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  • Barbara Copperthwaite

Mud, glorious mud


Another day, another trip to Billesley Common in a desperate bid to get a photograph of a Marbled White. Luck was not with me, though, as I only saw one, and that was at some distance from me and was flying away. I did get some more shots of Green-Veined Whites, but I couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed.

Seeing some Gatekeepers cheered me, though, as they have not been so abundant this year. There is something indefinable about this fairly small, brilliantly orange butterfly, with its thick brown border, that I absolutely love. I think it is because when I was bought my first decent camera, five or six years ago now, it was one of the first butterflies I got good images of. I don’t think that feeling of euphoria in success has ever left me, and I still associate it with Gatekeepers whenever I see them. They seemed to particularly enjoy fluttering along the canal, landing on foliage that hedged it.

I decided to take stock in the sunshine for a while, and see what drifted past me. In the grass of Billesley Common, hidden as usual, were Grasshoppers. They were conspicuous only by the constant gentle noise they made. That constant noise is made by the male rubbing its legs over its wing cases in order to contact females, and when that is successful they also produce special courtship songs in the presence of females. How do they produce that noise? Well, either the leg or the wing case (depending on the species) has little pegs along its length, and by rubbing across these a noise is made in the same way you might make a noise running a fingernail over the teeth of a comb. Many people also don’t realise that Grasshoppers can fly. Their flight tends to be weak, though, but the wings come in particularly handy for evading a predator. When they jump, they spread their wings and glide a little, then suddenly close their wings and drop like a stone. It happens so quickly that predators (and humans that are watching) don’t see it happen, and instead follow the trajectory, thinking it has landed some way further on.

But as I sat on the bench I didn’t see a single Grasshopper. Instead, I watched Ringlets in their undulating, low flight, while Large and Small Skippers danced around them, their orange colour so eye-catching despite their tiny stature. Then something large flew past, at just overhead height. A Brown Hawker. I have to admit, I do not seem to be getting my annual fix of Dragonflies this year. I have seen Damselflies aplenty, but have had little luck with their larger relatives, for some reason. So, as I watched this impressive hawker fly by, its brown body appearing almost russet in the sun, and its brown wings lit up like slivers of amber, I could not stop a large smile from spreading across my face and refusing to leave. It zipped by several ties before going on its way, king of the air.

The Meadow Browns flitting below didn’t seem concerned with their brush with death, though. They continued in their usual habit of flying then hiding, flying then hiding, the flash of orange on their forewings their main giveaway.

I wandered on, coming to the wetland area. One scrape had completely dried up, its bottom cracked and crazed. The other was almost as bad, though there was still a little puddle and some mud here and there. Certainly there were no dragonflies in sight. But there was something else going on that made me smile. In the mud were tiny shards of orange… Small Skippers had gathered in large numbers, and were using the muddy hole almost like tourists at a seaside resort, flirting and sunbathing by the water. Who could ask for more on a glorious summer’s day?

#marbledwhite #greenveinedwhitebutterfly #gatekeeper #grasshoper #brownhawker #meadowbrown #smallskipper #billesleycommon

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