Before Life’s Rough and Tumble

We were out walking the dogs yesterday on the plain, when I started seeing a few large orange butterflies zooming about this way and that. I thought they’d be Dark Green Fritillaries, which I’d seen not far away in previous years, and I thought I’d try getting a picture to confirm it. 

They were not being cooperative. 

Dark Green Fritillaries are large butterflies and strong fliers, and they were going at quite a lick across the downland in search of whatever it was they were in search of. When they did land, it was always a distance away and even though there were not that many butterflies about, another fritillary always seemed to appear and fly past just before I got there, tempting the first one to take off and follow. Very frustrating. You have to move pretty quickly to keep up with them, and it was a bit windy too, which seemed to make everything speed up a little more. And then there was the issue that if you’re going to follow their erratic flight, you have to keep watching the butterfly ahead of you – at least some of the time – rather than where you’re putting your feet.  With grazing cattle having been there through the wet winter, the ground was uneven underfoot, to put it mildly, on the really quite steep escarpment slope where the butterflies had been steadily leading me.

I decided that if I was going to avoid injury, it might be an idea to try to get a shot of the butterfly in flight rather than continue charging about this way and that, up and down the escarpment like a lunatic. As my wife put it.

I increased the shutter speed, opened the aperture a bit, zoomed out to give myself a better chance of catching the butterfly in frame, and went for it.

Named ‘Dark Green’ after the colouring on the underwing

I managed to get a couple of shots fairly quickly which were sharp enough to confirm that they were indeed Dark Green Fritillaries, this one recently emerged and in beautiful condition. And good to see it in the midst of its natural habitat too.

Job done, I put my camera settings back to those suited to stationary subjects. And that was the point at which a fast moving subject in the form of a sprightly Roe Deer at the bottom of the escarpment, appeared. It looked amazingly elegant as it ran along. There was no time to change the setting again, so I took a couple of shots – with nothing to lose – and the pictures, though not pin sharp, didn’t turn out too badly.

At 1/400 and at 300mm her movement was surprisingly well frozen, I thought. The  young Roe deer was in great condition too which is always lovely to see. Many of the deer we get in the field next to our garden look as if they’ve had a pretty tough time of it, sometimes with scars all over their bodies.

This one was a beauty. It’s a delight to see creatures in peak condition before the rough and tumble of life has taken too much of its toll. Whether butterflies or deer.

It was a Common Spotted

Turns out our mystery plant in the Bay Tree pot was a Common Spotted Orchid – a couple of them, side by side. 

In retrospect, it was the most likely outcome: they’re the most common species of orchid in the UK, they like a variety of habitats, and the leaves of the plant in our pot were, well, spotted. The white of the buds made us initially unsure but they became more of a delicate pink as they opened.

Two Common Spotted Orchids that decided to set up shop in our garden.

They have started to appear in numbers up on the plain now as well – no surprises there. So too, the Pyramid Orchids – as astonishingly pink as ever. Saw the first Marbled White of the year this morning as well. Summer’s here!

Managed one shot before he flew up and a gust of wind took him over the hawthorns and far away. No others seen.

Also spotted one or two Meadow Browns – first I’ve seen on the plain this year – and some Large Skippers (picture of one below).

Have been seeing Small Heaths for about a month now and there are still plenty about. It’s been a good year for them. A little surprising to me that they have a high priority conservation status as we see them pretty much along all the paths we walk the dogs. They’re not confined to one or two sites like other uncommon butterflies on the plain. And we’ve had a few in the garden as well. They must just like it round here.

Recent Garden Arrivals

Great dog-walking weather this morning: bright blue skies and a cooling breeze. Still a bit warm for some inhabitants of the plain though.

Cattle enjoying the shade at 09.38, 1/6/20

Marsh Fritillaries Still Going Strong

The Marsh Fritillaries that have been around for a while now seem to have faired better in the strong winds than the Adonis Blues. Some do look pretty battered, but others look fresh still.

Here’s one I caught just as it was taking off, presenting an almost 3D effect against the dotted yellow background of Horseshoe Vetch. 

