I am sure that most teachers are guilty of suggesting that this is the busiest year they have had but I am certain that I am right on this occasion! Therefore, allowing myself a whole day at the weekend in the middle of the summer term to hunt for butterflies was a real luxury as was, frankly, actually having decent weather when I was not trapped in my classroom. I should add that I do really enjoy teaching and being in my classroom but all work and no play…!
I decided to concentrate on some local rarities, starting just around the corner from where I live. I have made several visits over the last few years looking for white-letter hairstreaks on the elms by the crossroads in Barnham, but to no avail.
Parking in the small loop opposite the war memorial, I first wandered around looking for obvious nectar sources, which were not very plentiful, of which more later. I then spent half an hour lying on my back staring up at the tree tops though my binoculars, as you do! Caterpillar damage was pretty evident on both elm and oak.
There were clearly a good dozen or more ‘purple hairstreaks’, or rather medium sized silvery/purple shapes at the top of the oak trees to the left. On the elm next to the ivy-clad dead tree, there were smaller brown butterflies spiralling about.
I later checked with the inestimable Mr Rob Parker, who gave the following sage advice: “One tip with the hairstreaks. When you see more than two in one piece of sky, look at the way they tumble together – WLHs spiral upwards like Speckled Woods, Purples tumble along, barrel rolling around a horizontal core, like a roll of barbed wire.”
I revisited briefly the following weekend and found almost immediately above the same elm a pair spiralling upwards just as described and as I recalled them doing the previous week. Assuming on the ‘quacks like a duck’ principle that small brown butterflies spiralling around the tops of elm trees in the middle of June are almost certainly Satyrium w-album, I felt happy to move on! There were also a good number of Meadow Browns and Ringlets working the field margins as well as this year’s ubiquitous Small Tortoiseshell.
However, the job is made somewhat harder since yet again the meadow has been cut at entirely the wrong time so access to nectar is harder for the insects and is mostly in the clumps of bramble around the traffic lights – not the safest place to hang around looking for small brown butterflies!
I then drove across the traffic lights and on a mile to the path along the western edge of Thetford Heath, parking in the small layby next to the telephone exchange. This is a good area to look for butterflies as you have woodland to one side, a wide often bare path to walk along and the open heathland to the other side. It is possible from here either to walk north to the woodland along the A11 or south to the Kings Forest.
In previous years this has been my ‘go to’ place for Gatekeepers but even with several follow up visits, I had yet to see any well into July. However, this was not a wasted trip as there were a good half dozen Common Blues, several Small Heaths plus the usual suspects including a couple of Small Skippers, along with plenty of Large, and more Purple Hairstreaks swapping back and forth between tree top and grass stem.
Next I attempted to join a series of dots, which turned out to be more successful than I first realised. Back in 2013 I attended a Suffolk Butterfly Conservation talk by Liz Goodyear and Andrew Middleton on tracking down Purple Emperors [and indeed White Letter Hairstreaks]. My recollection of their description of the perfect location was something along the lines of a large patch of Sallow with, relatively close by, a woodland ride on an uphill slope culminating in a master Oak tree. I had been suspicious of what looks like an old pond by the turning off the A143 at Rymer Point but had never got round to checking it out properly.
As you can see from the panoramic photo, on the far left there is a woodland walk, ending with a large oak tree, which is a permissive bridleway down the hill and along the fields to Euston Hall. Next is the very pretty octagonal house followed by the turning to Rymer Point and RAF Honington. To the right of the junction is the large patch of Sallows, surrounded by brambles and other flowers and in the distance another clump of tall oaks.
I spent half an hour a little after midday, as I recall was suggested at the talk we went to, looking for Purple Emperors, but with no luck. I did see yet more Small Torts and a Large Skipper. I fought my way round to get close up to the trees and as you can see they are definitely willow family, with large catkins. The following week I was taking my Nature Ramble club, with another group of younger pupils, for a walk in the school grounds looking for Purple Hairstreaks, with success as it happened. One child, who I know lives very near this junction, said,”Oh we had a Purple Emperor in our garden.” A quick check with mother confirmed that last year they had one on their Buddleia. It was very pleasing to put together what we were shown in the talk with what I saw on the ground and significantly extend the known range of Purple Emperors in Suffolk.
Finally I nipped to Pakenham Woods, parking behind the church and trudging across the fields. It is such a magical place including the little archway and walk through the first section before you get to the wood proper which, when the sun comes out, still feels like something out of a film. I saw three pairs of SWFs at several points along the path, not just the main clearing. There were lots of White Admirals, probably five pairs including one out side the main wood; it has to be a good day when you see more White than Red Admirals.
There has been much confusion this summer on various Facebook groups regarding Meadow Browns and Gatekeepers; you can see why with these Meadow Browns from Pakenham Woods.
With a relatively closed habitat like this, it is not unlikely that there will be interbreeding with a narrow gene pool leading to aberrant traits being magnified.
Including the ‘hairstreaks’ at Barnham I managed 17 species in the day and still had time to mow the grass, do the shopping and cook the evening meal; not a bad day!