hilly and narrow country lanes to negotiate at the end of the journey though I managed to steer the Gnome mobile safely through these only to go and ruin it all by reversing a bit too close to a wall as I parked and breaking the nearside rear light case. Doh! Putting that behind me, thanks to my Google map research I knew where the footpath was and soon found myself at the bottom of the delightful Strawberry Fields reserve.

Strawberry Banks GWT Reserve
This turned out to consist of two fields of south-facing chalkhill grassland overlooking a steeply sloping wooded valley on the opposite side of a small river that could be heard chattering away at the bottom of the valley. It was still quite early, there was dew on the grass, the whole area was bathed in wonderful sunshine and I had the whole place to myself - Bliss! I stood and savoured the scene, being most struck with the wonderful variety of flowers everywhere. There were several types of orchids as well as a whole array of others that I couldn't begin to identify though they all looked unfamiliar. Sadly such habitat just isn't that common any more and one doesn't come across many of the species that are to be found in such locations. 

One of several Orchid species there - perhaps someone can ID it for me
I started to walk along the path and soon came across my first Marsh Fritillary, taking advantage of the sunshine to get started nice an early. There were quite a few of them dotted around the place and one didn't have to look too hard to find them. I busied myself trying to take photos of them though armed with only my super-zoom camera it was always difficult to get the auto focus to lock onto the insect, especially when it was raised up on the top of a flower stem. Still in the end I managed to come up with some acceptably focused shots.

Marsh Fritillaries
As well as the Marsh Fritillaries there were a few Small Heaths and Common Blues about as well as quite a few moths. I kept an eye out for the metallic green Forester Moths though sadly I didn't spot any. After all too short a time I realised that I would have to get a move on if I wanted to check out my second site and get back home in time for lunch as I'd promised my VLW. So it was back to the Gnome mobile and back onto the narrow country lanes.

The next spot was Hailey Wood, a short ten minute drive away where Pearl-bordered Fritillaries were said to be found. All I knew was that there was supposed to be a clearing of some sort just south of the sawmill though when I arrived it was not at all obvious which way to go as the road to the mill itself was all locked up. In the end I found a chap who was living in the lodge keeper's cottage there and he gave me directions whilst his two dogs barked incessantly and somewhat insanely. I muddled my way along the tracks and bridleways until I came out behind the sawmill but there was no obvious clearing. A bit more wandering around and I noticed a well-trodden path heading off to the left of the main track. I started to follow it and it was soon obvious that the trees were much more thinly spaced here and it was indeed a sort of clearing. It wasn't long before my first Pear-bordered Fritillary hurried by. Unlike the more sedate Marsh Frits, this species seemed perpetually to be in a hurry to get somewhere else and would often zoom out of sight without settling at all. Eventually I found a couple that settled long enough to get off a couple of shots before they too hurried away.

Pearl-bordered Fritillaries
The terrain consisted of bracken, tall grass and scrub and as well as the butterflies there were quite a few blue damselflies darting around as well as various moths. The area looked rather good for deer ticks and indeed back home afterwards when I checked myself I found two of the little blighters on my legs despite wearing walking boots with my trousers tucked into my boots the whole time. I spent an enjoyable hour or so wandering about, looking for flitting Fritillaries and enjoying the sunshine and bird song.

As time was now marching on I decided to be content with the few shots that I'd managed and made my way back to the car. There I pointed the Gnome mobile in the direction of home, happy to have caught up with both species of Fritillary that I'd been after - more than making up for my disappointing previous outing.

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