Monday, 13 June 2016

June 11th 2016- The day with the orchids.

Since the butterfly count, I haven't been down to the left side field. On that day it was buzzing with Marsh fritillaries displaying all aspects of behaviours but I didn't want to stop my count to spend time there.

Today, however, this is where I'm heading. Because on the 31st it was here that I noticed that the first orchids had begun to flower.

Southern marsh orchid (Dactylorhiza praetermissa)

They're southern marsh orchids- not uncommon but very attractive, and they mark a distinct transition in the reserve. The early flowers in the meadows tend towards yellow- dandelions, buttercups, hawkweeds and the like, whereas from June onwards the pinks and purples appear- the orchids, thistles and ragged robin. There are many exceptions, and I'm not aware of there being any reason for it- it's just something that I've noticed. I like the purples. They give a summery, exotic feel to things just at the time when the yellow of the buttercups can become a bit overwhelming. 

Southern marsh orchid (detail)

And as I approach the spot where I saw the orchids blooming, I see that I'm not the only one to welcome their arrival. A pair of Marsh fritillaries are nectaring on one of the paler orchids. The sexes of the Marsh fritillary are not difficult to tell apart- as long as you have a pair in front of you! The females (40-50mm) are usually about a centimetre bigger across the wingspan than the males (30-42mm), which as I say, is easy to tell when you have both to compare, but trickier when the butterfly you wish to sex is careering at full tilt across the tussocks on his (or her) own. The difference in colour of the wings that you can see in the photo is just due to age or individual variation and is not indicative of sex.

Marsh Fritillaries on orchid

I watch the happy couple for a while as they refuel, and then notice another specimen, a male this time, on a spike nearby. I wait and then attempt to click the shutter as he flies. For once I am rewarded with a flight shot that is in sharp focus. This is the great advantage of modern cameras- only a few years ago, a shot like this would have been challenging, if not impossible, in the field without a flash and tripod. In the digital age, though, we have almost infinite control over ISO and shutter speed and the ability to clean up noise on pictures so completely that with luck and good reflexes, anyone can get decent flight shots.

Marsh fritillary taking flight and unusually in focus!

The sharp focus bit doesn't often happen, though, so I am feeling rather pleased with myself as I start to head for home. And then I see a 'chain' start to happen a few yards away. This is a territorial behaviour I've been wanting to capture on camera for a while and flushed with success at the previous shot, I go for it, focusing on infinity, twisting the telephoto on my camera to 200mm at the same time as trying to centre my viewfinder on 4 butterflies flying at full speed in a completely unpredictable pattern. Any photographer will know that the chances of getting off a useable shot were pretty much zero. And yet, improbably, when I look at the pictures later on, there it is. A bit of sharpening and cropping and it's just about good enough to post here.

A 'chain' of Marsh fritillaries
So all in all, it's been a good day, and a great reminder that in nature study there's always something exciting to be gained if you persevere.

I drive home smiling.

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