Thursday, 14 June 2012

A short visit to summer

Butterflies are the exclamation marks of summer. Birds, flowers, even bees, hang around however dreich and understated the June day. But butterflies only emerge to dance over the landscape in the warm sunshine of a summer's day writ large.

Today was such a day. Despite the cool north-easterly winds that ruffled the tops of the village trees, the meadow south of the village was sheltered and friendly as a warm embrace. It's at its apogee right now - a sea of creamy pignut and purple meadow cranesbill, counterpointed by gaudy splashes of yellow rattle, buttercups and gorse. Hidden away among the commoner plants are spikes of greater butterfly orchids, yet to break bud but already looking exotic and haughty.

When I went down at lunchtime scores of tiny, day-flying chimney sweeper moths havered and bobbed just above the heads of the taller plants, their charcoaled wings startling against the pastels of the wild flowers. They are hunting out the pignut on which to lay their eggs, dots of black perching on the broad, white flowerheads like reverse dominoes.

But they were the chorus line. Waiting in the wings were two much more glamorous performers. First I saw the pale, orange-dappled, folded wings of a small butterfly perched in the shallow cup of a meadow cranesbill. When I bent to look more closely my shadow fell across it, and it immediately lifted in a tiny explosion of sky. It was a common blue - though not so common around here. The first I have seen this year, and truly a marker of summer. They lay their eggs on leguminous plants like bird's foot trefoil and clovers - both are common in the meadow. Despite their delicate mien they are fierce defenders of their tiny territories, and will see off all-comers, including some other species of butterflies that show too much interest in their chosen nurseries.

A few steps further on there was the star of the show. A vibrant chequerboard of deep orange and black, the small pearl-bordered fritillary was unmistakable - except that I could not say for sure if it was a small PBF or a PBF. To an untrained eye like mine they are very similar. I plumped for the former as the latter are much less common these days. Like all fritillaries it needs violets on which to lay its eggs, a flower common in the woodlands around our meadow, but which is disappearing fast in southern Britain, as the coppices and hedgerows which are its strongholds are lost because of the short-term economics of the age. Numbers are still holding up well in Scotland, and this one sat still and unperturbed by its southern relatives' plight.

As I headed up the hill back to the village the cold breeze caught me again and I went to put my coat back on. But at least I had seen a few minutes of summer.

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