Monday, 17 August 2015

Grafton Wood's Butterflies

Over the years I have often found that this time of the year isn't all that great for photographing birds. I think last year I drove all around mid-Wales and came home with a solitary image of a juvenile robin, something I could have captured in my garden. Add to this, the temperature and heat haze, and unless the bird is close, the shots can be a little soft. Hence, I usually dig out my macro lens, and go in search of something much smaller, and closer.

A friend who is very interested in butterflies mentioned he'd been to a place called Grafton Wood, which is one of Worcestershire Wildlife Trust's sites, in search of purple hairstreaks. He'd seen them before, but said it was a good spot for them. As I researched where the reserve was located, I realised I had been exploring the surrounding area the day before! And had found a spotted flycatcher as I looked.

But that was about the only thing I'd seen, so I set off in search of these purple hairstreaks. As usual, I was so keen on getting to the site, I forgot to do any research on the butterflies themselves, and even managed to miss the information on the boards at the reserve entrance. I had however, spoken to a couple of knowledgeable people who had advised I look at pink coloured flowers, as the hairstreaks had been feeding on them. The pink flowers turned out to be called hemp-agrimony (which is what I had been told but the name failed to register each time) and there was a large bush at the top of the path leading up into the woods.

And on it, were many small butterflies, most of which I had seen before. But one was a bit different, and by deduction based on my woeful lack of knowledge, I hoped it might be a purple hairstreak. Didn't look very purple though, but I could get close, and grabbed a few shots before it flew off, when a large hornet thundered around the flowers.

I was just looking at the back of my camera, when I was joined by three men who had been exploring the woods in search of butterflies. I asked them if they wouldn't mind ID-ing what I'd photographed and I was excitedly told it was actually a brown hairstreak. They also told me that to see the purple variety, I should walk only a few dozen yards along the path, and turn off to the left, to check out more clumps of the hemp-agrimony where they'd just seen some.

Excellent, and off I went, leaving them to scan the area for the brown I'd just seen. The path was exactly where they'd said, and was a hive of insect activity. I scanned each clump of flowers, but couldn't see any more of the hairstreaks, so continued my stroll through the reserve. And what a fabulous place it is, especially on such a hot afternoon. Insects everywhere, from bees, wasps, flies, hornets and beetles, to butterflies, moths and some rather large crickets. And the scent of the flowers was gorgeous too.

Not knowing where I was going, nor having any sort of plan, I just mooched around, and found an area which was a mass of colour, and seemed to be attracting all manner of butterflies. Brimstones were fluttering all around, so I chased them, eventually catching one as it landed on a yellow flower. In the bright sunshine, it was a job to keep a lid on the exposure though, so took a shot, checked and then adjusted to get better ones.

There were also commas, small coppers, gatekeepers, meadow browns, silver-washed fritillaries, common blues and a few brown argus butterflies, all in this one area. But getting shots wasn't that easy, as with all the warmth from the sun, they were full of energy and off like a shot, if you failed to approach very stealthily.

But I was after hairstreaks, so I retraced my steps back to the area I'd been before, and this time was in for a treat. On one of the flower heads was a small butterfly, similar to the one I'd seen before but more of a pale colour, grey even, though when it caught the sunlight, it shimmered with an almost metallic appearance. A purple hairstreak, my first. And right in front of me too.

Now here's the funny part. I was under the impression that the purple ones were the ones to get, and that the browns were more common, and tried to get shots of the purple ones when brown hairstreaks were closer! Thankfully I applied one of the best rules in wildlife photography, which is take advantage of what's in front of you, rather than chase after something else.

And only later that evening when airing the shots on social media, did I realise that the browns were actually the most sought after! Fortunately I'd bagged a lot of shots of them and it was these that attracted the attention of my old friend Steve Seal, who really wanted some images himself of a brown hairstreak.

Cue a meeting on Saturday morning, and we (with his partner Tracey and their dog, Jess) were scouring the woods again for hairstreaks. Problem was this time it had rained heavily the day before, and the air-temperature was about 8 degrees down on when I'd been there before. Persistence is the key, and eventually Steve spotted a brown hairstreak on a leaf beside the main path, and he got the shots he was after.

While they returned to their car for lunch and a drink for the dog, I headed off to find the ponds; an area supposedly good for the hairstreaks. Like the rest of the wood that day, it proved fruitless on that score, but there were good numbers of dragonflies buzzing around. And they seemed to be doing circuits of the area, which prompted me to change out the 100mm macro lens, for my 100-400mm. Using the most accurate centre point focus spot, I then set about trying to focus on the dragonflies as they hunted over the water. Not easy. But fun... Mostly, by the time I'd got the focus to almost lock on, the dragonfly would move elsewhere, or the focus would pick up part of the backdrop instead. But I don't give up that easily, and as with photographing fast movers like swallows and hobbies, I started to get my eye in.

Success, and with the rapid shot-firing of the 7D Mk2, I could get bursts each time. This gave a greater chance of getting the dragonfly in focus, or at least the right part of it.

After gettings shots of the southern hawker, I moved on to the much smaller common darters, and amazingly picked off some shots of these too.

That was pretty much it for that day, though we found time after for a pint and catch up chat. And, with fair weather on the Sunday, I returned for yet another go at these butterflies.

It was again warmer, but the flowers were being patrolled by more hornets, and I watched one catch a gatekeeper, and whisk it off to a nearby tree. Here, whilst hanging from a branch, the hornet tucked into the poor butterfly. No wonder the butterflies were flighty when trying to photograph them, with these threats around! Having checked all the usual spots, I found out from another visitor that he'd seen a brown hairstreak up by the ponds, and despite hearing from a friend who'd just come back from there that nothing was there, I continued for a look.

Beside the newer of the two ponds is a large bush of the hemp-agrimony and within moments of me getting there, a brown hairstreak (a male) arrived and settled on the flower.

I duely attracted the attentions of anyone that passed by so they could also see this fine specimen, and I have to say, it was lovely to see the excitement and thrill several people expressed upon seeing this species for the first time.

After getting a lot of images, I chose to leave the butterfly alone with the group of admirers, and head home. Stopping along the way for a cricket or grasshopper if it presented itself for me to photograph...

I'm really glad I visited the reserve, am chuffed to bits with the photographs I have captured, and also to have learned quite a bit about these butterflies from some of the enthusiasts I've chatted to along the way.

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