There are flowers on the downland everywhere at the moment, including a little white five-petalled species with yellow stamens which I hadn’t noticed before, and which I think is called Fairy Flax (you can see them at the bottom of the picture of the Fragrant Orchid below). The various plants all seem to have their different strategies for survival and reproduction on the plain. The tiny Fairy Flax seem to keep their heads right down – maybe for protection for when the winds blow hard, or maybe to avoid the teeth of the munching cattle which graze here from time to time. The burnt Tip Orchids, that have been around for about three weeks now, keep fairly low as well – perhaps, coming out earlier in the year, they’re more likely to experience high winds. The Fragrant Orchids, which have only just started to appear, stand taller. Could it be that for them, blooming a little later, they’re less likely to be damaged by storms? Maybe being fragrant, they need to get up there to catch the evening breeze, advertising their presence to pollinators. Or maybe they just have more flexible, stronger stems. Whatever the reasons behind the various strategies, it all seems to work pretty well. The slopes are full of life and colour right now – without doubt, my favourite time of year.

Talking of orchids, we now have a mystery plant – possibly an orchid – that has appeared in the soil of our bay tree pot plant just outside my office window. It has spotted leaves with flower buds that, at this stage, look white. How it got there, we have no idea. There are no orchids in the field that I’m aware of. What kind of an orchid turns up in a potted plant in our garden? Could it really be an orchid? We will find out shortly.

Mystery plant in our bay tree pot.

Photography’s Reality Distortion Field

Looks like the Adonis Blues took a bit of a hammering in the high winds we had recently. I was at our local Site of Special Scientific Interest yesterday and there were, as I’d heard, numerous Adonis Blues on the wing.

I took a few pictures but came across none that were in really mint condition. The wing edges of even the shiny, fresh ones looked frayed. No surprises really as winds here gusted to 40 MPH for a couple of days. In the sheltered valley where we live, the blustery wind managed to break a substantial branch – ten or twelve foot long – off a willow tree next to our garage. The wind must have been quite violent on the exposed downland. 

Edges frayed so that the usual checkered fringe is no longer visible.
Lovely pale blue fur though.

But of course the animals and plants that live there have adapted to the conditions. I noticed this time that the Buttercups on the site really do hug the ground – just a couple of inches or so off it – whereas in the field next to us, in the valley, there are Buttercup plants two to three foot tall. Don’t know if they’re the same or similar species (must check it out), but they have very different dimensions. Of course, individual plants adapt to the particular environment in which they find themselves. Plants that are cropped by grazing animals (or lawn mowers) produce shorter flowering stalks at their next attempt – but I wonder whether there is also some local selective pressure that favours the genes of plants with shorter flower stems. A question of balancing the advantages of attracting pollinators with higher more visible flowers against the likelihood of being snapped off in a strong wind – a kind of evolutionary Tall Poppy Syndrome.

There’s another aspect of flower heights that occurred to me, which is probably not quite as academic as questions of Survival of the Fittest. It’s to do with how accurately photographers represent their subjects’ environment.

At this time of year, during their first emergence, Adonis Blues spend much of their time sipping the nectar of the Horseshoe Vetch (which is their caterpillar food plant and which, not surprisingly, there are plenty of where you find the Adonis). They seem to me to spend more time on these bright yellow flowers, which grow close the ground, than on any other. The problem for the photographer is that when the flower they’re attracted to most is so close to the ground, it’s difficult to achieve a nicely thrown-out-of-focus background. And their being in amongst the matt of ground foliage, you often get other plants obscuring your view and throwing shadows on to your subject. As a result you tend to spend most of your time looking, and waiting, for butterflies that have perched on something taller – grass seed heads, or taller flowers.

You can see that the image on the right with the Adonis perched on a Horseshoe Vetch flower is a bit muddled with the in-focus grass stems all around, one of which is casting a shadow over the butterfly itself. Not ideal. But perhaps it’s a truer image of the butterfly in its habitat than the one at the top of the blog which is a better picture. There is also a heavy shadow on the central image of a mating pair, which isn’t great either, but I’ve included it here because you can see how vividly orange the underside of their antennae tips are – it came as a surprise to me.

Does it matter that the pictures you end up with are not particular representative of the butterfly’s habits and habitat or their flower nectar preferences? Not sure. Probably not. But that was certainly the case for the selection I took yesterday. Aesthetic considerations distorting reality? Nothing particularly new there: don’t let facts get in the way of a good story; don’t let Nature get in the way of a good image.

Battered male Adonis, perched on a grass seed head

In the above image of an Adonis on a grass seed head, we can see evidence of all the Horseshoe Vetch plants in the background – maybe the best of both worlds.