‘Look for the oak tree with the butterflies dancing round the crown.’
Or a needle in a haystack. How many oak trees ( or ash trees if its brown hairstreaks you’re after) are there in a forest?
Managing a nature reserve for invertebrates is really a type of gardening – selective pruning and lopping of native vegetation. It leaves herbaceous borders of knapweeds and ragworts, standard tress unexpectedly naked, walkways and trails to peer from, and somewhere in amongst that, by consciously getting lost and learning to look again at insect level ( hover, bumble, damsel, dragon, beetle), something immersive and satisfying happens to me again.
Hairstreaks dance up from the upper branches of oaks ( purple) and ash (brown,preferentially), and do so with the sun on their backs (or really wings) in late summer when there is sap to lap off the leaves or apical buds. They are drawn to a central tree in the midst of the small colony where they feed , meet and mate.
Towards my end of my own lolloping circumnavigation of the Barrows I find one. We are both looking for something- either by gradually tuning in, through patience or just by happenstance. It lollops from one leaf to another about every thirty minutes. This feels a long time to stand staring fixedly at an oak tree, but is almost sustainable as an act of anticipation. Its like it used to feel waiting for the Band to come on.
I am delighted with a couple of quick silhouettes , a rustle and a surprisingly plosive sound as the creature disappears again in to a floret of leaves. I now have the thought of how something lives.
Then I meet the guys who are staking out brown hairstreak. They’ve already been there for two and a half hours. This is a rarer butterfly, which they tell me conspiratorially ,shouldn’t really be there (this is because Gait is a long way away from the other known colonies of brown hairstreaks, and dispersal – like other hairstreak modus operandii – does not take them anywhere fast). They are armed with telephoto lenses and camoflague fatigues, but dimming senses. ( I notice again how our urge to find things seems to grow in inverse ratio to our ability to do so). And of course I am delighted to become the sharp eyed tracker of the group (at least temporarily).
They draw a crowd ( 6 people at Gait Barrows is a crowd). After the sense of anticipation falls again their leader/guide strides over and hoofs an oak tree which trembles and two hairstreaks pop out of the top and wobble off to cover.
I am a bit shocked , but am enjoying the group dynamics. Two ramblers they have tempted in by showing them the telephoto pin ups, have joined the chase and are perching on boulders to get better vantage points of the canopies.
I find one of the displaced hairstreaks silhouetted through the lower surface of than oak leaf. It is beautifully complete I think , and from this perspective,verdantly green, but the others need to see its colours and take off for better vantage points – which scares it off again. I see the white line ( the’ hairstreak’) as it wobbles off into the foliage of an unkickable birch stool, and sanctuary.
Meanwhile the guide has remained remarkably patient training his optics on the spot in the foliage where the hairstreak first emerged, and sifting through the green. Eventually it returns as butterflies will do – although I remember he told me that the brown one he found yesterday took over four hours to do so.
One of the safari guys tells me his son-in-law moved up to Fife.
‘To a place beginning with an R’
‘That’s it! He wasn’t the only one who went- but hes the only one that talks like you’
By now dark clouds have gathered (as they do) and I feel if I stay any longer I will have become part of the group, an object of easy scorn for the next fully-facultied young whippersnapper who may be passing. Despite the tantalising hope of a clear view through the scope, it is not a tough call.
I dont know that I definitely found a purple hairstreak, or five – I didn’t see any purple and only one streak which i might easily have imagined. And yet I have the sense of getting what I wanted -which is to know where and how they live. As one of the ramblers , who are also making their excuses, says ‘ I never thought of butterflies up trees’.
We do owe the the guys though .( You also if you enjoy the amazing , and uncharacteristic pics they or others like them posted). Thus they have pride as their finders fees, and I have gained a sense of a purpose for searching. For the rest of the week I scan the silhouettes of all the oaks I pass for blurry speckles.
How many ash crowns would you examine before you quit hoping? How many cars did I smile at when I thumbed on the slip road at the services? How many conversations started? How many breaths taken? How many heartbeats?
Sometimes you are defined by when you feel you’ve had enough.